Corpsmen Are Not Chefs by Dennis Noah

In combat situations you return to the basics of survival: food, staying dry, and so forth.  Food is a large aspect of life, especially when you spend days on end eating out of these little green cans with dates on them going back to the Korean War. Also, on extended operations in the field, we were particularly dependent upon helicopter resupply missions that were not always dependable because of the combat situation.

On one mission, they shipped us out by helicopters and as often occurred, we walked and walked and walked. The military term is a & “forced”, march. I do not know what is so forced about it. I certainly was not able to lag behind and be left in the middle of the jungle somewhere. It was not necessary to force me to follow the guy in front of me. So, on my part anyway, it was a “voluntary”, march. I had no hope of finding my way back alone. I am not certain exactly how long we walked, but we started out in the morning, saw an entire day, then a night, and another sunrise, then another afternoon before we arrived at our destination. We marched over hills, through creeks, rice paddies, and even walked for a few hours down a railroad track. We were told to be quiet, but I have to tell you something. We did not talk but we were not quiet. We had weapons straps clanging, ammo bandoliers knocking against each other, and the clumping of 100 sized 11 to 13 jungle boots. We were not exactly stealthy, but we did not talk.

We had been out in the field for (no surprise here) a few days before we took our hike. Our little green cans were mostly gone when we started our walking tour of Southeast Asia. They were not able to re-supply us, so we had little chow. We were tired, wet, and famished. As an old friend of my father used to say on our fishing outings: & “We had wet butts and hungry guts”; I was so tired that the whole event seemed like an out of body experience. I was walking in a stupor from the fatigue and hunger.

Then, all of a sudden, our dreams came true. We walked into this clearing at dawn on the second morning and there were cooks, tables, and on these tables were green containers with hot chow. The cooks were Army dudes but what the heck, we were desperate. We thought we had died and gone to heaven. The Marine Corps did not provide hot chow out in the field. And I mean never.  I understand that the Army did supply hot chow on occasion in the field and at times beer. The only hot chow we had come in those green cans and was heated by C4.* We did receive beer in the field once but it came in the form of manna from heaven like Moses in the desert. By this I mean the beer was thrown from helicopters flying at 60 knots and 300 feet. You ever had 20 cases of canned beer dumped out of helicopters in the jungle on your head? Well, let me tell you, a beer can with a forward speed of 60 knots falling on you from 300 feet really hurts. This was our first and last beer run in the field, and it was not particularly successful. I didn’t ' even like beer so why did I have to be smacked with beer cans from on high? It did not seem fair to me.

Anyway, as luck would have it, the senior Army NCO said that he did not have enough for us because he was waiting for the Army patrol to return. He apologized with sincerity. He said that he could give us some cornflakes. They were in these little cardboard boxes with the perforations you opened and poured milk into them. We gladly accepted. Of course, he had no milk to give us. He did not have any sugar either. I poured the warm halazone laden brown, muddy rice paddy water from my canteen onto my corn flakes. Man did this stuff taste awful. It literally looked like mud and tasted like, well, you know what.

After the scrumptious breakfast, we continued our walking tour of Vietnam or wherever we were. During the late afternoon, we came to a large, abandoned village. My platoon was sent in to occupy it and dig in for the night. We looked for McDonald's but apparently, it had not yet opened in this village. We were flat out starved.

Then we heard this quacking. I mean there were ducks in this place! You can eat ducks, right? We did not wish to shoot them, as it would make big holes in them. So off we went, K-Bars and bayonets in hand. The great hunters were going to slay these ducks and live off the land like Daniel Boone. Marines should have no trouble slaying these little critters, right? Wrong! There were two-dozen Marines chasing them around for over an hour — battle-hardened warriors of our country trying to kill these ducks.

It was not funny at the time as we were hungry. Now thinking back upon it, we must have looked like the Keystone Kops chasing these little things. We finally killed six of them. There were two others, but they are probably still running and laughing. Now what? Who was going to clean and cook them?

They all looked at me, the corpsman, to prepare the feast. I was in charge of health.  Food was part of health. Correct? They thought it was perfectly logical that I should be the chef. It seemed like quite a stretch to me, but I agreed. I hunted growing up in the Ozarks and knew how to clean ducks. However, cooking them was another matter.  Mom always handled this part.

In the village, there was a large hut with a large cooking area and even pots and pans and a wood grill. I would not bestow upon it the respect to call it a kitchen, but it would On the other hand, I was no Julia Child either. There was even rice. So, I butchered the ducks, threw them in water and boiled them for a couple of hours. I then added some rice and made rice soup with pieces of duck. It smelled horrible. It even looked worse. Have you ever seen the stuff that is pumped out of a boat or RV holding tank?  It looks like watery milk chocolate pudding. Well, this is exactly what my cooking prowess had produced with the same consistency. It smelled about the same.

I was going to throw it out, but they were hungry, so they ate it. I did not. I would rather have eaten mud, but they devoured it with enthusiasm and thanked me. Little did we know that the VC ducks had a surprise in store for us.

Well about 0200 in the morning in the pitch black, I heard a moan, then another moan, then another moan, then about 20 more. Then I heard my guys puking from the other end. The entire platoon was sicker than you can imagine. I was not sick, of course, as I refused to eat my own cooking. I had given them food poisoning.

For the next two days I gave them all kinds of medications including antibiotics to heal them. They marched with their legs spread out to the side (like a cowboy who had ridden horses for 60 years), they were doubled over, and they had these anguished looks on their faces. They kept running into the brush and asking for those tiny rolls of toilet paper. We promptly ran out of the latter. The officers wanted to know what happened. With the innocence of a newborn baby, I said, “I really do not know, sir. It must have been bad water, sir.”

Yeah, that was it. Bad water. They bought it and I never told them what really happened.  I figured I would end up in Portsmouth [Naval Prison] for 5 years if I told the truth. I informed our leaders that I had it under control and they should not worry.

Slowly, my guys began to stand upright and walk normally like humanoids again. By the third day, everyone was well again in H Company.

The only good thing about this ending was that the platoon was no longer hungry. This worked out perfectly as we did not get resupplied for 2 more days. I was hungry but endured. I was never asked to cook again.

Reprinted with permission from Dennis Noah.

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