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What the mess hall was like depended on the base and/or the unit in question. In the pre-war US Army most bases had mess halls organized at the company level. A company had about two hundred men, and the mess sergeant ran the mess hall. Decent food is obviously important to good morale, and the mess personnel usually tried to do a good job. If they did not, a wise commander would put someone else in the kitchen, to do as good a job as possible with the food available. Some units were lucky enough to have men who had worked as civilians in commercial kitchens and knew the tricks of the trade. Maybe somebody who could make sauces, not just fried meat and baked potatoes.

The worst I have ever seen described was at the Marine Corps recruit training depot at Parris Island, South Carolina. Cooks routinely breaking rotten egg after rotten egg and dumping them right on in. I recall reading a description by a man of his first meal there. He was seated at a long table with men who had been there a while, and was appalled at the frantic grabbing and gobbling that began as soon as the incredibly foul food hit the table. I think he managed to get a slice of white bread. One of the older men asked him how long he had been there, and he said it was his first day. "Youll eat tomorrow" the other guy said. They worked and exercised these men so hard they had to eat whatever was available. Food at training commands was always a problem. Many new soldiers had come from an extremely deprived depression childhood, and wrote home that the food was good and they got all they wanted. But while in boot camp there was a chance for the training sergeants to harass the trainees at mealtime. Woe unto the trainee who did not eat all the food he took from the serving line! Once out of the training phase and assigned to a regular unit, commanders had a vested interest in keeping their men happy and morale high, and would do all they could to ensure that the food was good. The army was always jealous of the Navy, which was a "good feeder". Especially large ships, which had ice cream making equipment, and enough cold storage for a varied diet, including fresh vegetables. The Air Force operated from fixed bases and usually had good food, and beds to sleep in.

Depending on where in the world a serviceman was stationed he might be at the far end of a supply line. The mess hall might have nothing but dried and powdered food to work with. The dried, or dessicated food was truly horrible - the troops called it "desecrated". Frozen food was a type of product that was not really in grocery stores before the war. Clarence Birdseye pioneered frozen food as a way of getting food to troops overseas, and frozen was much better than "desecrated".

Troops in front line combat units were hungry while on the line. A good battalion commander would try to get hot food carried up to the front whenever possible, but it was rarely hot when it got there. Most men had to subsist on the survival food of combat rations - C-rations, K-rations and D-rations. These came in a cardboard box, about 8 inches square and three or four inches thick. The food was in cans inside. There was a tiny little can opener which was really just a curved piece of metal to rock around the outside of the can. The most popular was ham and eggs, combined in one can. There were powdered beverages. Sometimes soldiers tore up the box and built a little fire to try to heat up water to make a cup of instant coffee in their canteen cups. Forget milk and sugar. There was horrible powdered lemonade. The rations also included a little four cigarette pack of smokes and a book of matches (with a green cover), and a packet of toilet paper. (Troops never had enough toilet paper. They had digestive problems, what with the lousy food and living in a hole in the ground in the middle of winter, and so on. Many asked relatives at home to include toilet paper in their letters). There was usually a piece of candy or a small pack of Chewing Gum. The D-rations had an extremely hard, bitter chocolate bar. Troops would sometimes shave bits off this with their bayonets and try to make cocoa. Children in territory they overran liked this chocolate though, because many of them had never seen chocolate in their lives. German rations included a wonderful canned beef chunks in gravy, and Americans loved it when they captured some of this. I remember reading a war memoir by an infantry company commander who went ashore in France a few days after D-Day. He was in combat for the next eight months, pretty much continuously, living on the canned rations. When he was wounded bad enough to be evacuated, first of all the doctors refused to believe he had been in action that long, as that was a very long time to last in the infantry, and, he could keep down no food on the hospital ship. His system was unable to take the "rich" diet. They had to basically feed him baby food - mashed peas and such, until he could be weaned from his body's expectations of canned crap.

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Q: What was the mess hall like in World War 2?
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