by Phillip T. Rutherford
Comparing the quality of life aboard the World War II submarines of different countries, British naval historian Richard Compton-Hall, who served in Royal Navy subs after the war, asserts — perhaps with just a hint of holier-than-thou, "we-can-take-it," British stiff-upper-lippedness — that American submariners "had the best of everything and would never have tolerated substandard conditions."1 One can understand the envy. U.S. fleet-type submarines, outfitted with Kleinschmidt compression water distillers and Freon air conditioners (among other marvels), were indeed more technologically advanced and less distressingly squalid than their contemporaries. They were also significantly larger, which not only improved the overall level of comfort for the servicemen, but also went far to enhance the caliber and the variety of the food they received, at least when circumstances were favorable.
Fleet subs of the Gato (SS 212) and Balao (SS 285) classes boasted sizable freezer and refrigerator compartments, and their galleys, though diminutive, were well-equipped, generally with two griddles, a deep-fat fryer, two electric ovens, a hefty electric mixer, and a two-gallon coffee urn. Fleet boats usually boasted an ice cream maker as well, even when lack of space in the galley or crew mess made it necessary to install the machine among the bunks in the crew's berthing space. To no small degree, the output of submarines' microscopic kitchens determined the collective spirit of the men. "Next to resting in the sack, eating is the greatest pastime," wrote Martin Sheridan, of the Boston Globe, the only war correspondent allowed to accompany an American submarine crew on a war patrol. "Maybe eating is the more important," he continued. "Anyway, filling a man's stomach to the contentment level with palatable food will go a long way toward keeping morale at a high level, just as the sages declare the way to a man's heart is through his stomach."2
Submarine food was widely believed to be the best in the Navy, and Navy food was reputedly the best in the military, so sub food was presumably the finest the U.S. armed forces had to offer. The excellence of the rations — or at least the effort to make them as good as possible — was essentially "hardship pay," compensation for claustrophobic working conditions, for the dearth of sunlight, for little in the way of external stimuli, and for the obvious lack of foraging possibilities. But the actual quality of the food on fleet boats during World War II in the Pacific depended on a number of factors. The difference between first-class chow and unpalatable slop lay in the creativity of the cook, the skill of the baker, the imagination of the commissary officer, and the quality of government-issued provisions.
Good sub food could also depend on the luck of the draw. The worst losers were those assigned to the primitive, World War I-era S-boats, which were generally called "pigboats," and were also affectionately termed "sewer pipes." Many of these old boats were based at Manila when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and soon transferred to Australia as Japanese forces closed in on the Philippines. "An S-boat was a great leveling agent," notes one historian, "all suffered equally."3 With no air conditioning, poor ventilation, and few provisions for personal hygiene, the pig boats were woefully unsuited for tropical conditions. The onboard ecosystem was fecund. Within the overall miasma of diesel, bilge odor, battery acid, unwashed bodies, garbage, and "something indefinable but sickly sweet" grew mold and mildew of various shades, as well as "finger-length stud cockroaches" that could be "stunned but never decimated by fumigation."4
Fresh food could not long endure such an environment. Moreover, refrigerator and freezer space was minimal, and the Australian-supplied meats stuffed into it — usually mutton, goat, and whole rabbits, none of which appealed to Americans — tended to congeal into one solid pinkish-gray block. Even this was chipped away to virtually nil after only two weeks at sea. From there on out, it was canned and powdered rations, and some boats came close to exhausting these before returning to port.5 On S-39, the primary fare at one point was either canned corned beef or the infamous dried chipped beef, which was, of course, served creamed and on toast. Most submariners called the chipped beef "S.O.S.," short for a well-known scatological expression, but the crew of S-39 came up with an even less printable name for it, much to the aggravation of Walter "Rocky" Schoenrock, the boat's somewhat delicate cook.
