Navy vet recalls cooking all night for 8,000 sailors for Christmas dinner in 1943
By WENDY RHODES | The (West Palm Beach, Fla.) Palm Beach Post | Published: December 24, 2019
LAKE WORTH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — If the thought of making a big Christmas dinner for a house full of family and friends strikes fear into your heart, imagine trying to cook for 8,000 ravenous Navy sailors — in the middle of a war.
That’s exactly what Sam Wasson and 21 other Navy chefs did in 1943.
It was the height of World War II, and Wasson was stationed at a submarine training base in New London, Conn.
“That was a very important Christmas, because a lot of guys weren’t going to be around the next year,” said Wasson, who was only 17 at the time.
Six months later, the Allied forces would descend on Normandy, France, marking the beginning of the end of WWII in the European theater. But before it was over, more than 50 million people would die, including entire submarines full of sailors, some of whom were Wasson’s friends.
“That’s the way it was,” he said, fighting back tears. “It’s something you had to learn to live with.”
Now 94 and living in Lake Worth, Wasson still has a copy of the Navy’s 1943 Christmas menu. It reminds him of how hard he and the other chefs worked that year to make sure the sailors got a traditional dinner with all the trimmings.
“We started roasting them at midnight, and we started slicing them at 8 a.m. and put them in warming pans,” he said about preparing 150 30-pound turkeys. “It was an all-night job.”
The most challenging part of the meal, however, was the fruitcake. It had to be prepared weeks in advance, and the ingredients, particularly during wartime, were not easy to come by.
“We traded them prime ribs of beef for two cases of booze,” Wasson said, laughing, about a deal they struck with the local officer’s club.
The bartered Myers’s dark spiced rum and Hiram Walker cherry brandy then were mixed with dried cherries, current, nuts, and dried fruit. The finished cakes were doused with more rum, wrapped in cheesecloth, stacked in boxes and stored in a temperature-controlled room.
“We kept them for a month like that,” Wasson said. “They were perfect after 30 days.”
Wasson recently received his high school diploma from Wellington High as part of a program that allows veterans whose military service interrupted their high school education as a way to receive their diplomas. He is full of stories about his Navy days — one moment laughing, the next misting up. He is sweet, sentimental, funny, and a self-described rascal.
“I had two things going for me to get away with trouble,” he said about getting into “all kinds” of mischief while enlisted. “I was a good softball pitcher … and I knew how to make good gravy.”
After the Christmas of 1943, Wasson went on to work on five submarines — Bergall, Sea Fox, Trutta, Angler and Tusk — even serving in Hawaii alongside future President Jimmy Carter.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy to drink beer and smack you on the back,” Wasson said of Carter. “Eventually, he left to run the peanut farm and become leader of the free world.”
After 10 years, Wasson, too, left the Navy. He married and ran a restaurant in Pennsylvania before moving to Florida full time in 1974.
Today, he is a widower and enjoys a quiet life at The Landing at Lake Worth, surrounded by photos, memorabilia and keepsakes from his days in the service.
Wasson’s memory is remarkable. He can list every submarine lost during WWII as well as the names of many of the sailors who perished.
He gets choked up talking about it, and proudly wears a vest and one of several caps that commemorate those who served.
On the front of his favorite cap is a small pin no bigger than a quarter. It bears the names of two submarines, along with print too tiny to read.
It doesn’t matter, though — Wasson knows the words by heart.
It is a phrase known to those who worked on submarines, he said. An equalizer that reminds them of those who, by chance or fate, ended up side-by-side, fighting for the same cause, some losing their lives in the process.
It reads: “We are all cut from the same cloth.”