For the men and women in uniform who serve our country overseas, it can sometimes be the little things in life we often take for granted that can provide them the comfort they need to carry on in a stressful situation.
The Atlantic recently detailed the role that ice cream has played throughout the history of the U.S. military, starting around World War I but really hitting stride in World War II.
Obviously ice cream was quite a treat for wounded soldiers in hospitals or on evacuation ships, but there are also anecdotal accounts of bomber crews using the cold at high altitudes, as well as engine vibrations and turbulence of flight, to mix up a batch during bombing runs. The Navy even developed a floating ice cream factory out of an old concrete barge in 1945 to serve the troops.
But one war story about ice cream stands out among the rest. On a U.S.S. Lexington aircraft carrier during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, countless sailors raided the ship’s kitchen to partake of the sweet frozen treat after the ship had been hit by Japanese torpedoes and was thought to be about to sink to the bottom of the Pacific.
Merle Lebbs was an electrician’s mate on board the Lexington during that fateful battle in World War II in which 200 of the ship’s crew lost their lives. He recounted in an interview with KFOR of how surreal everything seemed during the stretch of time between the torpedo strike and the order to abandon ship from the captain.
Lebbs recalled an officer breaking the lock off of a freezer door and doling out ice cream to everyone in the vicinity while the battle continued to rage around them and they believed their ship was getting ready to go down.
“He didn’t think anything of it because we were abandoning ship. We just figured we might as well do it,” stated Lebbs. “It’s in my mind. I can remember that so plain.”
Lebbs and about a dozen others ate as much vanilla ice cream as they could before lowering themselves over the sides of the ship to the water below.
The Seahawk Umitaka “newspaper” for the U.S. fleet based out of Yokosuka, Japan, recently shared their own account of the ice cream incident on board the sinking Lexington, in honor of one of that battle’s veterans being laid to rest in the Coral Sea near the Lexington crew’s final resting spot on the sea floor.
That crewmember was Julius “Harry” Frey, and he could very well have been the person Lebbs remembered breaking into the freezer to liberate the ice cream, as Frey had recounted in a 2002 interview how he had used an ax to smash the lock to gain access to the frozen treat.
Frey actually used his helmet as a giant bowl, filled to the brim with pineapple sherbet, which he then brought up to the flight deck to share with some of his fellow sailors as they waited for the order to abandon the stricken ship.
He was eventually plucked from the oil-slicked and debris-strewn sea by a passing destroyer and transported home, where he went on to live a full life, which included becoming a teacher, playing a lot of golf and sharing a bowl of ice cream with his wife, whose cremated remains were laid to rest at sea right beside him and his long-lost shipmates on July 15, 2017.
Ice cream may not seem like much to those of us here in the safety of our homeland, but it can make a world of difference in providing a modicum of comfort and normality, if only for a fleeting morale-boosting moment, for those enduring the stress of combat and war on the opposite side of the world.
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