Chow time.
Lining up for chow in Vietnam wasn’t a lot different than it was at Fort Sam Houston during World War I, as shown in this old photo from the University of Houston Digital Library.

Eating in the Army: Chow Time

Everyone complained about the food, but was it really that bad?

By Wayne Swanson

After watching “M*A*S*H” on TV, and hearing all the complaints about the chow, I decided to write about my experiences with food in the Army.

The food in boot camp was actually pretty good, and high-calorie, because we did so much physical training. But the waste was unbelievable. Any food left over at the end of the meal was thrown out.
I just about cried when many gallons of fresh, whole milk were poured down the drain.

One time when I was on KP (otherwise known as Kitchen Police – working in the kitchen), the cook made a batch of cookies, and he burned some of them. They weren’t burned too badly, and keep in mind that he was cooking for two hundred men. He told me to throw them out, and he would make a new batch. Instead of throwing them out, I took them up to our barracks for the men in my company (C-2-3, Fort Ord, California). That maneuver made me the hero of the day.

We didn’t peel potatoes like you see in the movies. We had a peeling machine. It was kind of like a giant garbage disposal that rubbed off the peelings with rubbing wheels. If you left the potatoes in too long they would completely disappear. I liked to leave them in until they were about the size of golf balls. The mess sergeant was not too happy about that.

The mess sergeant lived off post, and drove a Cadillac to work. At the end of the day, as I was washing garbage cans, he would back his car up to the mess hall, and fill the trunk with food. Of course I didn’t say a word about it to anyone, and I actually think it was common knowledge in our company headquarters.

Later, at Keesler AFB (Air Force Base) in Biloxi, Mississippi, the food was OK – except for the cockroaches. They were everywhere, so you just had to get used to them.

When I got to Vietnam, the food was sometimes OK, and other times terrible. At Bien Hoa, a large Air Force base, powdered eggs, rice-flour bread, and powdered milk for breakfast was the norm. This was the Army mess hall. We found out that the Air Force mess hall served real eggs, real milk, and real bread, but they wouldn’t let Army guys eat there. They had their food flown in fresh, while our food came in on a truck that had come off a ship, or was bought locally.

I truly believe that our cooks did the best they could with what they had, but sometimes we ate C-rations because they were better than the mess hall food – even though some of the C-rations had been packed during the Korean War.

One time we flew a hot meal out to a remote artillery base. The food was in large stainless-steel pots, with insulation on the outside to keep the food hot. Also we brought along sundry packs, containing pens, cigarettes, writing paper, toilet articles, gum, etc. While out there, I met an old boot-camp buddy, who was pulling the lanyard on a 105 mm howitzer. I’m sure all those men came back from Vietnam with severe hearing problems.

One other time, I got a day off, and caught a ride to see a hometown friend whose outfit had just arrived in Vietnam. He was in the 4th Infantry Division, and they had set up their base camp at a place called Bear Cat. I wasn’t able to get a ride back to my base, so I had to spend the night there. My buddy had to stand perimeter guard until midnight, so I laid down in his bunk until he came off duty – but sleep was impossible because the flares and the .50 caliber machine guns were going off continually. I think that since they were new to Vietnam, they were nervous, and shooting at shadows in the dark.

When my friend came back in the morning, he asked if I was hungry. I said yes, so we went to the mess tent, which was open twenty-four hours a day. The mess sergeant asked my buddy what he wanted, and he said, “T-bone steak, baked potato, small salad, and two slices of bread.” I thought to myself, “Yeah, sure.” Then the mess sergeant asked me what I wanted, and I said, “The same thing.” I couldn’t believe it – that was exactly what we got. At least in base camp, the infantry ate pretty good – and rightly so.

Back at my home-base mess hall, we ate whatever the latest shipment was. One large shipment was hot dogs. The cooks fixed them every way possible. Pigs in a blanket, beanies and weenies, hot dogs, fried sausage – for three days in a row. We ate C-rations after the second day.

Another time it was liver loaf – ugh. C-rations again. Sometimes we would go outside the gate, and get what I called a “rat meat sandwich.” Shredded “mystery meat” – probably dog meat on a hoagy bun, smothered in teriyaki sauce. (Not too bad, really.) I think you could eat a piece of cardboard if you put enough teriyaki sauce on it.

We could buy those sandwiches with piasters (Vietnamese currency), from a food cart we called “Ba Moui Ba,” which was also the name of Vietnam’s (often judged “undrinkable”) local beer – otherwise known as 33 beer.

One time my sergeant and I got a pass to go to Saigon, where we went to the USO club, and had steak and eggs – a real treat. In general, Army food was nourishing if not always palatable. Another usually good thing was the coffee. I always filled my thermos to take with me flying, and always shared it with my crew.


Wayne Swanson is a Vietnam veteran who served as a helicopter gunner from March 1966 to April 1967. He was wounded during his tour, but it wasn’t until forty-seven years later that he found out he had been awarded the Purple Heart medal.