Special Christmas Dinners Kept Crew Spirits Merry and Bright

During the 47 years the USS Midway was defending American democracy around the world, meals on board the carrier weren’t intended to be fancy, farm-to-table, low-calorie or even gluten free. Food was basic, and sometimes a mystery. The goal was to keep the bellies of its thousands of hard-working sailors full. The Army wasn’t the only branch of service that “marched on its stomach.”

On Christmas Day, however, regardless of whether the ship was in port or at sea, Midway treated its crew to a holiday banquet that was fit for royalty.

“Holidays are the hardest time for sailors who have to spend long periods away from their families,” said Rudy Shappee, who served aboard three aircraft carriers during his 20-year Navy career. “The meals served on Christmas have special significance for sailors at sea because it brings at least a part of the celebration of these special days they experienced with their families.”

The stress on sailors at sea is magnified during Christmas by the thoughts of being away from their loved ones over the holiday. They know their chair at the table back home is empty.

To help soften some of the melancholy sailors experienced when separated from family and friends while deployed during the holidays, Midway created culinary magic each year with a Christmas feast.

“The holiday meals were the most important events of the year for the cooks in the general mess, chief petty officer’s mess and the officer’s wardroom,” said Jim Reily, who was the supply officer on the USS Midway from 1989 to 1991. “That was particularly so when we were deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.”

Christmas Day dinner menu from 1949.
Christmas Day dinner menu from 1964.

Much like their families at home, preparations for Christmas dinner on Midway began days in advance. Everything that was expected of a gourmet Christmas dinner was on the menu from turkey and roast beef to mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.

“It was the special items like sweet potatoes and extra desserts that often hit the spot with the young sailors,” said Rudy, who is an assistant director for special projects in the museum’s education department. “Some would even go through the mess

lines a second time to be able to have an additional serving of ice cream or another piece of berry pie.”

It wasn’t unusual for sailors working on Midway, especially on the flight deck or in the engineering spaces, to burn more than 4,000 calories each day, so the chance to stuff themselves during Christmas was not wasted.

“Meal hours were extended and there were few if any leftovers,” said Jim, who directs the museum’s volunteer docent program. “Our sailors could consume two and half tons of turkey, more than a 1,000 pounds of baked ham, nearly 150 gallons of gravy and 6,000 slices of pumpkin pie.”

“For most sailors, there are three things to do at sea: work, eat, and sleep,”
said Rudy, who in 2007 published “Beef Stew for 2,500,” a book about how the

U.S. Navy fed its crews from the Revolutionary War to today. “Sailors may not look forward to working 12 hours or more each day seven days a week, or sleeping in a crowded and noisy berthing compartment, but they all looked forward to good chow.”

Christmas dinner for all Midway sailors was not only good chow, but it also played an important role in lifting their spirits.

“At the heart of good morale aboard ship is good food,” said Rudy, who was also an aircrewman flying in naval helicopters and patrol aircraft during his time in the Navy.

While dining on Christmas dinner was a welcome holiday respite for Midway’s crew, the hundreds of sailors who spent days preparing the special meal also felt tremendous satisfaction.

“The look on the crew’s faces as they sat down to consume the enormous piles of food on their trays and dishes was priceless,” said Jim, who retired from the Navy in 1997 after 25 years of service. “For the ship’s cooks, having the opportunity to bring happiness and a little bit of home to the crew made those long hours of the prep work worthwhile.”

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