When members of the 1953 3rd Marine Regiment combat swim team were invited to have dinner with their British rivals in the midst of an annual competition, they did not realize the following events would lead to one of the Marine Corps' most honored traditions.
During the competition, Marines from the swim team were invited to attend what the British Royal Marines call a "mess night". It was a tradition that dates back to the days of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
As Gunnery Sgt. Johnnie C. Watkins, the Sergeants Course staff noncommissioned officer in charge at SNCO Academy, Camp Hansen explained, the event has evolved into a distinct celebration unique to U.S. Marines conducting it today.
"The purpose mess night is to recognize and pay homage to the Marines who came before us," the Brunswick, Ga., native explained. "It also gives us a chance as a band of brothers to socialize with one another in our best dress uniform".
The mess night is fashioned to fit a formal gathering with a military flavor present. A Marine is assigned to be president of the mess; he is in charge and controls the flow of events.
The vice-president of the mess, or "Mr. Vice", as the title has come to be known, acts as the enforcer of the president's decisions and also regulates who may speak to the president.
Invited guests are also part of the group. Conventionally, their place is at the head table with the president. The remainder of the participants makes up the mess. They are the heart of the event and are expected to pay fines as the president sees fit for issues brought up by the mess men.
During the formal meal portion of the mess night, members of the mess have the opportunity to charge another mess man with a fine if he has a legitimate reason to.
A mess member must stand at attention and ask Mr. Vice's permission to address the mess. Mr. Vice has the option to turn the request away or to forward it to the president. If the president grants permission, the mess member must state his case on why his comrade must be fined.
If the mess member makes a good case, the president fines the guilty party a certain amount as determined by him, or forces the defendant to perform a show for the mess, Watkins said.
"The president also forces certain members of the mess to perform humorous rituals," Watkins added, "It all depends on how creative the Marine sitting in as president is".
Other procedures also go into the tradition of mess night. It starts with a social hour where Marines of the mess have drinks with one another as well as meet and greet the guests.
The formalities of mess night begin when the mess marches in, followed by the head table guests. Then the fun of mess night begins with the meal. Marines of the mess sit down to a formal dinner, normally Prime Rib. During this time, Marines bring forth outrageous situations to be fined, Watkins explained.
"In the 25 plus mess nights I've been to since I've been a Marine, I've seen a lot of insane situations," Watkins recalls, "For example, I've seen Marines have a pizza delivered to another member of the mess during the meal".
An intermission will then sound after the mess portion of the night, followed by the toasts given by members of the mess. Tributes are given to battles Marines have fought in the past as well as the future, Watkins said.
"The toasts of the mess is what mess night is all about," Watkins mentioned. "It pays honor and respect to all the campaigns the Marine Corps has fought in. The final toast is always to the success of the Marine Corps", stated Watkins.
Other portions of the mess night are included as well. Normally a guest speaker will make a presentation, The Prisoner of War/Missing in Action table is recognized, and the kitchen's head chef will parade the beef in regards to the mess' liking.
For some Marines, mess night is a rare occasion that all Marines should take full advantage of, said Sgt. Iris M. Feliciano, wire noncommissioned officer in charge, communications platoon, 12th Marine Regiment.
"How often do Marines get in their best dress uniform and spend an evening like this with the people they work with?" the Chicago native asked. "It's rare to have everyone from a unit, from the commanding officer to the lowest private, all in one place to socialize with one another", he explained.
Feliciano also feels that mess night is more than just a tradition-- it's a learning experience as well.
"Mess night builds knowledge on customs and courtesies, as well as camaraderie," Feliciano claimed. "One of its purposes is to build Esprit de Corps, and until you're a part of one it doesn't mean much", explained Feliciano.
For those who have not been a part of a mess night, Marines who have been around the Corps several years and attended many mess nights recommend that no one pass up the opportunity to participate in one.
"I strongly encourage all Marines to attend and support a mess night in their unit," said Sgt. Maj. Efrem A. Wilson, director of SNCO Academy. "It's all about educating, training and leading Marines".