Some of you may remember a surfing song from the early 60s called “Surfer Joe” where he eventually joins the USMC and gets stationed at Camp Pendleton. However, Joe can’t seem to stop answering the call of the wave…and of course he’s highly attracted to the very forbidden ‘Trestles’ area near San Onofre on the North end of the base.
So what happened to Joe for going UA to surf?
♪♪Ah, now that didn’t stop him or keep him away
when the surf was up he still had his day
they caught him at the trestle
down by the sea
and now poor Joe is doing KP♪♪
Of course, the Surfaris don’t get the terminology right, but since the song is so cool, we can forgive them, I suppose. I’d say that it’s clear to most of us that ‘Surfer Joe’ got NJP, and was given extra duties. However, ‘poor Joe’ did not do “KP.” Marines didn’t have KP (kitchen police/kitchen patrol). Rather, we had what’s known as “Mess Duty.”
Despite the many humorous cartoons and movie depictions of service members stuck in a room surrounded by an infinite number of potatoes and having to peel them one by one, Mess Duty is not always considered a punishment. It was intended to be assigned out of necessity.
Some old salts consider Mess Duty a rite of passage for young enlisted persons (along with sentry duty, barracks duty and pulling butts at the range.)
Most Marines served on mess duty only for one stint in their early military careers. Usually took place when they were E3s and below.
The time spent on mess duty could be as short as one day or extend to over 30 days. One thing is certain: mess duty was far from glamorous and it definitely was not easy ‘skate’ work.
In most cases, Mess Duty doesn’t include the actual cooking of food. That’s left to the skilled cooks and bakers. It usually consists assisting the cook or baker with various chores such as food preparation, dish washing and pot scrubbing, sweeping and mopping floors, wiping tables, serving food on the chow line, or anything else the kitchen staff sees fit to assign to its crew.
Advantage of mess duty? You got to eat first while the food is nice and hot
Disadvantage? Long hours and little sleep! When one served on mess duty, they were generally there at o-dark-30, and worked through all three meals (with some breaks) until close to 1900 ( 7 pm for you civilians who may be reading.)
Some people had mess duty as their regular job! Up to the Vietnam era, there was an actual dedicated Messman MOS: 8915. It’s currently referred to as food service attendant.
Two famous people holding that MOS was Mess Sergeant Lena Riggi Basilone (widow of Medal of Honor recipient GySgt John Basilone)
and Navy Messman 3rd class Doris “Dorie” Miller. His heroic actions on board the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941 earned him a medal and made him famous the world over
These days, very few people are assigned the food service attendance MOS, and during the mid 1980s, the tradition of being assigned Mess Duty became a thing of the past on most US major military bases. The Los Angeles Times went so far as to write an article about the ending of mess duty at Camp Pendleton back in 1986!
Marines today have a wide range of dining choices, and they can enjoy their meal at any time they wish instead of waiting for the regimented chow hall hours. Most of the popular restaurants and fast food establishments have a prominent presence on US military bases. Yes, one can still eat at the traditional “chow halls” (they’re now called Dining Facilities) but the infamous scut work that Marines on Mess Duty did once upon a time is now contracted out to civilians.
As you’ve probably guessed, very few Marines are mourning the end of mess duty. The only times you may see Marines serving a bona fide mess duty assignment is during recruit training, when stationed aboard a Navy ship or sometimes if deployed overseas.
When it came to mess duty, people either loved it or hated it. So just for fun, I’d surveyed the members of WMA at their Facebook page and asked them about their personal memories of Mess Duty. I was not surprised to find a diversity of opinions on the topic. Some people just stated the time they served, and others chose to elaborate. Apart from correcting some spelling errors, these are the experiences in the women’s exact words! To protect people’s privacy, only the year and location (if known) will be used in this article.
“I had 30 days of mess duty. I don’t think it happens very often stateside anymore outside of boot camp.”
2001 Iwakuni, Japan
Finished 30 weeks of school and when I got to my first duty station, I spent 30 days on mess duty
1971 El Toro, CA
Only had the breakfast shift for 2 weeks. Cooked, cleaned did whatever they told me to do…and with a smile!!
1968 Quantico, VA
Had mess duty. “Day on – stay on” for 33 days. I mostly worked in the staff NCOs and officers dining hall. Even cooked on their breakfast chow line sometimes – eggs to order and such. Didn’t have to work the pot shack thank goodness but one time the potato peeler machine broke and about 10 of us sat on crates in the back between meals peeling potatoes – like in some old black and white WW2 movie.
We had to wear HORRIBLE yellow, polyester dresses, and hair nets. I NEVER showed my picture for my promotion to PFC because they wouldn’t let me change into a real uniform. For the few weeks I worked there, I was mostly the one who shuttled food trays back and forth, stacked dishes in the washer, and swabbed the kitchen after lunch. I learned that the most efficient way to wring a mop is NOT with the wringer, but to take it out on the loading dock, step on the end, and twist it as tight as you can! I also learned that, contrary to popular rumor, my mother DID NOT make the largest meals humanly possible…she just came in a close second! The Mess Chief liked me because I was always interested in what was cooking, and I asked cogent questions regarding recopies, spices, and the like
1970-71 Quantico, VA
I got lucky and was the ID checker.
