Dining In / Out

Expanded History of the Dining-in

Air Force Protocol
from 'Til Wheels are Up'

Expanded History of the Dining-In

Many of our customs, traditions, and procedures are traceable to the earliest warriors. The dining-in is one such military tradition that has its roots in the shadows of antiquity. The pre-Christian Roman Legions probably began the dining-in tradition. Roman military commanders frequently held great banquets to honor individuals and military units. These gatherings were victory celebrations where past feats were remembered and booty of recent conquests paraded. The second century Viking war lords stylized the format of the victory feast. With the exception of the lookout, or watch, the entire clan attended these celebrations. Feats of strength and skill were performed to entertain the members and guests. The leader took his place at the head of the table, with all others to his right and left in descending order of rank.

The dining-in custom was transplanted to ancient England by Roman and Viking warriors, and King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table practiced a form of dining-in in the sixth century. The tradition eventually spread to non-military groups, such as the Saxon nobles of the tenth century and the medieval monasteries. The monks, who followed a more rigid regimen, had their form of dining-in as an integral part of monastic life. The clergy spread the custom to the academies and universities. The British officer corps, with many graduates of these centers of learning, carried the tradition back to military units. The dining-in became increasingly formalized after the first officers' mess was established. It is said that in early 1800s, when England was the reigning power in India, it was an English army post where the dining-in received renewed impetus.

Many early American customs and traditions were British in origin and the military was no exception. British Army and Navy units deployed to the wilderness of America brought with them the social customs and traditions of their service. Included was the formal military dinner referred to as guest night. This pleasant custom provided an opportunity for officers to gather for an evening of good food, drinking, and fellowship. In establishing an independent nation, America's founders borrowed much of the military structure of their adversary, including social customs. The popularity and growth of the tradition in the United States parallels its popularity and growth in Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations, particularly Canada and Australia.

British naval, land, and air units are still active enthusiasts of the dining-in. In fact, many units reportedly hold at least one such function monthly. Some British messes still call the occasion guest night, while others refer to it as dining-in night or band night. Regardless of what the present-day custom may be called, the ceremony and protocol that evolved have remained remarkably similar throughout the British armed forces.

As previously mentioned, the United States dining-in tradition was borrowed form the English by George Washington's Continentals. Despite the colonists' aversion to anything suggesting the 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.

The commander of this Indian outpost had officers under his command who lived on the post, had their own mess hall, but were never around for dinner. Since the local area was more interesting than the post officers' mess, the post commander found himself eating alone many nights. To bring the officers back to the mess and to create camaraderie, the post commander instituted a program whereby all officers would not only dine at least once a month in the mess, but they would dine in full military ceremony.

In the pioneer era of military aviation, the late General H. H. "Hap" Arnold is reported to have held famous parties called Wing-Dings at March Field in 1933, inaugurating the first of these occasions.

The long association of U.S. Army Air Force officers with the British during World War II surely stimulated increased American interest in the dining-in custom. At Royal Air Force stations throughout Great Britain during World War II, the officers' mess was as popular with Army Air Force officers as it had been with the British for nearly a century and a half. As a place to seek leisure in off-duty hours, the officers' mess allowed high spirits and practical joking to be unleashed without restraint. Through close association with British officers, the dining-in increased in popularity among Army Air Force officers.

But while the association of British and American officers during World War II brought the format and protocol of the Army Air Force dining-in custom more in line with the English tradition, the war years also proved to be the high point of dining-in popularity. In fact, Air Force dinings-in steadily declined in frequency until the late 1950s. The decline may have been caused by postwar demobilization, transition of the Army Air Force to the U.S. Air Force, the occupation and reconstruction of Germany and Japan, the Korean War, the deep economic recession following Korea, and other factors diverting attention from military social functions. There was a conscious effort to rejuvenate the USAF dining-in tradition beginning in 1958.

Fortunately, despite the obstacles of the twentieth century, the tradition of dining-in has not died. Veterans of the old days remember and revive the tradition at every opportunity. They recognize the important role these occasions play in preserving the traditions of the Air Force service.

While the dining-in tradition was slowly accepted by American military officers, it is a popular tradition today. The Navy and Air Force call this social affair the dining-in. The Marine Corps and the Coast Guard refer to it as mess night; the Army refers to it as the regimental dinner.