Whitesburg KY

Food poisoning on Thanksgiving Day at Sampson Air Force Base

I’m sure that many veterans from Letcher County taking their basic training in1951 at Sampson Air Baker, N.Y., haven’t forgotten Thanksgiving day, especially if they ate dinner in the E area chow hall.

On holidays, essential services in the military never shut down. My printing department worked a skeleton crew that day. I took my lunch to work and as it was Thanksgiving Day, I let all my crew go to the chow hall. After they returned, they were complaining of stomach pain, and a couple of them were throwing up.

I called the dispensary and told them my men ate in the E chow hall and everyone was very sick. The doctor told me to send my men over and he would give them penicillin pills. He also told me he was sending someone to the chow hall to investigate and get some samples for culturing.

My men later told me that when they got to the dispensary, the place was mobbed. A line of airmen extended to the outside. I learned that a few hundred men had showed up. I suspect that the majority of them weren’t sick. Many were probably the victims of their own imaginations — a guy’s buddy gets sick and then he feels sick.

The medics were swamped. Since there were so many men in line, they couldn’t do their third-degree interrogation to determine if a man was really sick. As a result, everybody got penicillin pills. Perhaps that may have helped those whose symptoms hadn’t developed yet. I’m sure the pills made any hypochondriac in the crowd happy.

Later it was found that one of the cooks had a boil on his neck, and he had unconsciously scratched it and transmitted bacteria to some freshly roasted turkey he was handling. Since food for a large mess hall has to be prepared well enough in advance to meet the onslaught of E-1’s, the bacteria had enough time to grow in sufficient numbers to infect a fair number of the men who ate that day. Lab work confirmed the presence of staphylococcus on some of the turkey samples taken for testing.

Contributing writer Everett Vanover lives in Fairfield, Calif.

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