Jul 13

Drink to the Foam: The Navy’s Extensive History with Alcohol

Friday, July 13, 2018 12:01 AM

By

If you decided to sign up as a seaman in the U.S. Navy 156 ago today, you would have found a “gill of spirits”– about a quarter pint of hard liquor– included in your daily food ration. The day after swearing in, however, you may have wound up disappointed: on 14 July 1862, Congress passed a law which banned spirit rations and required sailors to purchase their own liquor. Sailors were compensated with a 5-cent increase in daily pay.

Congress’ abolition of the spirit rations marks an early episode in the tumultuous, centuries-long relationship between alcohol and the U.S. Sea Services. Today, alcohol remains an ever-present tradition of sea-going heritage. Here are highlights of the centuries-long relationship between service and spirits:

  • Rations

Originally, Congress provided a quarter-pint of spirits in the daily ration of all service members. However, in 1862, the ration was abolished. Among Western navies, the U.S. was the first not to provide its sailors with alcohol. [1]

Crew of the USS Yorktown enjoy a beer ashore during a much-needed rest (1943).

Crew of the USS Yorktown enjoy a beer ashore during a much-needed rest (1943).

  • Dry Ships

In 1914, the Navy, in addition to the non-issuance spirit rations ordered by Congress in 1862, directed in General Order No. 99, no alcoholic beverages allowed on board any naval vessel, or any naval installation. Thus the Navy became, in effect, a dry institution. [2]

Officers share a rare beer on board USS Saratoga after a strike raid (1943).

Officers share a rare beer on board USS Saratoga after a strike raid (1943).

  • Proof

The British Royal Navy dealt with alcohol in a different way. Until 1970, British sailors received rations of 99.5 proof rum, from a traditional wooden cask labelled “The Queen, God Bless Her.” Rum rations were originally intended to help sailors find comfort during times of rough seas, and eventually developed into a tradition of the service.

The term “proof” came from the process of pouring Navy-issued rum onto gunpowder and then checking to see if the gunpowder would light. If it did, then this was considered “proof” that the alcohol was of sufficient concentration. [3]

A Royal Navy petty officer has a drink on an airfield in Antigua (1943).

A Royal Navy petty officer has a drink on an airfield in Antigua (1943).

  • Prohibition

Less a decade after alcohol was outlawed on U.S. Navy ships, the 18th amendment passed which outlawed it for the entire country. Rum-runners (ships that smuggled liquor) proved to be a constant and belligerent problem. In order to intercept them, the U.S. increased the size of the Coast Guard, adding 20 cutters, 200 cabin cruisers, 91 motorboats, and 3500 new personnel. [4]

Bullet holes riddle the window of the rumrunner "Whispering Winds" after a run-in with the Coast Guard (1931).

Bullet holes riddle the window of the rumrunner “Whispering Winds” after a run-in with the Coast Guard (1931).

  • To the Grog!

Today, alcohol retains a role in U.S. Navy tradition, albeit far more professional and controlled than in days of old. At dining-ins and dining-outs, formal events meant to build camaraderie within a command, Sailors are often “sent to the grog” for breaking one of the event’s many rules. The grog is typically an unappetizing concoction, either alcoholic or non-alcoholic, meant to disgust the rule-breaker.

Grog originated on Royal Navy Ships. The beverage traditionally consisted of rum diluted with water, and was named after Admiral Edward Vernon. He earned the nickname “Old Grog” by wearing a recognizable coat of grogram and, after he introduced the men under his command to watered rum instead of the usual undiluted spirits, his nickname was passed on to the drink. [5]

For over 100 years, the USNA Officers Club has hosted dining-in events; in this room, countless midshipmen and officers have been sent to the grog.

For over 100 years, the USNA Officers Club has hosted dining-in events; in this room, countless midshipmen and officers were sent to the grog.

Of course, throughout the histories of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, alcohol also produced its fair share of trouble: liberty incidents, improper influence, and alcoholism caused headache and heartbreak over the years, damaging, at times, the reputation of the sea services and their remarkable service members. While alcohol constitutes an instrument of great tradition, it must always be used with due wisdom and frugality. In observance of these traditions, remember to be safe, be smart, and drink to the foam!

[1]https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/37th-congress/c37.pdf

[2]https://news.usni.org/2014/07/01/hundred-years-dry-u-s-navys-end-alcohol-sea

[3]https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1970-07/abolition-rum-ration

[4]https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1968-05/toast-rum-fleet

[5]https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1959-08/story-grog-royal-navy

Photos courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute.

 
 
 
  • Regina Buie Sensabaugh

    Memories abound of my time in the Navy.