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NEWS | Sept. 25, 2023

History of the U.S. Military's Dining-In

By Bob Cody, Timothy Koster

The term “dining-in” derives from an old Viking tradition celebrating great battles and feasts of heroes by formal ceremony, which spread to monasteries, early-day universities and to the military when the officer's mess was established. 

In the U.S. Army, Dining-In traditions are very closely related to those of the British Army prior to the American Revolution.  In many instances, more modern British Army Mess procedures have been incorporated into our social events.

The oldest recorded American Dining-In occurred in General Washington’s Continental Army in September 1776.  Despite the colonist’s aversion to anything suggesting Redcoat, continental naval and army officers must have fully realized the value of these occasions in the promotion of pride of service, high morale, and loyalty.

In the regimental mess of the 1920’s, the colonel or senior officer presided and sat at the head of the table with the lieutenant colonel to his right and the adjutant to his left. The other officers were seated on both sides of the table according to rank. Dinner was a formal meal with everyone wearing the uniform prescribed. The officers of the mess assembled and upon arrival of the presiding officer, followed him into the mess and took their seats only after the presiding officer seated himself.

In general, the U.S. Army Dining-In has been more formal and restrained than its usual British Army counterpart. For example, Francis Grose, a one-time adjutant of militia, in his 1782 “Advice to Officers of the British Army” said, "If you belong to a mess, eat with it as seldom as possible, to let folks see you want neither money nor credit. And when you do, in order to show that you are used to good living, find fault with every dish that is set on the table, damn the wine, and throw the plates at the mess-man's head... if you have pewter plates, spin them on the point of your fork, or do some other mischief, to punish the fellow for making you wait."

As with the British Mess, the U.S. Army Dining-In has served as a vehicle for transmitting the histories and traditions to junior officers. This is particularly true in our Army where rotation between units is quite frequent.  The Air Force dining-in custom probably began in the 1930’s with General H. “Hap” Arnold’s “wing-dings.”

The custom of dining together was especially useful in large units in which many officers might not normally come in contact with one another. During dinners they were, however, brought together in a fraternal atmosphere. The mess, besides entertaining guests in the surroundings of traditions and customs of the regiment, served to make the officers aware of the social amenities. Young officers received training which enabled them to give formal entertainment later as senior officers.

Capt. Charles Miller, addressing the 2d Provisional Officers' Battalion of the Army Service Schools at Fort Leavenworth in April 1917, described the mess as follows:

"It should be the place where the colonel and lieutenant meet in the social equality of gentlemen in that camaraderie and good-fellowship which teaches the youngster respect and affection for his seniors, and the elders, kindness and consideration for the juniors; it should be the place where are forged the links that bind the regimental front unbroken to the outside world ...; it should be the place where dwells the spirit and the soul of the principles that have made the regiment and that have preserved intact its prestige, its honor, and its tradition."

In short, the regimental mess became the single, most important means of building esprit de corps and professionalism among the officers. And, just as the officer Dining-In evolved from the traditions of the British military, it also evolved beyond the officer corps. Similar to the officer Dining-In, the senior non-commissioned officer mess was established to give a unit’s enlisted personnel the same opportunity to celebrate each other’s achievements.

This year, the Connecticut National Guard is returning to its Dining-In roots, hosting the 42nd annual NCO Dining-In at the Aqua Turf Club’s Wagon Room, the same location of the state’s first-ever mess. The NCO Dining-In is scheduled for Oct. 5, 2023 and the Officer Dining-In is scheduled for Nov. 2, 2023.