Military Thanksgivings

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.


The first military Thanksgiving that sticks out in my mind was when I was three and we where stationed at Vallejo Naval Base in California. I had decided I did not like turkey. So my mother would go out into the kitchen of our Navy housing and come back with ham. Apparently she had been doing this for a couple of years. The only problem was there was no ham. Mother was simply slicing off small pieces of turkey and telling me it was ham. I guess since I still remember this so clearly I must have been psychology scared at an early age.

I did come around to eating turkey quickly, though. When we were stationed in Idaho my dad, the Master Chief, would always bring home young sailors for Thanksgiving. For Thanksgivings in 1964 and 1965 were we stationed in Scotland. You had to order your turkey well in advance if you wanted one for the holiday. I attended a small three room Scottish grade school. To my horror my parents invited the Headmaster of my school to Thanksgiving dinner, this along with a local family with whom we had become friends. They were there the next year along with a couple more Scottish families.

I do remember Thanksgivings without my father. He would be at sea, but if there was a sailor who was a family friend in port on a different ship, my mom would go out of her way to invite him to our home for turkey. We would all pile into the station wagon (Navy families needed the room and it was pre-mini van days) and drive out to the pier to pick the guy up. Then, after dinner, we would return to the Navy base to take our sailor dinner guest back to his ship.

My first Air Force Thanksgiving was as a young lieutenant. My then civilian wife made dinner in our small apartment and, of course, we invited a couple of single lieutenants far from their home to eat with us.

When I was stationed at March AFB in southern California I would bring home young Security Police airmen from my “cop” squadron for Thanksgiving. If it was good enough for my sailor-father, then I should continue the tradition.

Thanksgiving 1983 found my now active duty wife and I in Korea and dinner was at the officers club. We were lucky because we both were stationed at a remote location together. For most of the other people we had dinner with that day, their families were back “stateside.”

We have this large oak dining room table I completely refinished years ago and it seats twelve people. So the rule of thumb was and is, if we were going to invite people for Thanksgiving there needed to be at least twelve. Thanksgivings in Alaska, where most Airmen did not have extended family, always meant we had a large group for dinner. Since many GIs would use their leave time to go home to the lower 48 states for Christmas, there was no problem getting folks to commit to coming to our home for turkey. Some holiday meals we seated as many as eighteen people.

My wife’s grandmother had a family tradition of having 40 to 60 people to her home in South Dakota for Thanksgiving. One year while stationed in Texas we drove to grandma’s home. We arrived in a blizzard, it was below freezing the entire time, and we left in another blizzard. The Colonel’s family kind of wondered why we drove 800 winter miles for dinner. It was the first and only time we ever had a chance to have a purely civilian Thanksgiving, with only civilian family members. It has not happened since.

The past three years the Colonel, our daughter and I have served our fellow Airmen as they ate Thanksgiving dinner in the dining hall of Altus AFB, Oklahoma. Twice my parents were visiting Altus during the holiday, so we pulled mom and the Master Chief into serving on the chow line.

Thousands of our troops will be stationed and deployed overseas this year yet again. They will get a great Thanksgiving meal, but it will not be at home. Thanksgiving is a national holiday, not a religious one, so every American can celebrate. However, remember the troops and if you can bring some into your home for dinner that day, please do so. It is truly a family holiday, however for Sailors, GIs and Marines away from home it is hard, it can be sad and it can be lonely. Praise the Lord, turkey is the ultimate comfort food.




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Copyright 2007 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.

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