Abraham Lincoln first recognized troops on Thanksgiving during the Civil War, in 1864. According to the Pilgrim Hall Museum, that year, the Union League Club of New York launched a campaign to provide Thanksgiving dinner for members of the military. They were able to purchase 146,586 pounds of poultry and received an additional 225,000 pounds via donations. Thanksgiving meals also included other meats, cakes, gingerbread, pickles, apples, vegetables, cheese, and mince pies, and were delivered to troops on military bases.
Hunting was a popular pastime in the army during the 1860s and 1870s, especially in places where food shipment wasn’t easy. At Fort Sill in 1874, 12 men caught and killed 156 turkeys and officers brought 60 turkeys, five deer, two wildcats, and a bear, and all were enjoyed for Thanksgiving dinner.
During WWI, there was a campaign to support the American doughboys by eating less wheat, meat, fats, sugar, with the goal of saving these foods for the troops. The menu at Camp Wadsworth in 1918 included celery, pickles, olives, roast turkey with dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, salted wafers with cheese, bread and butter, pumpkin pie, fruit cake, ice cream, and coffee.
The Italian Campaign of WWII pitted the Allied forces against the Germans and Fascist Italians. Thanksgiving fell right around the middle of this campaign. While British forces were living off of dehydrated meat, potatoes, carrots, and expired biscuits, Americans ate roast turkey, fresh vegetables, and fresh white bread, unlike any meal the soldiers had since the war begun.
In 1944, the Intrepid was in Palau and the Philippines. Soldiers were fighting the Pacific War, and the carrier was struck by kamikazes in late November. Nevertheless, their Thanksgiving menu consisted of mixed olives, sweet pickles, fruit cocktail, and cream of asparagus soup for starters. They also had Princess Ann turkey, baked Virginia ham, cranberry sauce, giblet gravy, celery apple nut dressing, candied yams, and snowflake potatoes (which were mashed potatoes mixed with sour cream, cream cheese, and spices). For dessert, there was plum pudding, vanilla sauce, and apple pie a la mode.
This was probably one of the most unconventional Thanksgivings in military history. Dinner was presented as a play performance, with each “act” a course. Act I was celery soup and crackers. Act II included turkey, oyster dressing, giblet gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffed celery, candied sweets, and French peas. The final act was corn, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo, and “cold foaming drinks.”
Even before Hawaii became the 50th state, the Navy accommodated Thanksgiving dinner for the troops. They served turkey with all of the trimmings, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, sliced ham, turkey and dressing, green peas, and a salad bar with fruits, nuts, and candies. There were also mince, apple, and pumpkin pies.
Bob Bavelock, a member of the Plymouth U.S. Army, was stationed in Germany and was invited to spend Thanksgiving with a family he became acquainted with. He was told to not expect a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner by one of the family members. According to the Pilgrim Hall Musuem, Bavelock said they had canned turkey breast swimming in sauerkraut with lots of juice and gravy, clear chicken soup with a knodel (large dumpling), boiled potatoes, and sautéed lung. For dessert: prunes with goose.
During Vietnam, even soldiers on the front lines were able to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner. Choppers dropped off Mermite cans containing hot turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cold cranberry sauce, cornbread stuffing, and peas. To wash it down, they had hot canteen water.
Fort Knox is a large U.S. Army post and one of the most important bases in the country, as it is home of the Army’s Human Resource Center, which is responsible for recruiting and training soldiers. For Thanksgiving 1999, the soldiers were treated to beef, turkey, dressing, ham, shrimp, mashed potatoes with gravy, yams, and corn pudding. For dessert, there was pumpkin, pecan, and sweet potato pies, and cakes.
For about 6,000 sailors aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, their 1999 Thanksgiving order included 2,080 pounds of turkey, 900 pounds of roast beef, 650 pounds of mashed potatoes, 756 pounds of stuffing, and 130 pounds of cranberry sauce.
Not only was Camp Fallujah able to provide a full-fledged Thanksgiving meal to the troops stationed there, but they also were able to broadcast NFL games in the middle of the night, Iraq time. The Thanksgiving menu included roast turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cornbread, prime rib, crab legs, shrimp cocktail, fried chicken, and collard greens. For dessert, there were varieties of pie, and of course pumpkin was one of them.
Brandon Akins was an Army specialist and cook. In 2011, he and others were living in tents and spent Thanksgiving a bit differently. Akins told Our State Magazine that he ate a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) pouch omelet. Previously, Akins helped prepare a large Thanksgiving meal at Fort Bragg in 2009. Not this year, though.
This past Thanksgiving, troops stationed in Kabul indulged in a traditional feast. There was roast turkey, sliced turkey, ham, ribeye steaks, chunks of beef, and macaroni and cheese. For sides, there was dressing, corn, collard greens, yams, and mashed potatoes and gravy.