Coffee is a way of life for the American Sailor. No other food or drink comes close to approximating its role in shipboard life. It is the one constant—24/7/365.
Certainly there are many special memories of sustenance in the Navy and Coast Guard psyche—bean soup, steel beach barbecues, pizza at seaward Happy Hour (mostly a Coast Guard tradition), Z-burgers, chipped beef on toast (though SOS, as it is known, actually has Army origins), and holiday dinners.1 But by and large those are special occasions. Coffee, on the other hand, is truly a daily ritual.
The Continental Congress declared coffee to be America’s national drink in the wake of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, when the Sons of Liberty dumped English tea imports into Boston Harbor. That protest—of both excessive taxes and a government-engineered monopoly on the tea trade for the British East India Company—had actually been spawned in a coffeehouse. Thus has coffee been prominent in the national identity since before there was a nation.
Any reading of American military history, on land or sea, from the time of the Revolution forward, indicates that coffee has been at all times a supply necessity, invariably listed with the staples of flour, salt, and beef. Characteristically, Commodore George Dewey’s flag captain in the Olympia at Manila Bay—Captain Charles Gridley—in his official report of the engagement on 1 May 1898, wrote in the fourth sentence, amid other descriptions of final battle preparations and approach to contact, “At 4 A.M. of May 1 coffee was served out to officers and men.” For he had to be prepared when Dewey uttered his famous phrase: “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” Coffee was part of that readiness.
Not surprisingly, references to coffee are prominent in the literature of the sea. The Victorian novels of R. M. Ballantyne and G. A. Henty own a good many references to it. Roughly a century later, Captain Sam Lombard-Hobson noted in his 1983 World War II memoir, A Sailor’s War, there was nothing like strong coffee, “black as ink and hot as hell,” to keep the watch watchful on cold nights in the North Atlantic. Coffee was and is important to operational readiness—physically, psychologically, and even spiritually.
The Tot of Rum—and How It Disappeared
Coffee, however, was not always the most popular drink among American Sailors. The favorite had first been hard spirits and beer. The early U.S. Navy, like every other navy worthy of the name, had been modeled on Britain’s Royal Navy. And of course that meant the daily tot of grog—rum diluted with water. The British kept that tradition until 1970, when it was determined that sophisticated electronics were not well-attended by individuals with a Pusser’s Rum buzz.
Rum, then, was an important staple of the U.S. Navy for much of its existence. Captains were afforded great discretion in its distribution, and on occasion Kentucky bourbon was employed. Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, assuming the office in 1801, substituted American-made sour mash for the West Indies rum, and found that Yankee Sailors favored it. But in 1862, during the Civil War, hard-liquor rations were discontinued. Two years later, General Order No. 29 put restrictions on beer, ale, and wine; they could be brought aboard only with the captain’s permission. A later regulation allowed officers to form their own wine messes, however, so while it is not known precisely how permissive captains may have been, generally, in allowing drinking privileges to the crew, wine for officers at mealtime remained a customary and daily part of shipboard routine.
That all abruptly changed in 1914, during President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. His Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels—a teetotaler—issued General Order No. 99, banning alcoholic beverages from all naval property, effectively abolishing even the sacred officers’ wine mess. It was hardly a popular change, even with John Q. Public. The New York Tribune depicted Daniels, in cartoons, as “Admiral of the USS Grapejuice Pinafore.” A verse of an old Navy song, “The Armored Cruiser Squadron,” was parodied thusly:
Josephus Daniels is a goose,
If he thinks he can induce
Us to drink his damn grape juice
In the Armored Cruiser Squadron.
As one might expect, such cultural upheaval also spawned numerous legends and tales, the authenticity of which is often difficult to confirm. For example, perhaps because Daniels’ name was for some time so closely associated with grape juice, a widely repeated anecdote has it that after instituting his ban, the Secretary substituted grape juice in the wine messes—an action that lives on today in the form of the Navy’s omnipresent “bug juice.” Most of the sentiments applied to General Order No. 99 are lost to memory, however, and that is probably a good thing—given Sailors’ capacity to get at the ribald heart of things.
