The obsolete, World War II-era Army truck John R. Rattray Sr. called home for a year in Korea was "the most important vehicle we had" because GIs like their chow, the Korean War veteran said.
Rattray, a Gary native, and two other cooks spent all their time in the field from mid-1950 into 1951, preparing some meals — but more often coffee, rice and baked goods — for a 60-man artillery unit and passing infantrymen.
They never had the luxury of mess halls or mess tents during their tour traveling twisting, mountainous roads along the battle zone's ever-shifting front lines. They cooked, cleaned and slept in (or occasionally under) their mess truck, Rattray said.
It was the ultimate cooking challenge, far beyond anything television programmers could concoct.
Staff Sgt. Rattray remembered getting up at 4 a.m. to prepare breakfast on a kerosene stove, completing the task and then being told the unit was moving out immediately. As scarce as rations were, throwing anything away was out of the question. He and his kitchen mates packed everything up to be warmed over and served later.
"Finding water was the most difficult thing," he said.
Potable water for cooking and cleaning was vital while crossing the alternately dusty or muddy terrain.
Since one of their number was an experienced baker, they were among the few mess trucks to serve fruit cobblers.
"Nobody else wanted their flour (allocation). They didn't have any use for it," Rattray said.
Their cobblers gained such renown that Gen. Matthew Ridgway, commander of the U.S. Eighth Army and a champion of artillery-supported assaults, once dropped by for a helping.
The artillery battery with six howitzers always was on the move and just as vulnerable to ambush, wire-strewn booby traps and aerial bombardment as the rest of the convoy.
Rattray, who underwent basic training with the 101st Airborne as a paratrooper, had his closest brush with death from "friendly fire" when the unit's ammo truck became stuck in the mud.
He and others were lifting 155 mm shells from it to lighten its load when they were strafed by U.S. planes. A round came "within 4 feet of me," Rattray said.
He still can't hear any aircraft fly overhead or fireworks without ducking.
As part of the U.S. occupation force in Japan before going to cook and bakers school, Rattray was not trained for combat. He concedes he never developed the aplomb for hostilities he observed in British forces, who reportedly would break for tea in the midst of a pitched battle. British and Canadian troops were part of United Nations forces in their area.
Rattray, who had enlisted in the Army after his sophomore year at Edison High School in 1949, mustered out in 1951. He worked for many years as a pattern maker at East Chicago Pattern until a bout with cancer forced him into early retirement. Thirty years ago, doctors gave him two to five years to live, he said.
He and his wife, who live now in Schererville, had eight children, three boys and five girls, most of whom attended Calumet High School. They have 13 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. Rattray, a former bowler, now spends much of his time with family and gardening.