Mess Duty at Camp Matthews – 1960Submitted by Warren R Smith
Camp Matthews was located between Regents Road, Voigt Drive, Matthew Lane, and Gilman Drive in La Jolla, a suburb of San Diego. It provided marksmanship training for Marines from 1917- 1964 and was named after Brigadier General Calvin B. Matthews, a famous Marine marksman in the 1930s. Over a million Marines received their marksmanship training at this location during this period of time. It had 15 different ranges including rifle, pistol, mortar, flame thrower/ bazooka, and small caliber ranges. I think my favorite was the BAR range. You could fire bursts that would hit in a tight pattern 500 yards away. Many “boots” made the mistake of picking it up by the barrel after shooting causing a burn to the inside of your hand and fingers you would remember all your life. Pulling targets on the BAR range created another physical problem. There were a lot of lead coming your way some of which hit the target and other round kicked up rocks in front of the target. When you got the “all clear on the rifle range” the targets were pulled down into the pits and the drill instructors would start screaming to get all those holes patched up. We had rolls of square patches that I am sure had horse hide glue on the backsides. It wasn’t bad on the regular M-1 range, because the shooters were taking their time to qualify with the best shots they could make. This gave you time to drink some water and get your tongue back in shape. 20 round clips after another from the BAR kept your tongue swinging like a paint brush. By the time you marched back to the firing line from the pits, your tongue was fat making your words stagger out of your mouth and you could not taste anything. Those of us that trained there remember the intenseness of the weeks of rifle training from the muscle straining “snapping in” to the exciting day of qualification. The rifle is the pivotal weapon of the Marine Corps most feared by the enemy in the hands of a Marine.
Platoon 187 started its weeks of training at Camp Matthews by pulled mess duty. We checked into permanent barracks and I can’t remember if they were Quonset huts or the 2 story barracks built in WWll. There was a rush of those recruits leaving mess duty to provide space for the incoming labor. It did not take long for us to fall into this role as the job started at 4:00 AM the next day. The work day was completed when all was cleaned up at the end of the evening meal. We were to find out in a week that we would move from these permanent barracks to a portion of the 270 tents reserved for those in marksmanship training.
As was the general rule throughout the Navy and Marine Corps, food in the mess halls around the world was good and substantial. The Mess Sergeants took our untrained group of laborers assigning us individual tasks. These tasks were mainly to do the “grunt” work allowing them to concentrate on the tasks of cooking the meals. We slices, diced, pealed, washed, carried and shoveled food onto trays of those coming in from the ranges. Those that we served were Marines in our eyes and we were not sure what or who we were at this point in our training.
The main mess hall was very similar to most enlisted halls on bases we served at during our Marine careers. The back had the ovens and cooking equipment, refrigeration units, food storage, large tables for food preparation and portioning. Separate from this area was the steam cleaning area for trays, silverware, and small cooking utensils. These items were pre-washed by the Marines leaving the “chow hall”. There was a line of “GI Cans” with a burner below them to keep the water in them boiling. You would hook your cup, silverware, and tray to a wire and slosh them up and down in the progression of boiling cans of water. The resultant in the string of cans went from a pudding to a light broth setting all the eating equipment up for the final steam wash inside the Mess Hall. When this eating equipment belonged to you and was your future plate and silver you did a much better job during this cleaning process. Yet today, everywhere I eat I always hold the plant and silver up to the light to see if all the grease and prior meal has been properly removed. I was assigned with a couple other “boots” to the garbage shack. This building took all the garbage cans that left the base full and came back empty. We washed them out and steam cleaned them for the next food deposits. We also washed the large cooking containers that did not go through the steam cleaner inside the main mess hall, and enclosed rolling storage containers that held trays of prepared food to be pushed to the serving line. These containers could also have cakes, pies and other items we desired placed in them from the kitchen and brought to us in the first step in their route to our stomachs back at our barracks. We had found that we were in one of the foulest smelling areas of the base and no one even our DIs wanted to oversee our efforts. After a day or so our noses turned off and we went about our job almost on holiday without someone standing over us screaming for us to move faster or do a better job. Anything place under our care escaped detection when we could transport them under the cover of darkness back to the barracks.
One day about mid-week a 6x6 pulled up at our special shed and three smelly Marines jumped out of the cab. They started throwing tied up gunny sacks from the back and they landed with a metallic clatter. We dumped out the first bag to find metal food trays and silverware with a smell even we could smell. It was definitely the worst part of a smell from a pig farm. All the bags contained the same collection of eating items from our chow hall. Apparently, some of the Marines did not want to wash their trays and utensils and just dropped them in the first garbage can in the wash line. These garbage cans of food scrapping went to the local pig farmer as feed for his livelihood. Every week or two the a facsimile of the Marines we saw would go out to the farm and rake up these uneaten metal items for return to the mess hall. We thought the initial smell was bad until we hit this pile with the steam hose to knock of the collection of mud and excrement. This was another good reason to really inspect your eating utensils every time and think of how much killing power that steam had in the cleaning process.
The night before our last day of mess duty I made a big mistake. One of the Mess Sergeants asked if I would stay the night with a couple others in our Platoon to help cook a lot of turkeys for the next day. I can’t remember what was so special about the next day requiring all those turkeys, but he told us we could have the next day off if we volunteered. It was a long night of placing large cooking trays of full turkeys in and out of the ovens. The rest of the crew came in around 4:00 AM and we thought that was when we should be relieved. The original Mess Sergeant we were working for had completed his shift and was no where to be found. The new command said he knew nothing of the prior agreement and “by the way, Boots do not get a day off”. We staggered through breakfast and looked like zombies by then and were finally told to go back to the barracks. We thought it was all worth it when we laid out on our bunks with the whole day ahead of us to rest. This lasted about 15 minutes when our drill instructors came and chewed us out for our day time nap. We ended up having to carry over 80 sea bags of the Platoon from the barracks to tent area where we would be during the upcoming weeks of our rifle training. This also required the sweeping out of each of the tents assigned to the Platoon. Our next assignment was to get a mirror for the DI tent. We thought we would fail on that request until we found an open window to a locked shower room. Working as a team we lifted one thieves through the window and inside. The mirrors were screwed to the wall, but we had liberated a few spoons, knives and forks from the mess hall for later use. We found that they worked really well as a screw driver to remove the mirror. The DIs were couldn’t believe it when we showed up with our acquisition and even more surprised when we gave them the 2 screws to install it on the tent center post. This was one of many long days of continuous work during our tour in the USMC, but we had youth on our side. We slept hard that night and woke up ready for our next adventure, learning to shoot like a Marine.
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