Roamer: Living history by cooking steak and brewing Joe on a lid, pot or bowl

North Coast reader Michael Gilmore recently provided us with a lively description of his full-size model of a WWII American officer’s Portrush billet.

North Coast reader Michael Gilmore recently provided us with a lively description of his full-size model of a WWII American officer’s Portrush billet.

His US captain’s ‘living history’ bedroom, with all its military accoutrements and poignant paraphernalia, is on display in Ballymoney Museum’s ‘Fate Of Our Nation’ exhibition until the end of this month.

Alongside the billet is a uniformed mannequin bearing full battle-front equipment and topped with an iconic US army helmet.

“I recently spotted a black and white picture of American GI’s using their ‘M1 lids’ for something other than head protection,” Michael told Roamer earlier this week.

The photo showed the GIs using their ‘lids’ (helmets!) for cooking.

“I gave it a go, as authentically as possible,” Michael added, “and I must say the results were very acceptable.”

Today’s page is Michael’s entertaining account of his triumphant attempt to equal or even surpass the Americans’ culinary dexterity!

Very aptly, he discovered his M1 helmet at this year’s Ulster Military Vehicle Club Show in Portrush but “it had no liner, no bales for chin straps, no discernible markings and three holes, one at each side and one at the top,” Michael explained with the customary military precision of a member of the Wartime Living History Association. (W.L.H.A.)

“In other words, the helmet was totally useless!” he added.

“A sensible man would have put it down and walked away,” Michael admitted, “But I didn’t. I gave the bloke a fiver and went away happy!”

Michael was well aware that the helmet was “a post-war clone, but clearly an ‘M1 lid’ similar to the model made famous by the US forces in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.”

GIs had other endearing nicknames for their ‘lids’, often referring to them as pots, bowls or buckets!

Michael asked other W.L.H.A. enthusiasts why the helmet had three holes.

“The best suggestion was that maybe some sort of visor bracket had been attached,” they surmised.

“The daftest suggestion I got was that the holes were a field modification to allow a soldier to blow bubbles from his head in battle, thus distracting the enemy!” Michael smiled, evaluating the theory as “unlikely!”

Technically, his was “a helmet shell” bereft of “other component parts which consisted of the liner, made of a fibreglass-like material, and two chinstraps, one leather, one canvas.”

As well as being used for cooking, the M1 was often requisitioned as a washbowl for shaving, or to hammer in tent pegs.

It was also used as a seat!

“In the film Apocalypse Now the soldiers in helicopters are seen sitting on their helmets to protect their lower regions!” Michael explained, listing the M1’s other functions as “a toilet - better than nothing in a foxhole or a tank; a pillow - better than a boulder, and as a frontline weapon - in Saving Private Ryan, an M1 helmet is thrown at a German in the absence of a more lethal weapon!”

The helmet was also used by GIs “as a bucket, and in field cookery as a cooking pot or a fire container,” Michael’s list concluded, prior to his cooking demonstration.

“What I could do with mine was going to be limited by the holes in it,” he thought, before deciding that they “could help ventilate a fire and the whole thing could be used as a cooker.”

He then chose his “WWII foxhole dinner – meat and coffee. Simple but tasty!”

He made “a carry-handle from a coat hanger and prepared the helmet by lighting a fire in it to burn off any paint or contaminants which could potentially flavour or taint my food.”

In case anyone wants to try out Michael’s foxhole recipe and cooking methods, he’s adamant that all the usual precautions for barbequing must be adhered to – properly washing hands and utensils; cooking the food thoroughly; carefully supervising children and taking precautions with fires and hot equipment. Though few readers will have Michael’s authentic US army front-line mess tins and “an original M1926 knife, fork and spoon set!”

He stabilised the round-shaped helmet in a small pan, coated its ‘bowl’ with a bed of wood chips, added a firelighter, and “built the cooking fire, pyramid style, inside the helmet. You can imagine how difficult this part of the meal effort could be in a foxhole in cold, wet and miserable conditions with maybe a damp fuel-tablet and wet matches!”

Using butter he “unceremoniously slapped” his “piece of ‘reduced to clear’ cheap-cut steak into the pan” thinking poignant thoughts of a WWII battlefront where “meat could have been anything unfortunate enough to fall within a soldier’s reach – anything with more legs than a soldier and that had a tail!”

From gathering together his vintage equipment and preparing his foxhole food the whole process took about an hour.

“Along the way my meat picked up some wood ash, passing plant material and some non-descript crunchy bits,” Michael admitted, “but the first bite was amazing. The rest of it was fantastic.

He finished with coffee.

Michael’s was “strong, roasted, ground beans with the flavour stewed out of it. I’m talking ‘Joe’ here – with bits!”

‘Joe’, mentioned on this page recently, was the US Army slang for coffee “boiled in an enamel pot placed in the flaming helmet. Man it was strong!”

At the height of battle Michael’s ‘living history’ helmet-cooked steak would have been impossible.

“A hot, freshly-cooked meal with coffee would have been a rare and wonderful thing,” he mused movingly.