'Hot Biscuits and Cold, Sweet Milk'

Throughout the centuries, soldiers on the battlefield have yearned for food from home.

April 09, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Amid the suffering, the urgency and bore- dom of a World War I ambulance service- man's routine, U.S. Army Pvt. John August Wachter had at least one thing he could hang onto. In the spring of the Great War's last year, he had chocolate.

From "Somewhere in France" on May 23, 1918, he wrote home to Pennsylvania and told about that.

"I am eating a piece of Hershey's chocolate just now. I have saved it for almost three weeks and take it from me, I am glad I did as the water is very bum up here. ... "

This appears in the first lines of his letter, which may or may not say that chocolate was uppermost in Wachter's mind that day. Perhaps only that moment. If not a complete portrait, then at least some glimpse of the soldier's and sailor's life appears in letters and recollections of food during wartime.

To tell folks back home how he's doing, a soldier in any war of any era is apt to mention how he's eating or whether he is eating at all - a matter not only of physical sustenance but also morale.

Recent news of Operation Iraqi Freedom tells of concern about thinning supply lines, of soldiers temporarily reduced to one daily ration of Meals Ready to Eat. Earlier reports told how members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division stationed in Kuwait feasted on steak and lobster a couple of days before they were sent into combat.

The news only affirms sundry truisms about food and the fighting man.

Napoleon famously understood that an army "marches on its stomach," and his rival, the Duke of Wellington, matched that line with: "Many can lead troops, I can feed them."

Which is to suggest that a successful military commander knows the big picture and the small, the complicated logistics and also the simplest longings. At the distant end of a complex supply line a soldier clutches a rifle and also, perhaps, a chocolate bar.

As one World War II Navy man's letter said, the little things loom large for their absence: drinking out of a glass, eating fresh bread.

No need to be specific about what a dollar would buy in the early 1940s as compared to now. It seemed a considerable enough sum that U.S. Army Air Force Sgt. James Dawson Cook imagined offering it for something so precious as a taste of home.

Writing from "Somewhere in Egypt" on Aug. 22, 1942, to his folks in Little Rock, Ark., Cook signed off with "P.S ... Man, I'd give a dollar for one of Mom's hot biscuits and a glass of cold, sweet milk. Wow!"

Almost exactly 80 years before, on a spring day in 1862 in a muddy encampment near Corinth, Miss., Joshua K. Callaway, a Confederate volunteer in Company K of the 28th Alabama Regiment, wrote to his wife, Dulcinea:

"I would give a good sum to be at home a few days to eat some of your cooking. The thoughts of your biscuits & old Aunt Sally's butter makes my mouth & eyes water. May God spare my life & health till I get to see & be with you all again."

The regiment's food was cooked in haste, Callaway wrote, "our biscuits without soda, our beef hash without seasoning, & of course we can scarcely eat it."

Cook's World War II biscuit postscript has an upbeat coda, however. As if someone in authority had been reading his mail, that fall a wonderful little thing happened in the life of Cook, as he wrote on Oct. 22, 1942, still "Somewhere in Egypt":

"Gee! Did we get a surprise a couple of nights last week. We had real, hot biscuits a couple of times for supper. The first night I only managed to get four, but the second night I got all I could eat - couldn't say just how many I did consume. They weren't as good as Mom's, but they'll do in an emergency."

Indeed, while the Quartermaster Corps has been known in its long history as military food supplier to do miracles - turkey at Christmas, for instance, in the most remote places - "making do" emerges as a vital coping skill. Often that involved more or less pilferage of whatever might be around.

"It seems a fellow has to hunt his own food nowadays if he wants to get any to eat," wrote U.S. Army Cpl. Raymond H. Dreyer, assigned to an infantry medical unit in Algeria on March 10, 1943, in a letter to his family in Fenton, Iowa.

"Here's what some of us did the other day," Dreyer wrote. "We got some cracked wheat out of an Arab's grain bin, mixed in water, a can of condensed milk, 2 rolls of Life Savers, boiled it and ate it. We thought it pretty good."

Camped near Battle Creek, Tenn., in July 1862, George W. Squier, a soldier in the 44th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, wrote to his wife, Ellen, how they were down to half rations - 6 ounces sow belly, 8 ounces hard bread, quarter-pound peas, half-ounce coffee and an ounce of sugar - but they were making do. A soldier looks around, sees what can be done, which happened to be quite a bit in the farm country of Tennessee. More to the point, as Squier put it: "in an enemies country."

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