Yet another such link to Daniels persists in Navy lore. The popular American slang for coffee—“a cup of Joe”—is held to be an apt and direct association to the abstemious gentleman who unwittingly had a hand in ushering in a new and even greater drinking obsession. Regardless of that story’s veracity, there can be no denying that while coffee had long been an integral aspect of life in commissioned ships, the banishment of alcohol made it an essential ritual. Coffee replaced the daily rum tot (or the mealtime wine) with numerous caffeine tots—all the day long.
Coffee, Coffee, Everywhere
Coffee has long been a democratic drink. Indeed, England’s King Charles II called coffeehouses “seminaries of sedition.”2 The U.S. Navy—and the American military in general—seems always to have owned fewer inherent class distinctions than foreign counterparts. In World War II it was not uncommon for Allied sailors to comment on the easier relationship between officers and enlisted men of the American armed forces than in their own services. Coffee had a hand in that.
Prior to the Civil War–era elimination of liquor rations and Secretary Daniels’ 1914 ban on all alcohol, the tools of relaxation were beer, rum, or bourbon for the lower deck and wine for the officers. After 1914, it was—democratically—coffee for all hands. An arbitrary distinction had been cast aside.
American Sailors, ever quick to espy and exploit an opportunity to make a hard life of hard lying a bit easier, made coffee messes afloat as prominent and omnipresent as a Sailor’s knives, word passed over the 1MC, and errant OODs being chewed out on the bridge wing by the Old Man. By the time of World War II, there were coffeepots on the bridge, in the engine room, in CIC, in the boiler room, in the ship’s office, in the supply office, in the armory, and in the machine shop. Probably in other places, too.
In the vast buildup following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy quickly established its own coffee-roasting plants in Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, New York. Another was later established in Hawaii. The wartime Navy took coffee quite seriously. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, most of Hawaii’s kona crop was purchased by the U.S. Navy, in one of those cases where a young officer was told to just get the job done and damn the lesser consequences.
Retired Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Fred Siegel, whose “Fred’s Place” Web site unites Coast Guardsmen with one another and links up with the wider armed forces community via www.military.com, has remarked on the fact that so many sea stories seem to include coffee. One scribe on the site wrote, typically: “For any sailor, coffee is a holy substance blessed by King Neptune himself and gifted with the power to jumpstart any watch-stander to a level of alertness that ensures success. While engines run on diesel, I’m convinced that some boatswain’s mates run only on coffee.”
In the End, What's Not to Like?
But it is not just the ubiquity of coffee around ships, and its stimulus to watchfulness, that create its lore and welcome place among Sailors. Consider the following:
• For a young officer to be invited into the chiefs’ mess for coffee is a genuine mark of approval.
• Asked into the cabin—and then offered coffee—means that nothing bad is about to happen to you.
• One’s own coffee mug in the wardroom is a sign of belonging.
• The quality of the coffee is always an opportunity for safe conversation.
• Amid a long and difficult evolution at sea, the serving of coffee is a testament to the seriousness of the endeavor, and the need for continued strength. When that evolution has been completed, coffee is the celebratory drink.
• When a guest comes aboard and just cannot abide the strength of shipboard coffee, it really is funny, providing a healthy feeling of superiority. As Nicholas Monsarrat put it, “Sailors ought to be running the world.”3
• Your hand around a hot mug on a cold and wet day is one of life’s quiet joys.
• When you are not sure which mission to tackle next, getting a “cuppa” gives you time to think. Even the XO won’t begrudge you that. Usually.
• The chiefs will always have the best coffee (as well as the best of everything else). That is why they are chiefs. And, of course, they don’t have the disparity of age and experience that a wardroom has.
No matter how rotten the seaward day (or night) may have been, coffee is a solace. George MacDonald Fraser wrote, quite accurately, “That’s the hellish thing about shipboard life—there is nowhere to hide your carcass or your nature.”4
But there is always a cup o’ Joe.
1. “Z-burger” is a service-academy term for lunchtime hamburgers—a meal said to have a guaranteed sleeping-pill effect for afternoon classes. Its origin is the Coast Guard Academy, but it has made its way elsewhere—including some restaurants in the South and Pacific Northwest.
2. In 1675 Charles II attempted to shut down England’s coffeehouses, fearing they could spawn revolutionary activities. But the public outcry forced him to rescind the order two days before it was to take effect.
3. Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1956). Monsarrat served as executive officer to Captain Sam Lombard-Hobson, aforementioned author of A Sailor’s War.
4. George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman on the March (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).