Unfamiliar provisions acquired in foreign ports faced strong prejudice on the part of American crews. Australian rabbit and mutton was too gamey for their taste. Australian soft drinks, called "Bitter Lemon" or "Bitter Orange," were less than popular, with some U.S. submariners theorizing that the bitterness must stem from squeezing the entire tree during processing.6 The take on Dutch supplies, obtained at Surabaya until the Japanese occupied Java in early March 1942, was ambivalent at best. American crewmen found Dutch canned fruit satisfactory, and most were certainly fond of Heineken. (One member of S-39's crew smuggled aboard 26 quarts and hid them directly above the officers' wardroom7.) But the hash, sausage, sauerkraut, and assorted stew compounds, all canned, were reviled. Corwin Mendenhall, the junior ensign on USS Sculpin (SS 191), later wrote that when dwindling U.S. stocks at last forced the chief cook, Duncan Hughes, to add Dutch items to the carte du jour, "a few people became downright nasty," and "the displeasure was not particularly soothed by assurances that better things would soon be available." The cook fell back on an old stand-by, but it didn't help matters. "Duncan brought out Spam and powdered eggs, which stirred up [another] hornet's nest."8
Whatever the source, storing food demanded considerable forethought. Storage space was restricted, as was room for culinary maneuver. Sixty days at sea — the standard war patrol for a fleet boat — meant that the cooks and commissary officers had to think 60 days ahead. "Unless care was exercised," observed Vice Adm. Charles "Uncle Charlie" Lockwood, who assumed command of American submarine forces in the Pacific in February 1943, "a crew might find itself condemned to eat through a wall of string beans or chicken soup or Spam before some variety could be introduced into its diet."9
As cooks burrowed into their stores, they sometimes encountered unpleasant surprises. Well into a 1943 patrol, the mess crew of USS Rasher (SS 269) discovered that its cache of frozen beef — fully 600 pounds — was in an advanced state of decomposition, having evidently undergone several rounds of thawing and freezing on its long journey from the U.S. to Australian depots. After cleaning out the entire freezer — no simple task while in enemy waters — the cooks loaded the stinking rotten biohazard into twelve gunny sacks, weighted it down with burnt valves, broken cylinder head studs, tin cans and assorted detritus, and later threw it overboard under cover of darkness. That night the sharks fed well. The only un-canned meat left for the men was chicken. "Nobody blamed the cooks," the chronicler of this incident notes, "but chicken was chicken, not steak."10
Submarine life was lived largely under cover of darkness. At the beginning of the war, submarines sailing from Pearl Harbor had orders to avoid air attack by remaining submerged on battery all day whenever they were within 500 miles of a potential Japanese airfield. Only when darkness prevented enemy aircraft from scanning the ocean surface would submarines come up to charge batteries and take advantage of their much higher surfaced speed. Similar caution prevailed among submarines based in the Far East. It quickly became clear that keeping submarines down all day needlessly lengthened transit time and made it harder to find targets, so the high command relented and let each boat's commanding officer decide when to operate on the surface. Still, night remained the safest time for surface operations. It also became prime time for hunting starting in the summer of 1942, when fleet boats began to receive reliable surface-search radar.11 This gave them a great nighttime advantage over Japanese convoy escorts, which had neither radar nor radar detection gear until much later in the war.12
Much of a submariner's limited physical activity consequently took place after dark. Some crews still adhered to the standard meal schedule for a U.S. warship at sea, but others turned night into day, adapting meal times to their upside-down shipboard routine.13 The crews called this "going into reversa." Breakfast was served at nightfall. Lunch was dished out at midnight. And dinner, the heaviest meal, came at dawn. The "reversa" timetable was particularly suited to the oppressive conditions on the antiquated S-boats, with their lack of air conditioning. Cool night air entering the surfaced submarine not only reinvigorated the sweating, oxygen-deprived crewmen but helped counter the additional heat of a busy galley.
Even on air conditioned fleet subs, some kitchen crews chose to do heavy cooking at night, when the submarine would not be buttoned up and the ventilation system could whisk cooking smoke along with other foul odors right out of the boat.14 Having the boat open to the atmosphere was particularly helpful for dissipating the intense heat of baking. USS Gudgeon (SS 211), which conducted the first submarine war patrol out of Pearl Harbor, continued to serve meals at standard Navy hours throughout the patrol, but her galley crew put off baking until after dark.15 A bold submarine commander might keep his boat on the surface for all or part of the day, but the galley crew could never count on that, and a boat exposed on the surface in daylight was more likely to make a crash dive at any moment, not an ideal situation for anyone trying to do something complicated in the galley.
