Carnett: Army cooked up great Thanksgivings

I have an Irish friend who considers Thanksgiving to be the best of America's holidays.

"No other country gives thanks like the U.S. does," she told me. "It's uplifting."

I agree.

Two of my most memorable Thanksgivings, however, were spent outside the boundaries of this good and grateful country.

I spent the Thanksgivings of 1965 and 1966 in Seoul, South Korea. I, of course, missed my family back home, but the U.S. Army provided me with two unforgettable celebrations.

Let me say at the outset that Army chow on Thanksgiving Day is second to none. Ask any former G.I. In fact, those very words — second to none — were uttered profusely during my 18 months in Korea, but in a different context.

I was attached to the Eighth Army Support Command in Seoul. The Army's 2nd Infantry Division was one of two U.S. infantry divisions then assigned to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The other was the 7th ID. As an Army journalist, I spent a day or two each month in one of the divisions.

I'd travel north from Seoul by Jeep and routinely stop at Army checkpoints along the way. I'd pull up to a 2nd Infantry checkpoint and a spiffily dressed MP in a polished helmet would check my paperwork.

As soon as he finished, he'd release me by barking out: "Proceed. Second to none, sir!"

"Second to none" is the 2nd Infantry axiom.

I'd step on the gas and yell back over my shoulder, "First to run, sir!" It was a prank and an unutterable blasphemy that we rear echelon guys would foist upon spit-polished MPs. No disrespect truly intended, we appreciated the work of those G.I.s guarding the DMZ.

I remember Thanksgiving, Nov. 25, 1965, in Seoul.

Gen. Dwight E. Beach, the popular four-star commander of the 50,000-strong U.S. forces in Korea, composed a thoughtful Thanksgiving Day message.

"On this day," Beach wrote, "we pause to give thanks for the many blessings our country holds for us. We have been fortunate. The bounty of our land and mettle of our forebears have created the most prosperous nation on earth.

"The gratitude we express today should be weighed with reverence for our nation's past and a determination to achieve more in the future.

"To each member of this command, I extend best wishes for a pleasant Thanksgiving Day."

His words resonate 48 years later. Beach, who survived four amphibious assaults on Pacific beaches during World War II and, following his Korea command, served as commander of the U.S. Army Pacific, lived to see his 92nd birthday. He died in 2000.

Thanksgiving dawned clear and brisk in Korea in '65. More than 25 Protestant and Catholic services were held on posts throughout the Eighth Army Support Command that day, and soldiers paused to reflect.

"Amid a setting of garnished turkeys and imitation pumpkins and cornstalks, the soldier will sit down to the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner of roast turkey with all the trimmings," predicted the support command newspaper two days before the holiday.

Other menu items would include baked ham, cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, browned sweet potatoes, corn, buttered peas and carrots, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, mince pie, fruitcake, ice cream, fresh fruit and candy. Just like home!

The U.S. Army does many things well, but what it does better than almost anything else is prepare Thanksgiving meals for its troops. Army mess sergeants — like my dad in World War II — might occasionally deserve a grumpy G.I.'s stinging rebuke, but they know how to commemorate Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving 1965 was fantastic for this trooper, even though he was 6,000 miles and 17 time zones from home.

Twelve months later, on Nov. 24, 1966, I walked a half-mile in snow flurries to our mess hall for the Thanksgiving meal. It may have been frosty outside, but the warmth, acceptance and bounty of that mess hall exemplified the true American spirit. Nineteen days later I was back in the good old USA.

Take a moment this season to count your blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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