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Sailors Give Thanks While Answering Their Nation’s Call to Duty

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

Commander, Third Fleet (left center) Eats Thanksgiving dinner with the crew of his flagship, USS New Jersey (BB-62), 30 November 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
Commander, Third Fleet (left center) Eats Thanksgiving dinner with the crew of his flagship, USS New Jersey (BB-62), 30 November 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Ask any Sailor and he or she will tell you that being in the Navy means you’re deployable with sometimes little more than a moment’s notice. Every now and then that means leaving your family and charging into harm’s way during one of the most family-oriented times of the year—Thanksgiving.

It’s little (and big) stresses like this that can sometimes scratch at a Sailor’s sanity. How do they cope? In times past, things were no doubt more difficult since email is a pretty modern invention. So how did Sailors at sea find that sense of family at sea before email and instant messaging? Sailors band together with their shipmates, who become their second family.

While it’s not always possible to pull into port or cease combat operations just to have a nice turkey dinner, American Sailor’s have always been nothing if not resourceful. They can usually find ways to celebrate the day and give thanks. That is if the situation allows; Sailors have also always known that at sea, danger (and occasionally, the enemy) are never far away.

One of the ways Sailors try to recreate a little taste of home is to prepare a Thanksgiving Day menu for the crew to order from. It’s become a tradition. Having been stationed on an aircraft carrier, I laid out and designed several menus. On the day, turkeys are brought out and carved up, the mess decks are decorated with cheer and everyone comes down to take a momentary break from the rigors of life at sea to have a good time.

This tradition goes back quite a ways. Among many of the menus that can be seen on the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) website, the menu made by the crew of USS Raleigh (C8) is among the earliest, from 1905. During this time, from Aug. 1903 to Aug. 1907, she cruised in Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Philippine waters in support of diplomatic missions as well as showing the flag while conducting good-will tours.

hanksgiving Dinner, U.S.S. Raleigh, Hong Kong, 30th November, 1905; photo caption: Main Deck U.S.S. "Raleigh."
Thanksgiving Dinner, U.S.S. Raleigh, Hong Kong, 30th November, 1905; photo caption: Main Deck U.S.S. “Raleigh.”

From their menu, they ate roast turkey, oyster dressing, cranberry sauce and celery for their main dish, some vegetables, and assorted nuts on the side with desert afterward. Also on the menu, though, were cigars and cigarettes which, while unthinkable nowadays, appeared frequently on menus from ages past.

Menu - Thanksgiving Dinner, U.S.S. Raleigh, Hong Kong, 30th November, 1905.
Menu – Thanksgiving Dinner, U.S.S. Raleigh, Hong Kong, 30th November, 1905.

During a four year deployment, such carefully prepared meals surely comforted the Sailors. The same holds true with Sailors nowadays.

“During the holidays, when most Americans spend time with their families and many Sailors are serving on the opposite side of the planet from their loved ones, it’s important for the crew to always feel a sense of the normalcy of home,” said Command Master Chief Paul Lachance, USN (Ret.), an NHHC Staff member who was deployed away from home four times during his career.

Either deployed at sea, boots on ground, or just on duty over the holiday, Sailor’s always make sure not to let minor inconveniences get in the way of a great celebration. And sometimes, if they’re lucky, the CNO may just show up to help serve the troops.

The Navy Department Library‘s growing collection of historic Navy Thanksgiving, Christmas and miscellaneous dinner menus offer an excellent glimpse into the social life of the Navy. Over many years, the library has collected hundreds of examples of ship and shore menus, with the pre-World War II examples considered especially detailed and artistic. Click HERE to see more menus.