ABOARD USS PELELIU --
The mess decks aboard the USS Peleliu (LHA-5), open 24 hours-a-day, serve four meals a day without fail.
The Marines and sailors of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, dependant on the services in the mess decks, often overlook their fellow shipmates who enable the smooth flow of traffic through the chow lines on a continuous basis.
‘Mess Duty’, infamous for long hours and thankless in its responsibility, is known to most junior Marines and sailors as a 30-day lesson on the laborious side of ship-life.
The up-side, according to Staff Sgt. Javier Hernandez, the mess chief for Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 15th MEU, is having a direct impact on the welfare of the Marines and sailors aboard USS Peleliu by preparing and serving hearty, nutritious meals to fuel the continuous operations aboard ship.
“(Mess duty is) not just about cleaning pots and pans. A lot of it is to maintain a very high standard of hygiene and sanitation,” said Hernandez. “An aircraft doesn’t always have to fly, a Marine doesn’t always have to go onto land to complete a mission and vehicles don’t always have to roll out, but every single person on this ship will always eat. This mess deck will not shut down for any reason,” said Hernandez.
In addition to providing sustenance, four squares a day with cold drinks and tasty desserts, the Marines and sailors serving on the mess decks of the Peleliu strive to create a welcome atmosphere and morale raising spirit to all comers, according to Hernandez.
“We want everyone to be here together, I think it’s good for morale. Food service is a morale booster on ship,” Hernandez said. “You know that one Marine who is working a long shift day, and he say’s you know what ‘I want to eat something that’s hot, something that’s going to give me nourishment,’ and it might be that day with an ice cream social. They come in and say ‘Wow, that’s exactly what I wanted’,” continued Hernandez, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The combined mess decks, one for enlisted Marines and sailors E-6 and below, another for enlisted Marines and sailors E-7 and above, one for officers and one for senior officers, prepare and serve about 2,400 trays per meal every day. On average the Marines and sailors of USS Peleliu consume over one thousand pounds of meat or poultry during every meal and almost a ton of fruit and vegetables a day, according to food service leading Petty Officer 1st Class Martin M. Malana.
“On this mess deck alone, we serve at least twelve-hundred pounds of chicken for one meal. As far as beef, we break out, for one meal, at least a thousand pounds, and for turkey we break out at least eleven-hundred to twelve-hundred pounds,” said Malana.
“For potatoes we use approximately four to five hundred pounds a day. For fruits we usually break out a pallet to a pallet and a half a day, or about eighteen hundred pounds put together. We’re putting it out twenty-four hours a day while underway,” said Malana, a native of Dumaguete, Philippines.
The quantities of food aside, the real importance of a reliable food-service section aboard USS Peleliu is the hand-in-hand partnership between Marines and sailors who serve daily on the mess deck, according to Malana.
“In regards to the sailors and the Marines, they’re working as a team. They begin to appreciate people who they are not really exposed to, how they deal with their superiors,” said Malana. “Blending in both the Marines and the Navy, it gives them the opportunity, on both sides, to see each others work ethics. It’s a matter of coordination.”
Mess duty, generally assigned to junior Marines of all the major subordinate elements of the 15th MEU, lasts 30 12-hour days. The work does not stop when the sun goes down, however, as a second crew of mess men work through the night in preparation for the following day.
Some duties of the night workers include cleaning and stocking as well as preparation of foods for the day crew, according to Cpl. Lazaro Hernandez, food service specialist, BLT 2/5, a night crew cook aboard USS Peleliu. The work at night helps facilitate the smooth operations during the first meal of the day and less work for the day crew in preparation of daytime meals swamped by the majority of those aboard.
“Usually we help (the day crew) with whatever they have to do during the day. I, as a baker, help them with whatever they are going to serve for lunch or dinner,” said Cpl. Hernandez. “Every night we make bread, pastries and cakes - about five or six thousand portions,” continued Cpl. Hernandez.
The night crew also takes care of the night workers of different sections throughout the ship with mid-rats, the first meal of the day for night owls, said Cpl. Hernandez, a native of Houston.
Collateral duties involved in the success of the mess decks include the bake-shop, where the ship’s bread and desserts are created from scratch, and the scullery where Marines and sailors wash and sanitize trays and utensils for use on the mess-decks.
“Mess men help out the cooks by cleaning and helping with the food. It’s a lot of work. There are about 2,000 people on ship, maybe more,” said Cpl. Hernandez. “We don’t have enough cooks. We have a lot of food going in and out and we have to move food around and we can’t do that by ourselves, we have to have help.”
The Camp Pendleton, Calif.- based 15th MEU is comprised of approximately 2,200 Marines and sailors and is a forward deployed force of readiness capable of conducting numerous operations, such as Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations, Humanitarian Assistance Operations and a wide range of amphibious missions. The 15th MEU is currently deployed aboard USS Peleliu (LHA-5), USS Dubuque (LPD-8) and USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52).