398th Bomb Group

Combat Mess Memories

Ray Rovinsky

Ray Rovinsky went on to a long career as a mechanical engineer and college professor, but for a brief time in his youth he served as a “gopher” in the 398th Bomb Group Combat Mess at Station 131. In this article he shares his memories about his days in a Nuthanpstead mess hall.

Back at Rapid City, each 398th Squadron had its own mess hall where all enlisted personnel ate their meals. When we arrived at Station 131, there weren’t the necessary number of mess halls to do the same, so the 603 Squadron mess crew was assigned to operate the airmen’s combat mess.

I don’t remember where the others were assigned. The officers’ mess, consolidated mess and the station compliment mess all had their own mess halls and crews. We really knew we were overseas and near a combat zone when we first arrived.

The food we received at first appeared to be leftovers or rejects from other units. Sugar, for instance, came in all sorts of containers from cardboard boxes to cans or bags. It was large lumpy crystals and we had to lay it out on a table and beat it with a 2 X 4 to break it up to a usable size. Of course the guys complained and blamed us like we did it on purpose. Soon we got sugar in proper containers and that problem was over with.

We ate out of mess kits for quite a while until Col. Hunter stopped by and saw it. He said he wanted the enlisted flight personnel treated the same as flying officers and we got plates in a hurry. Another thing I remember was the time he came in to have breakfast with the crews before a mission and found the men eating powdered eggs. (The officers got fresh eggs before a mission). Needless to say, the next mission, the enlisted men were eating “fresh eggs”. Now, if you’re wondering about the quotation marks, they were cold storage eggs and we received many a crate that bore dates as far back as 1942. Actually, there was nothing wrong with them but we occasionally ran into a bad one. We never served the real old ones to the crews, we ate those ourselves. As time went on, we got crates with much later dates. Sometimes, it looked like the chickens were laying them on the boat coming over. Some had dates less than two weeks old.

We started out only serving combat crews, but a little later, they assigned all non-coms, staff sergeants and above in rank to eat at the combat mess hall. The consolidated mess had twice as many as we did to feed. Later on, they converted one section of our dining hall into the NCO club. That was a pain to us until we got used to it. We had to extend the meal time hours to compensate for the lost seating area.

The menu for each meal was identical to those served at every 8th Air Force facility in the British Isles. This came out of Quartermaster main office and was made up in accordance with what was on hand and what the ships brought in from the States. That’s why we served chicken or spaghetti 2 or 3 times in one week and maybe didn’t get it for 2 or 3 weeks. It depended on what was on hand. The non-perishables came in no organized manner and sometimes we were up to the ceiling with canned beans, tomato juice, grapefruit juice, orange juice, etc.

We got 100 lb. bags of potatoes by the truckload. Sometimes we had to unload 40 to 50 bags from one delivery. The truck driver always managed to come at mealtime and one mule would be assigned to unload by himself (me!). We never got fresh milk. The British had a difficult time meeting their own needs. We used powdered milk exclusively. We were blamed for that too. Bread was delivered several times a day. It was baked by British WAAC equivalents 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. One bakery served as many as ten bases. The bread was gray in color because they used unbleached flour, which was much better for us anyway. There were no additives, it was real bread.

Meat, fish, etc. was delivered 2 or 3 days before it was served. It came in large boxes and was frozen as hard as a rock. It took 2 or 3 days to thaw. We had large tables covered with galvanized sheets to put the meat on to thaw. As the surface thawed, we had to turn it over and separate the pieces that had thawed. Each block measured 10 x 12 x 30 inches. There would be 4 to 6 blocks in a box and they were heavy. Very rarely, and I mean very, we got things like mustard, catsup, pickles, and other condiments. The amount we served was dependent on what we got. Fruit was seldom available. Most of what we got was canned and this usually ended up in pies. Now, coffee and tea was something we had control over, and boy, did we know how to get even with the complainers. (We had our own coffee pot.)

Food preparation is the next subject. Our crew was broken up into 4 sections. Two sections worked the graveyard shift, which started at 6:00 pm and ended at 6:30 AM the next morning. The other shift alternated with them. These were the guys who fed before a mission. The other 2 sections started 6:00 AM and worked till 1:00 PM. Then they were off duty till 12:00 noon the next day and worked till 6:30 PM. Note that all shifts overlapped so that somebody was minding the store.

The cooks did the actual cooking and the rest of us did just about anything and every thing. Whoever needed help got it and after the routine was established, it ran with very little supervision. Given the number of guys in the crew, they worked very well together with practically no friction. I could truthfully say they were the best group that I ever worked with.

Each shift had a leader who was referred to as first cook. My boss was Nick Palmieri who was from Brooklyn. The other day shift leader was Augie Martone who came from Manhattan. Ernie Reeves from Oklahoma led one of the night shift sections but I can’t recall who the other leader was. And there was Paul Cifrese who was Mess Sergeant. Paul was just about the best person ever to get along with. He treated everyone the same and I gave him all the credit for such a great crew.

Will Bogard was the baker. He worked done night shift and was then off 2 nights. The first cook would assign 1 or 2 men to help him and he’d make the pie or cake that would be served the next evening meal. Willy did a great job. The peach pie he made was fantastic.

As I said before, the menu was planned and sent to us from Quartermaster although we didn’t have to follow it to the letter. When we had baked ham for instance, the mess sergeant and cooks could make the sauce according to ingredients on hand. I remember all my days in service that potatoes were NOT served at a meal and that number is zero. We always had one or two vegetables in the meal, these were always canned. Same problem as canned milk. Potatoes were served boiled, mashed, baked, au-gratin, scalloped, home fries (at breakfast although that was a no no). You see we tried to make you guys a little happy at times.

Nick, my boss, was a bit of a maverick and sometimes concocted some special sauces to go along with different meats. One time he made a great Italian tomato sauce to go along with roast beef. Everyone loved it but somebody squealed on him and he caught heck for it. Things like that didn’t bother Nick. He ignored them and went right back to doing it again. I remember one time when they made ice cream off base as a special occasion treat. It wasn’t great but it was a treat. We got beef, hamburger, pork chops, ham, chicken, canned corned beef, but I can’t recall ever getting spam. That was always found in K and C rations. The meats were usually served baked because feeding 12 to 14 hundred people at one meal was impossible to prepare any other way with the equipment available. We had the ovens but not the burner surfaces. Oh, I forgot about bacon, we got a lot of that. It was sliced by hand, boiled to remove most of the grease and finish fried. Most of the food preparation was done by night shift because they didn’t have that many to serve. They took care of the line crew who worked on the planes preparing them for the next day’s mission and the flight crews when they were briefed for early takeoff.

They ran the potatoes through the peelers, which were washing machines with rough interior that ground the skin off. They got the meat ready for the ovens, sliced bread, opened cans prepared breakfast so that we just served it when we came in. After breakfast, we cleaned up and the cooks started cooking the noonday meal. The afternoon shift came in to serve the noon meal, then cleaned up, cooked the evening meal and served it. The night shift came in at 6:00 PM, finished the clean up and the
cycle started all over again.

Transcribed from Flak News by Raymond Borys, 600 Squadron.

Printed in Flak News Volume 14, Number 3, Page(s) 10, July 1999
also Flak News Volume 14, Number 4, Page 10, October 1999

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