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'Sergeant, can you get some food up to the men?'

Louis H. Vargo was born in Butztown and left Wilson High School in 1934 to work. He got kitchen experience at a Poconos camp and at a prep school in Connecticut, and was working with dietitians at Fordham University in New York when he was drafted during World War II. After Army basic training in the tank corps, he went to cooks and bakers school. He got married in 1943 and left for Europe the next year. Vargo, now 91 and living in Palmer Township, remembers his experience as a mess sergeant with a cavalry reconnaissance squadron during the Battle of the Bulge.

After four or five days on the front line, a soldier has to get rested. The kitchen would feed him hot food in any kind of weather, in the snow and cold and rain, and he'd go right back to the front line.

I was a staff sergeant in the 87th Recon of the 7th Armored Division. I had four cooks and a truck driver under my supervision. We fed 190 men and six officers whenever possible, three times a day.

The kitchen was one truck and a two-wheel trailer, and I had a jeep when I needed one. We mostly stayed out of harm's way, five to seven miles behind the front line.

In December 1944 we were up in Holland, in the city of Heerlen. All was quiet on the western front, and we were going to be billeted in homes for the winter. But that never materialized. The Battle of the Bulge broke out on the 16th.

So now we were on the move, going down to St. Vith, Belgium. Traveling with a kitchen truck and a trailer, you'd get on some rough roads and you'd be bouncing up and down, with the stoves chattering in the truck.

We had a hell of a time getting down to St. Vith. People were evacuating from the area. The 106th Infantry was overrun. They were just trying to get away from there, and the civilians were, too. There was mass confusion, a big traffic jam as they were coming out and the 7th Armored was going in.

About midnight we got into St. Vith. The first sergeant comes up to the kitchen truck, and I said, "Where do you want this truck, Sarge?" He said, "Follow me."

We went off the road and into the woods. He said, "Set up here." It was dark and we couldn't see anything. If we'd gone another 15 feet, we would have dropped down a steep bank.

The next morning we fed the troops.

When you're cooking for 190 men, you can't feed everybody at the same time because if the Germans are shelling you, you don't want a shell to get everybody. So the men come in by platoons.

For breakfast, we'd have to get ready for them at least by 4:30 in the morning. Let's say we were having pancakes. It takes you two hours to make the pancakes. I'd use 15 gallons of mix.

You can't wait till the men come to the serving station. You had to make the pancakes ahead of time. We used our three gasoline-fired stoves and three hot plates. When a pancake was ready, you stacked it aside on a big roasting pan, kept it warm on the back of the stove. The same with French toast.

When the men come through the chow line, you're feeding everybody in 20 minutes. No time to waste.

Pancakes were easy to make, but syrup was another story. If we didn't have any, we'd improvise. We were always issued jam or marmalade. We'd dilute strawberry jam with water, heat it to a certain consistency and that was our syrup.

What else for breakfast? Scrambled eggs, hash brown potatoes and SOS, which was creamed beef on toast. And we ate a lot of Spam. The men always joked: Spam again? But you could do a lot with Spam. You could make a meat loaf out of it. With powdered eggs, you could make an omelet with it.

We always had our main meal at noontime -- spaghetti, meat loaf, beef stew, chicken, ham, rice, noodles, hot dogs and sauerkraut, pork. We'd put the pork in the sauerkraut -- oh, they loved that! The evening meal was not too heavy. Sometimes we'd have mashed potatoes with a beef gravy.

Everything came in cans or was frozen. Potatoes, cabbage were dehydrated. All you did was add water and cook them. Hamburger, chicken came frozen, so you'd have to thaw it out.

We had a long table with all the food on there, and hot water right at the head of the chow line. We heated the water in gasoline-fired immersion heaters that held 32 gallons.

The men would come up to the chow line with their mess kits and canteen cups. It was cold during the Bulge -- wind blowing, 2 or 3 below zero -- so the mess kits and the cups were cold. You put a steak in a cold kit, it doesn't taste like much. So the men would dip their mess kits and their cups into this hot water. And then we'd fill up their mess kits and give them hot coffee. This way the men got hot food.

They'd have to sit on the ground or stand to eat. And when they were through, we put soap into that hot water and they washed their mess kits in it, and we used it to wash pots and pans.

Coffee was a mainstay. We made it in a 20-gallon aluminum kettle. We put the coffee in a pillow case and dumped the case in the boiling water. Afterward, we removed the pillow case from the kettle to use it again for brewing coffee.

