Civilians making their way past American military bases and checkpoints in Iraq this Thanksgiving may be surprised to find senior American non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers guarding the gates and manning the wire — duties normally reserved for young enlisted soldiers. If the Iraqis were to venture inside the compounds, they might see the regular rank-and-file American G.I. feasting on everything from roast turkey to roast-beef to sweet-potato pie and every kind of cake and confectionary treat imaginable, all served by the officers.
It’s part of a long-standing Thanksgiving tradition in the U.S. Army where senior leaders serve junior soldiers.
Before and after the meal, there will be special religious services. There will be downtime to watch DVDs and e-mail family members back home. And there will be at least two big in-country competitions. “Thanksgiving is the ‘Super Bowl’ for our cooks,” Major Jay Adams, an Army spokesman based at Camp Anaconda (in the Iraqi city of Balad), tells National Review Online. “There will be patriotic ice sculptures and other displays, and the commanding general will recognize the top dining facility and individual cooks in various categories.”
The highlight of the day will be the big “Turkey Bowl” football game played between the Army and the Air Force at Camp Anaconda.
Stateside bases are planning their own feasts.
At Fort Jackson, S.C. — the largest Army basic-training base in the nation — nearly 7,000 pounds of turkey; 4,600 pounds of ham; 4,200 pounds of beef; 2,600 pounds of shrimp; more than 900 pounds of duck; 2,100 pies of every variety; and over 300 gallons of eggnog will be served to 14,000 soldiers and civilian guests.And like the expeditionary camps overseas, Thanksgiving dinner at stateside bases will be served by officers. And, when practicable, the officers will be wearing their dress-blue uniforms.
“This is done around the world,” Fort Jackson spokesman Jim Hinnant, a retired Army Lt. Col. tells NRO. “Soldiers get a kick out of it, as do the officers.”
ALL SERVICES CELEBRATE The Marine Corps, also big on tradition, has a different approach for recruits on Thanksgiving Day. At the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., it will be business as usual. “The recruits will have the traditional turkey dinner, but that’ll be about it,” Cpl. Brian Kester, Parris Island’s media chief, tells NRO.
The reason, according to Kester’s boss, 1st Lieutenant Scott Miller, the public-affairs officer at Parris Island, “We want recruits to stay focused on one thing, and that is becoming a United States Marine.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be special Thanksgiving meals and services for other stateside-based and deployed Marines. The past two years in Iraq for instance, Marines who were not out on combat patrols were given time to attend Thanksgiving worship services, e-mail the folks back home, and have dinner in chow halls festooned with cardboard pilgrims, turkeys, and autumn oak leaves. And the food included everything from prime rib to pumpkin pie.
It’s the same for all branches of service.
“The military does its very best to provide the same sort of Thanksgiving Day meal that soldiers would be getting back home, within the limits of what can be done on deployments in combat,” says Hinnant.
But Thanksgiving has not always been celebrated with the abundance and festive air it is in today’s military.
EVOLUTION OF A TRADITION A day of “Thanksgiving” has been recognized in America since the colonial era: The first Thanksgiving said to be a three-day harvest-celebration in 1621.
During the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to coincide with a victory celebration after the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777.
But it wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 — during the American Civil War — that Thanksgiving Day became an annual federal holiday. In his official proclamation, Lincoln called on all Americans “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next [later changed to the fourth Thursday in November], as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
The following year, a few U.S. military units celebrated with prayers to God, toasts to the nation and to their families, and a special dinner; but the U.S. Commissary was stretched far too thin to provide a special meal for the entire wartime army.
The Union League Club of New York City did, however, launch a campaign aimed at providing special Thanksgiving Day meals for all Union soldiers, sailors, and Marines in 1864. But it would be another 50-plus years, during America’s 1917-1918 involvement in World War I, that Thanksgiving became a special day for the military celebrated with a traditional dinner, and a reflection upon — according to President Woodrow Wilson — “the great blessings God has bestowed upon us.”
IN PEACE AND WAR During the period between the world wars, Thanksgiving dinners in the military became increasingly special. The military services being smaller in those peacetime years were more conducive to closer bonding. Officers’ families were very involved. Food preparation and presentation became more elaborate, and dinners included printed menus with holiday artwork featuring harvest scenes with turkeys and pumpkins combined with eagles, banners, and military crests.
During World War II (1941-1945), near Herculean efforts were made to transport hot Thanksgiving dinners to troops on the frontlines or in the most remote areas. Meal convoys were often under fire as they made their way toward even the most heavily engaged troops on the most dangerous roads and in the worst weather conditions. Those soldiers who could be rotated off the frontlines were ordered to the rear for Thanksgiving dinner and much needed rest.
On Thanksgiving Day in Korea, 1950, U.S. troops (just days before being attacked en masse along the bitter-cold Chosin Reservoir) remember cooks driving out to the forward-most positions. There they opened up huge insulated containers and served up turkey with all the trimmings on tin trays. “You had to eat fast because everything was turning cold,” said William Davis, a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman with the 1st Marine Division. “The gravy and then the mashed potatoes froze first. The inside of the turkey was still warm. Boy, you ate fast. And all the time the snipers were shooting at us.”
A DAY FOR SOLDIERS AND SAILORS In 1967-68, during the height of the Vietnam War, the Armed Forces Recipe Service was established which standardized recipes and helped coordinate food planning and prep efforts between all services. Consequently, though the menus may vary today between services and theaters of operation, the recipes used to prepare most of the Thanksgiving Day dishes in the military are the same. And with the exception of more choices, the menus have changed little since World War I. Turkey has always been served; as has dressing, cranberry sauce, gravy, and pies — with pumpkin pie being the most prevalent.
Gone are the days when many soldiers and sailors complained about “Army food” and “Navy chow.” And no one today is griping about the military’s special Thanksgiving Day fare.
There are also surprises for the military on Thanksgiving Day, from unannounced presidential visits to dinners shared with cabinet officials, congressmen, and others. Most of all, it is the meal, the downtime, worship services, football action, and touching base in a written letter, an instant message, or a satellite phone call to the folks back home.
“For the 30 to 45 minutes we’ll be in the dining facility with our friends and colleagues, most will reflect on Thanksgivings from the past,” Army Colonel Michael Negard, with the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Baghdad, tells NRO. “Everyone is thankful for various reasons. Some for the basic reason they are able to meet, eat, and remember, because there are some whose Thanksgiving of 2005 was their last.”
The U.S. military takes care of its own on Thanksgiving Day. We Americans might take it for granted that the military should: believing it probably always has. But few — if any — armies or navies in history have ever done for its troops what the 21st-century American military does for its men and women. Thanksgiving Day is not only a federally recognized holiday, it is an important official tradition in the American military. And make no mistake, officers and soldiers alike know that it is a day of giving thanks to God.
– A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of five books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.