WWII Navy Food Remembered

By Patricia B. Mitchell

P. L. Anderson, Jr., USNR

Ensign P. Lanier Anderson, Jr., USNR, September 1943.

P. L. “Lanier” Anderson, Jr., of Danville, Virginia, served as a Naval officer during World War II. Here are some of his recollections of Navy food.

[A]t Eniwetok in the Pacific during World War II they fed us mostly dehydrated food. One was an orange item that was billed as Pumpkin one time and Sweet Potato at others. Neither way was it worth the trouble to prepare…. [W]e had a small British contingent of four warships in the harbor. One day when they were ashore they were given some dehydrated potatoes. Two days later on my watch, they sent in a visual (flashing light) message that read: “Those potatoes you gave us: we have tried boiling, frying, and stewing them. How can they be prepared for eating?” Our cooks never found out either! But those powdered eggs were not fit for humans to eat. After two attempts, I gave up on them. If it had not been for the tin cans Marie [Anderson's wife] and Mother sent me, I might not have made it!

Shipboard we tolerated powdered eggs at breakfast (best when doused with ketchup — ugh). (Our Engineering Officer was about 5' 6" and weighed about 135 pounds. He could eat a half dozen of those powdered items — and squirt half a bottle of ketchup on them. No one else at the Wardroom table could stand to watch him!) The dehydrated potatoes (Irish) were like dice cubes. After soaking, to take on water again, they were barely edible as mashed potatoes. Our milk was powdered too, so creamed potatoes were less than desirable. Once in a rare while we'd have powdered ice cream. The best thing about it was being cold.

Anderson and daughter Gail

Ensign Anderson spends a last few moments with his daughter Gail before leaving on active duty in April 1943.

Following up, I asked Anderson more about his Navy food memories.

Mitchell: Besides the dehydrated foods you wrote about, what were other foods which you were served frequently?

Anderson: Beef the first three or four days after downloading from a Fridge Ship. It would all be consumed in those days and we'd be without afterwards until the next Fridge Ship. Don't remember much else other than dehydrated and canned items. (At Tarawa the Marines had all canned food with paper labels as normally done. In unloading the cans fell into the water, labels fell off, and cooks didn't know what they were opening. After that, the cans were stamped into the metal for positive identification.)

Mitchell: Was there one head "chef"?

Anderson: A Chief was head when there was one aboard. He was not, in smaller ships. We always hoped our cook would not be skinny! — The edibility of the food depended on the skill of the cook. The food supply was pretty much the same for all units.

Mitchell: Do you recall the times of your meals?

Anderson: 7:00 AM, Noon, 5:00 PM.

Mitchell: Was there any sort of ‘snack bar’ on board, in case someone was hungry between meals?

Anderson: None at all. And no alcoholic beverage aboard (most) ships.

Mitchell: My daddy used to speak about a Spam-like canned meat product (not necessarily Spam) which the Army men ate. Did you have that?

Anderson: Oh yes, we had Spam, only it WAS Spam. Mostly we had it fried.

Mitchell: Did each individual have some sort of emergency ration/survival kit to grab in case the ship went down?

Anderson: We were prepared to throw our codes and ciphers overboard. [Anderson was a communicator.] I don't remember any thought being given to survival rations. Maybe I just did not get the word?

Officers of the U. S. S. Key

Ensign Anderson is fourth from left in this photograph of the officers of the U. S. S. Key, printed in the announcement of its commissioning ceremonies:

Invitation to the Commissioning Ceremonies

Mitchell: Did the higher officers dine at a special table and/or get better food?

Anderson: My ship was a Destroyer Escort, 310 feet long, 10 officers, and 120 man crew. We had one Ward Room which was officers' country. We all shared the same table. It was welded to the deck and most of the time we used Fiddle Boards. They slipped over the perimeter of the table forming a dam so that our dishes would not slide off into our laps. There were interior partitioned areas to keep dishes from sliding about on the table. Also, our chairs had a short chain with snap links on the end so we could anchor our chairs to the table instead of suddenly disappearing from the table during a quick roll.

Mitchell: What foods did your mother and Marie send to you?

Anderson: Marie and Mother would send me cheese, sardines, and the like, — nearly all canned products.

Anderson at the Fairmont

A smiling Lt. (jg) Anderson, on the way home, stops in at the Fairmont in San Francisco on November 27, 1945. Before separating from the service, he was promoted to Lt.

Mitchell: What foods did you most want when you got home?

Anderson: Two of my officer friends came back on the Salt Lake City along with me. We were assigned to a BOQ (Bachelor Officers' Quarters) in a gymnasium on California Street in San Francisco. That first night the three of us went out to dinner and [it] turned out all three of us prioritized our number one selection as lettuce and our second as milk. We went to a nice restaurant near the Fairmont in San Francisco and to an Officers Club in the Fairmont afterwards. That's where this photo was taken.

One more “tidbit”: As a communicator, messages were classified as to secrecy and speed of delivery. If the enemy was sighted, one would send a Top Secret/Urgent message. One night on watch, in about August 1945, a dispatch came in to us marked Top Secret/Urgent. I sent it in to the Code Room to our best decoder, telling him to be unusually rapid. When the message came out it was from Adm. Halsey. He was flying into our base and the message said he wanted, for breakfast, two eggs over light! RHIP — Rank Has Its Points! Anyone else would have been courtmartialed.

From my standpoint, I loved the Navy and was proud to have been a part of it. So I would not want to make mockery of its food menus and preparations, of course. The facts are it was primitive, but I know they did the best of a tremendous job feeding us all. One surely can be empathetic to their situation.