Whenever we moved out, we gave the coffee grounds to the civilians, if there were any around. They were just so happy to get these grounds because they could use them again. If there was anything left over after we fed the troops, the captain said, "Give it to the civilians."

You had garbage, and you can't just put garbage out on the ground. You had to dig a hole. I'd go to the first sergeant and say, "I need two pits dug, one for the tin cans and one for the garbage." So he'd send a detail up to the kitchen. Then before we'd leave, we had to cover it up, and we had to put stakes on them to show we'd left something there and identify our unit.

When we knew the men were going into combat and we wouldn't be cooking for them, it was my job to distribute K rations and five-in-one rations among the platoons.

Five-in-one-rations came in a box with enough to sustain five people for three or four days. A lot of different food was in it -- powdered eggs, coffee, biscuits -- even cigarettes, chewing gum, toilet tissue.

The guys used to like to get the box with raw bacon in it. They'd get their mess kits and put it over a little fire. Then they'd have this bacon grease, and they'd get potatoes or eggs from farmers and cook it in the grease.

If the guys were in position on the front line and they couldn't be relieved, the troop commander might say, "Sergeant, can you get some food up to the men?"

We'd cook food and put it into containers, like what you'd use when you go tailgating. I'd send one cook with the containers. It was his responsibility to see that the men up there got their share. He went up in a jeep with a driver that was detailed to him.

Everybody in the Army had the same meal the same day. If it was chicken, everybody had chicken. All you had to do was prepare it according to the Army cookbook. All the meals were furnished by the quartermaster. He made sure we had some kind of wholesome food to feed the troops. He tried to get you rations if not every day, every other day.

It was a big operation. It took about five personnel in the rear echelon to feed one soldier on the front line.

Everything was on trucks, and all the kitchen trucks of the division -- almost a hundred of them -- traveled in a convoy, or what we called a train. Division headquarters passed food and rations to battalion headquarters. Battalion would make sure the distribution was made properly to the companies.

A radio message would come into our squadron headquarters, and they'd have a runner come up to me. "Sergeant, your rations are ready." He'd give me the map coordinates for the ration point, and I'd take a jeep to pick them up.

The only thing that wasn't on trucks was water, and that was an essential commodity. Engineers had to set up a water point near a creek or river. They pumped the water out and then they had to purify it in a vat, which looked like an above-ground swimming pool.

When we reached the area, we'd fill our 5-gallon cans at the water point. When you moved, you were notified by headquarters where the new water point was.

And we were always on the move. We were recon, and they wanted us out on the field right away to reconnoiter.

When we got into an area, we would try to locate a building, maybe a barn or a home that was half blown out -- something out of the wind to put the kitchen in.

In St. Vith, we pulled alongside a bombed-out house and used that for a kitchen headquarters. There was a dead German up in the attic. He'd been a forward observer and was killed when the house was bombed. We took whatever he had for souvenirs and put a blanket over the poor soul.

I don't remember what we did for Christmas. Things were so hectic. One day didn't matter from another.

One night we had fed the troops and we could hear a lot of commotion -- firing and men moaning. The Germans were coming up the road, and we were holding them off. The captain came up to me: "Sergeant, load your men and equipment and get out on the road and get the hell out of here. We're being attacked and I don't want to lose the kitchen."

But there was no signpost on the road saying which way to go. We took a left. Two or three miles down, a jeep pulls up alongside me and he says, "You're going the wrong way! You're going toward the enemy!" I'll tell you, we turned around fast.

I could've very easily been captured. There were a lot of mistakes made in the Army by different people, and I could have been one of them.

Epilogue

Vargo's unit -- D Troop, 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron -- went on to cross the Remagen bridge into Germany in 1945.

But he was evacuated that spring after an injury in Limburg. His left forefinger was smashed while he helped disengage the trailer from the kitchen truck. He came home to the Easton area at the end of the year.

He had no interest in being a cook: "I didn't like the hours," he said.

Instead, he made his living in the cement-making business, including 20 years at a company in Rome, N.Y.

He and his wife, Jackie, had a daughter, Jeri Vargo. Jackie died in 2006.

Vargo belongs to the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.

"We maintained a good relationship with the troops," he said of his wartime kitchen crew. "They knew that we were helping them as much as we could.

"When I was feeding the men, I'd say, "Hey, where's Jack?' He was one of my buddies. "He got it. He's dead.' That made you feel bad. You trained with these fellas for three years. You got to know them. It was hard.

"It was the war."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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