Tropically Delicious: Holidays on Oahu

Hawaii was paradise, but military cooks often supplied the old favorites for soldiers and sailors who were stationed far from home.

Though some of us try to ignore it, October means the holidays are just around the corner. For many, this means cooler weather, longer nights, and perhaps a dusting of snow. At least, to dull the sting of being far from home, military men had the consolation of being stationed in paradise.

Army or Navy, Thanksgiving or Christmas, there was not a lot of variation in what were the most revered meals on the American calendar. Below we see the 1939 Christmas dinner menu for Company E of the 27th Infantry Regiment based at Schofield Barracks on Oahu. The 27th was part of the Hawaiian Division, which would become part of the famous 25th Infantry Division when it was activated on October 1, 1941.

With the men longing for home, the cooks didn’t spring for exotic Hawaiian fare for their bountiful banquet. The offerings were roast young turkey and cold sliced Virginia ham, sweet potatoes with marshmallow, and cranberry sauce. For the young men, dessert was key. For the 27th that meant mince pie, layer cake, and ice cream, along with candy, nuts, cigars, and cigarettes, which were common provisions for the era.

As a reminder of the Pacific’s isolation, the back cover of the menu illustrates just how far Hawaii is from everything, whether it was home—Chicago (4,244 miles) or New York (4,959 miles)—or the capital cities of future belligerents—Berlin (7,305 miles) and Tokyo (3,850 miles).

Soon after the battleship USS Oklahoma arrived at Pearl Harbor, it seemed time for a party. The “Thanksgiving Luau” menu for 1941 has a large full-color photo on the glossy cover that would have made the editors at Life magazine swoon. Though advertised as a traditional Hawaiian soirée, the food was more Wichita than Waimea. There was roast young turkey (sound familiar?), cranberry sauce, and candied island yams. Notable was the “papaia cocktail,” a drink made with fresh papaya fruit and most likely a perennial favorite of sailors—rum.

But there wasn’t a lot of time to get comfortable in this sunny, quiet Shangri-La; there was work to be done. Unknown to the men of the Oklahoma, as they enjoyed their dessert of cigarettes, ice cream, and coffee, they would be in a fight for their lives in less than 10 days.