Good cooks were held in high esteem. They were sensitive to the dietary needs and desires of the crew and could create what Lockwood called "taste, sight, and nose appeal — three essential factors to submariners whose tastes often became jaded toward the end of long and tiring patrols."16 The age-old risk of scurvy remained, and lack of sunlight was also a threat to the men's well-being. Accomplished cooks usually held these dangers in check with varied and balanced menus, which included fresh fruit and vegetables for as long as they lasted and plenty of fruit and vegetable juices thereafter. But vitamin deficiency could still take its toll. By the end of the fifth patrol of USS Saury (SS 189), in late 1942, the majority of the crew was tormented by loose teeth and painful bleeding gums, classic symptoms of scurvy.17 Gastrointestinal matters were also a concern. After weeks at sea, appetites tended to wane due to lack of exercise. Indeed, the average weight loss for submariners early in the war was 15 pounds per man per patrol.18 With this came another plague of underwater existence, constipation. An attentive cook stepped up to the plate with a diet designed to minimize mass irregularity.19
A skilled baker was especially prized. The historical sources reveal several temporary food fads on World War II submarines. On USS Pampanito (SS 383) alone, a tuna fish sandwich obsession struck, then chocolate and condensed milk mania, soon followed by a fresh-cut french fry craze.20 But the craving for homemade bread, pies, cakes and pastries was universal and enduring. Carl Piatt, a former steel worker turned baker in the crew of USS Bullhead (SS 332) (lost with all hands in August 1945), was a magician with cinnamon buns, chocolate cream puffs, and corn bread.21 Corwin Mendenhall recalled fondly the pecan waffles and strawberry shortcake prepared by a Filipino steward on Pintado (SS 387).22 But the greatest aces of cake were perhaps James Vogelei and Charles Dougherty, of USS Barb (SS 220). Their specialty was huge victory slabs portraying the latest kill. One, described by Barb's renowned commanding officer, Eugene Fluckey, was "three feet square and six inches high … The multicolored frosting depicted a submarine firing torpedoes at two merchant ships flying the Japanese flag. One of the ships was broken in the middle like a "V" for victory as she sank. The other was sinking bow first. I was amazed they could concoct such a cake."23
Unfortunately, not all submarine cooks were masters of their craft. Among the notorious was Ship's Cook 3rd Class Mosley, known as "Old Man Mose," a New Mexico native who left the desert to join the crew of USS Halibut (SS 232) in 1942. "Stocky, homely in appearance, as slow speaking and thinking as he was lumbering in motion," Mosley was, according to Halibut Commanding Officer Ignatius "Pete" Galantin, "impervious to insult, indifferent to compliment." The crew unanimously hated his cooking, and he did not care. One of the Halibut's fire controlmen declared that "the trouble with Mose's cooking is he thinks that when it's burning it's cooking, and when it's burnt, it's cooked." Confronting a remarkably devastated piece of fried ham at breakfast, another submariner "called out in a hurt tone, 'M-i-s-t-e-r Mosley, down in Arkinsaw, where I come from, no self-respectin' hawg'd let hisself get in this condition. Great balls o' fire! What'd you do to this meat?'" Mosley's response is unrecorded. It seems likely there was none.24
Bad cooks could certainly decimate a potential meal. Battle could do the same. Whenever Bullhead's deck guns fired, Piatt's muffins and cakes invariably collapsed into lifeless deflation.25 A maritime cooking disaster occurred on USS Harder (SS 257) in 1942 when torpedomen flooded the forward tubes with far too much water. Result: an unexpected nosedive of many fathoms. The crew quickly regained control, and the boat leveled off. A safety inspection revealed no injuries or damage — until it got to the galley. There stood Ship's Cook and Acting Commissary Steward Thomason, "ankle-deep in mashed potatoes garnished with a glittering sea of what had been steaks, gravy and fried eggs."26 In all probability, the meal that eventually got served was a mixture of tinned ham, sugar, salt, water, and modified potato starch, with a little dash of sodium nitrate to preserve its rosy color.