“I had mess duty in 1988 when I was 3 months pregnant with my son. I did not have any issues doing mess duty but initially, they wanted to put me on the line. I said I would do it but they would be very unhappy with the result because many food smells made me nauseous. So I was the drink station person. Even then, I had to have other people bring that huge crate of milk out for me and install it because I was not supposed to carry that kind of weight.”
1988 duty station unknown
…was sent “TAD” to the recruit chow hall to do the head count for each meal for two weeks, I was a Cpl at the time.
1987 MCRD San Diego
I served in Mess for a week. Not bad, got me away from my platoon and the BS that came with my Company. I really enjoyed it!
98-99 duty station unknown
Had to do it for a month. Somewhere, I have pics of me in my mess uniform. Light blue shirt and white pants and our boots…if I recall…was what we wore.
1979-80 Cherry Point, NC
I worked a month of Mess Duty at Court House Bay, long days, little sleep. Good training for life.
1979 Camp Lejeune, NC
Mess duty while on barracks restrictions, was to be 30 days ended up 45 days went to my unit and told my Master Gunnery Sergeant to find a replacement or I was going UA! Found a replacement for me. I started on the line was told I gave out to much food, went to the floor spent to much time talking instead of cleaning tables, then dishes…let a tray of dishes fall off …finally the pot room, only once was enough for me.
Year and duty station unknown
I also got sent for WTI (a huge air operation) with my unit, because all the attending units had to bring their own mess workers to handle all the shifts. That was fun too. A regular party in the “pot shack”. Hard work, but a real party. …
1985 MCAS Yuma, AZ
I never did mess duty in boot camp…the GUYS came to WRTC to do it. I got a flirty note tossed at me by a dishwasher in the chow hall there…mess duty…what an adventure!
Year unknown Parris Island, SC
I had fun. Don’t know why they want to put little ole me at the pot shack. You know how those those things are. I could have gotten in and taken me a good bubble bath. lol. Hated to be called the ice cream man.
1988 Quantico, VA
30 days [mess duty]. It was great. Worked so many hours I never had time to eat. Wake up, go to work, get home late, and go to sleep. I lost so much weight! Damn I looked good then!
1988 Iwakuni, Japan
I did mess duty. HATED IT!
1976. Camp LeJeune
Got the experience of running a scullery machine. Nasty job!
1990 duty station unknown
Had a month of mess duty at WM mess, No cooking; mainly cleaning and set up for meals. Good training for one who married and had six children!
1954 Quantico, VA
Pulled mess duty right out of school during the Christmas holidays. Wasn’t so bad. Didn’t like making the bleu cheese dressing as it kept getting into my engagement ring! Hate bleu cheese to this day. LOVED working in the bakery cuz I got sample the goodies.
1979-80 Camp Pendleton
I really loved the Pot Shack!
Year unknown Quantico, CA
Mess duty in OKI 93 whatever was the hottest month there & Kinser was remodeling chow hall so we had to haul the food they’d prepared to the E club to serve and the dishes back to wash them. My section “forgot” to replace me for an additional 2 weeks and it became mandatory when I passed out from dehydration and exhaustion…
Branch medical pumped me full of 2 bags of saline the first visit when I passed out and an additional bag the follow-up visit. I had mess duty also in Hawaii in 94. Different experience altogether there… One of 3 WMz on mess duty and since I had done mess duty before in OKI the SNCOs went easier on me. I got bag nasty assembly detail and a few other fluff jobs and made a few dozen lifelong brothers… One SNCO tried to teach me chess and another enjoyed my data entry skills and I spent a large amount of time doing data entry in the main office as his clerk was out on maternity leave.
He later tried to borrow me long term and my unit declined the offer
1990s multiple duty stations
I had mess duty for 2 weeks while waiting on a school…god I hated the hours never got to rest even when sleeping cause afraid wouldn’t wake up at 3 am lol wonder why
Year and duty station unknown
I was a cook at 22 area. (A large deal of that time I actually worked the supply room for the mess hall and they never changed my MOS – so I was still officially a cook). It sucked, that’s why I went into Supply. Anyway, in 89 we only had one round of Marines who pulled mess duty for 30 days – after that, it was all civilians.
1989-91 Camp Pendleton, CA
I was on mess duty on ship in ’04, and while deployed. We also had mess duty in boot camp (’02) during “team week”. Only a few recruits did it and it was just for the week.
Early 2000s various duty stations
Had mess duty 3 days of my two week drill as a reservist. Burnt myself trying to turn over bacon. The corpsman used a rather unusual product to treat the burn…Preparation H! LOL
1985 Camp Lejeune
Mess duty 30 days! I worked taking care of the salad bar – all the fresh fruit and veggies you could eat while working!
Met my future husband while we were both on Mess Duty…
I use to curse out mess men…
Year and duty station unknown
Cpl. Jhevonne L. Eller, USMC, food service specialist, Combat Logistics Battalion 15, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, cooks pasta on the mess deck of USS Rushmore, April 25, 2013. Public domain photograph from defenseimagery.mil.
….and there you have it! Mess duty as remembered by us Women Marines: the good, the bad, the ugly, the horrifying and the hilarious!