Navy Mess: Chicken Salad Sunday

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Image of US Naval Training Center Orlando Boot Camp Mess Hall: Not how it looked on Chicken Salad Sunday

There is a particular day in boot camp that stands out for me, and not in a good way: Chicken Salad Sunday.*

I arrived at US Naval Training Center Orlando for Boot Camp in June of 1977. Florida was hot and muggy, very buggy, and a far cry from what were much more familiar and friendly summers in northern California.

A Rare “Treat”

We had been at boot camp for several weeks, marching on the grinder and sweltering in the swampy Florida heat, before the mess cooks decided to serve up something cold for lunch. There was palpable excitement as Training Units lined up and the word was passed along that instead of a hot dish there was chilled chicken salad on the menu.

Even slathered in gallons of mayo, that chilled mound looked downright heavenly sitting on the other side of the sneeze guard.

It looked so damned good that almost every single recruit held out their plates for a heaping helping of cool goodness. Including me.

But, as luck would have it, when I lifted the first forkful to my mouth, I found I couldn’t get it past my nose. What appeared to be a blissful forkful of refreshing foodstuff smelled like someone’s filthy, drilled-in-all-day-and-night-with-trench-foot socks. No matter how mouth-watering it had looked, I could not force myself to eat it. While, all around me, recruits sat shoveling in cool gobs of chicken salad. How they managed it, I could not fathom, because the smell was so bad I completely passed on lunch that day.

Literally A Navy Mess

Things did not go well for my bootcamp shipmates, who had eaten the chicken salad. One by one, they succumbed to a gut-wrenching illness that twisted their insides and spilled their guts.

Because I had not partaken of the lunch special of the day, I was one of the people still able bodied enough to help comfort and carry my fellow sailors out to waiting vehicles to be sent for treatment. All available ambulances were kept so busy, jeeps, trucks and even staff members’ personal cars had to be used to ferry the hundreds who had taken ill to sickbay and/or the hospital, depending on the severity and level of affliction.

Afterward, those few of us who had not eaten the chicken salad also had to clean and swab up the mess left by those who had. To be honest, it was such a nasty job, there were moments that night when I wondered if I would have been better off had I eaten the damn salad.

Training was cancelled the next day, because of the huge number of recruits who had taken ill. Reports came back that over 900 recruits had been food poisoned. While most were released back to the barracks within 24 hours, several were extremely ill and had to be kept in the hospital for days. We heard that one person nearly died.

Sailor Beware Chicken Salad Sunday

That day became known to us only as Chicken Salad Sunday. A day that, for those of us who lived through it, will forever live in infamy (and disgust).

Years later, I read somewhere that several individuals had their careers ruined by the mishandling of the chicken at Naval Training Center Orlando. The chicken had apparently been thawed and refrozen prior to being used to make that cool and inviting (shiver) summer dish.

Although, to this day, I still don’t understand, no matter how attractive it appeared, how anyone managed to get past the smell to eat it.


*This content was previously published on my past blog and has been revised and reprinted.

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