The consequences of combat were sometimes felt long after engagement with the enemy. Depth-charged near Rabaul on Sept. 28, 1942, Sculpin took on water, which was dumped into the canned-goods storeroom as a stopgap measure. Labels and cans soon parted ways, leaving a substantial collection of Dutch-supplied mystery meat for the submariners' enjoyment. "For some weeks afterwards," Mendenhall recalled, "the crew insisted that Chief Cook Duncan Hughes would send a mess cook for an armload of cans, open them, and thus determine the menu for the meal."27 But surprisingly enough, an encounter with the Japanese could actually improve a dish. Aboard Halibut, all attempts at French onion soup had ended in thin and watery failure. At last, one of the cooks got it right. Galantin, Halibut's CO, speculated that this small triumph was essentially the upshot of "prolonged simmering under depth charging."28
Victories at sea were usually followed by a feast — and often by after-dinner cordials. "Post combat meals were a submarine tradition," Admiral Lockwood noted, "and they were about the only spoils the victors won."29 Steak and eggs was the classic post-combat meal, one of the few Australian meals Americans came to appreciate. After the feast, congenial sub commanders would pass out shots of whiskey. Though this was a violation of U.S. Navy regulations, even a number of senior officers, notably including Adm. William "Bull" Halsey, would stow away bottles of hard liquor to distribute for "medicinal purposes."30 But a commander had to be vigilant. Eugene Fluckey wrote that when his men lined up for their whiskey, "each one had to check his name off on a muster list — submariners are, by nature, sneaky."31
Submariner sneakiness naturally extended into the murky waters of onboard moonshining. "When sailors got their hands on rice or raisins," historian Gregory Michno claims, "they didn't think of rice pudding, but rather a powerful homemade whiskey called 'tuba.'"32 Another booze source was always close at hand: torpedo fuel. This denatured alcohol bio-fuel was not potable as-is, but it could be distilled into what submariners called "torpedo juice." The engine room crew of Pampanito worked in shifts tending a still made from a Silex hotplate, a coffee maker, and a length of 3/8-inch copper tubing spiraled through a tin can filled with water. The end-product was a nearly 200-proof concoction known as "pink lady," named, Michno says, for its "faint hue caused by denaturing agents added for the express purpose of making it undrinkable." He adds that "it was extremely harsh without enough fruit juice to dilute it, but it worked just fine."33 On Barb, commander-approved whiskey regularly accompanied Vogelei's and Dougherty's celebration cakes. These became larger and more elaborate as time passed. The bakers outdid themselves on the last New Year's Day of the war. The monster cake showed "the Barb shooting maraschino cherries, with whole strawberries for hits." The victim "was depicted sinking stern first, with crisp bacon colored with saffron for the flames."
Resourceful, inventive and sometimes highly artistic, WW II submarine cooks were cherished members of the crew, the occasional hack like "Old Man Mose" perhaps excepted, though it seems even he was cherished, in a way, for his boundless ineptitude. The dining compartment was the very center of life on the boats, and there the cooks and their creations were on display. The cook, as Galantin emphasized, "can't be a sensitive soul ... he literally stands behind his product in his tiny, hot galley, only an arm's length from the shipmates seatedat the mess tables in the after battery room."34
Cooks and mess crews had to contend on a daily basis — at least three times daily — with a wide range of diverse and often idiosyncratic personalities and their often idiosyncratic tastes, all within a decidedly intimate, elbow-to-elbow working environment. This took guts, a great deal of patience, and plenty of ingenuity. Compton-Hall recounts the story of one submarine commander who insisted that every cup of coffee served to him on the bridge be full to the brim. Only one crewman, a steward, could make the long, difficult climb up the conning tower ladder without spilling a drop. Eventually, with the boat about to be decommissioned, the executive officer asked the steward his secret. With a broad grin, he confessed that he took a good mouthful of coffee at the bottom and spat it back in just as he reached the top. Compton-Hall calls this "a good example of sound submarine common sense!"35
The coffee carafe from Cod's wardroom (Photo by Paul Farace, courtesy of USS Cod Submarine Memorial)
A good example, coupled with a good joke, explains why this entertaining but undoubtedly apocryphal story remains in circulation to this day. In reality, little if any coffee was drunk on the bridge during a war patrol, when no distraction of any sort could be tolerated, and everyone had to be ready to scramble below in a matter of seconds. The skipper may perhaps have treated himself to a hot cup of java after returning safely to home waters, but if so, the steward could fill his cup to the brim right there on the bridge — from the vacuum coffee carafe that was standard equipment in U.S. submarines. But the tale of the resourceful steward persists, testifying to the sneaking admiration and affection World War II submariners felt for crewmates who manned the galley, the mess, and the wardroom on U.S. submarines.
Richard Compton-Hall, The Underwater War 1939-1945 (Dorset: Blandford Press, 1983), 36.
Phillip T. Rutherford is an associate professor of modern European history at Marshall University, in Huntington, W.Va. This article is drawn from his research for an upcoming book, tentatively entitled Fighting Fare: American Servicemen and the Taste of War, 1941-1945.