Remembering an Army Thanksgiving

This year’s Thanksgiving celebration just passed was one of the best our family has ever held. I hope yours was as well! For once, our entire family was together and we had quite the crowd at the Kerr shanty here in suburban Atlanta Georgia. My mind drifted to other Thanksgivings, and I couldn’t help remembering one from the early sixties–an Army Thanksgiving. I’m not sure of the year, but since it was prior to my Dad’s deployment to Vietnam I would guess 1964 or possibly 1965.

At the time we were living on post at Fort Leonard Wood Missouri. The Army was really expanding at that time and I recall there were upwards of 30,000 troops stationed there at the time, plus us dependents of course. It was really a small city.

My Dad was the commander of a training battalion, and although this is supposed to be a tale about Thanksgiving, I can’t help but talk a little about how he came to be that commander.

The regiment Dad was assigned to was commanded by an old war horse of a full bird Colonel. The Colonel thought very highly of my Dad, who was at first assigned to regimental operations staff. Dad was only a Captain at the time. This was due in no small part to a less than stellar efficiency report he was given by his previous commanding officer while stationed in Germany. That efficiency report had caused Dad to be passed over for promotion several times and he had been a Captain for almost twelve years.

For those of you who have served, you’ll know all about the whacky world of efficiency reports. A layman can read an efficiency report about an individual officer unknown to him, and come away from it thinking said officer was one of very high caliber, and be puzzled when that officer is passed over for promotion. I don’t know about today’s Army, but back then an efficiency report was all about the superlatives listed in the comments section that described the officer’s talents and less about the actual quantifiable marks the officer scored in performance of his duty.

The civilian world has job performance reviews. The upper scales of civilian reviews usually start at good and then rise up through very good, excellent, and maybe top out at outstanding. Very Goods may sound well enough, but you are dead meat if everyone else is scoring excellents. Back in the sixties the Army efficiency report was also laced with superlatives like the civilian job performance reviews, but it was the comments that made you or broke you, as often excellent marks were considered the norm and it was left to the comment section to say what you really thought of the individual.

An officer could score very high on the scale of superlatives, but it would be rendered meaningless if the commander commented something along the lines of “This officer performs his duty in a consistently outstanding manner at a level commensurate with his maximum potential.” You see, for a commander reviewing his subordinate officers there are certain criteria those officers are judged on, and if that officer meets those criterias the commander can not rate him poorly unless there is evidence to the contrary. But if the commander just doesn’t like or get along with his subordinate he can kill that officer’s promotion chances with those additional comments which essentially are the commander’s opinions and as such are not required to be backed up by facts.

So in those days commanders knew that if they wanted to give really good reviews to their junior officers they had to say things like:                                    “This officer is the most outstanding junior officer I have ever encountered. If the Army is fortunate enough to retain this officer, I can see him being a future Army Corps commander and possibly even rising one day to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs” . . . or “an Eisenhower in the making!”

See the difference? Both officers may have achieved the same outstanding performance review scores, but those scores are irrelevent if the comments don’t back them up.

Anyway, it was just such a bad efficiency report which had caused my Dad being passed over for promotion.
His commander at Fort Wood thought differently. As I said earlier, the Army was ramping up for Vietnam with draftees pouring in and it was Dad’s regiments job to provide advanced training for them. When a battalion CO slot came open within the regiment, the Colonel chose Dad to be it’s commander.

Now back then the ideally intended rank for a battalion commander was a Lieutenant Colonel and in a pinch a Major. So when Dad was given the job of a battalion commander this was unusual to say the least, especially considering there were a couple majors on regimental staff.

In a fairly short time the word out on the base was that Dad was the lowest ranking battalion commander in the entire U.S. Army at that time. I think a pretty back handed compliment! However his commnder thought Dad was the man for the job and it was within his power to place Dad in that battalion commander’s slot. Unfortunately, though he would give Dad a shining efficiency report when the time came, Dad still had to wait for the next promotion review board.

But Dad was a battalion commander and here is where we get back to the Thanksgiving story.

Dad’s battalion was glutted with personel and was extremlely large compared to a battalion nowadays, and had a complement of around 1,200 men divded into 5 companies as I recall. All the companies were commanded by other Captains but Dad of course was very senior in time in grade. As in most good battalions there was fierce competition among the companies within it to be rated the highest.

Prior to Thanksgiving Day my Dad informed my Mother and us kids that although we could have our own Thanksgiving dinner at home, the messhalls of the different companies he commanded would sort of be expecting us to show up to eat a little and witness the spread they’d put on for the troops. Dad was real high on doing everything possible to provide as high a standard of life for the soldiers under his command and providing them a memorable and tasty Thanksgiving dinner would have been high on his list.

I remember we hit the first mess hall around noonish. To say the cooks had gone all out would have been an understatement! Every conceivable traditional dish was laid out, even dishes that had never been traditional in my own family. Their pride of accomplishment was witnessed in their beaming expressions. The mess sergeants and attendants were keen that we should taste their culinary expertise and I for one had no problem with that!

I should have started a little slower.

I guess it really hadn’t sunk in that we had multiple mess halls to visit, each trying to outdo the others, and all eager that we taste their recipes.

Several dishes I remember that were new to me were oyster dressing, whole yams (if we had sweet potatoes they were always mashed up in a casserole with nuts and brown sugar and stuff), some giant half cow sized roast they carved slices out of and the one and only whole suckling pig with apples in it’s mouth that I have ever seen. I had read about pigs cooked like that, but it was the food of middle ages royal banquets and never anything this commoner had ever encountered before!

The mess hall workers had all really done a superb job of providing their men who were stuck on base away from their normal family Thanksgiving celebrations, a taste of home.

Of course I don’t remember all the mess halls because after number two I was in a sort of coma. I do remember I was forced to at least sample a couple things at the other mess halls.

It was four or five before we got home and Mom served up our own Thanksgiving feast a few hours later. Poor Mom! She had also worked hard, yet I don’t think we ate more than a few bites!

You know, an organization like the Army can often seem cold and impersonal at times and it is easy to forget that it is made up of people just like the civilian world is. Afterall, though it my seem like it, one’s humanity is not checked in at the door once one enters the military, and it can be touching, and also a comfort, to witness or be a part of, an Army Thanksgiving like I was that day.

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