WITH U.S. TROOPS, SAUDI ARABIA, NOV. 22 -- The U.S. military may have bought 30 tons of Thanksgiving Day turkey for the troops in Saudi Arabia, but the chow truck at the Marine Corps' Sierra artillery battery ran out of bird by the time half the hungry troops had passed the head of the line.
And while military officials said they ordered 70,000 pies, one-fourth of the Marines here found nothing but crumbs on empty pie tins when they reached for dessert.
"This isn't Thanksgiving -- I didn't get any turkey," shrieked Cpl. Leonard Garcia, 21, as he stared at the slab of canned ham that landed next to his instant mashed potatoes.
Miles from the media extravaganza staged around President Bush's Thanksgiving Day visit with troops in Saudi Arabia, the Marines of Sierra Battery were enduring another long, taxing day in the sand.
They awoke in waterlogged sleeping bags, drenched by the condensation of the night's chilled, humid air that had collected on their camouflage netting and dripped mercilessly during the night onto bare heads, cots and equipment.
They gathered twigs from desert scrub brush and built fires to heat water for the gritty cup of instant coffee they hoped would take the edge off the cold dawn.
And just when they thought no one had remembered it was an American holiday, a radio crackled with word of the commanding officer's Thanksgiving Day gift to his troops: "an entire day without having to wear your helmets and flak jackets."
That concession came compliments of the president. But Bush's visit also meant that the soldiers here could not fire their giant howitzers in what was to have been only their second live-fire exercise since arriving here three months ago. The exercise was canceled due to security concerns.
"They wanted his helicopter to be able to fly all over the desert without danger of being shot down by one of his own troops," explained one artillery official.
When a giant, green five-ton truck lumbered across the sand -- 80 minutes late -- with five-gallon vats of Thanksgiving fare, troops emerged from beneath a half-dozen camouflaged hideaways. Usually, they expect little in the way of taste and variety from the dinners and breakfasts that come out of the green tubs lined in the sand next to the hulking delivery trucks.
Today was an exception. They watched the lids come off the insulated vats that are normally filled with canned green beans or mushy rice or macaroni.
"Oh my God!" gasped one Marine. "It's real turkey."
They grinned as the tops were peeled off gallon cans of cranberry sauce and a giant combat knife sliced through apple and cherry pies. Marine cooks and bakers at a field kitchen miles away had spent most of the night churning out the fixings for 15,000 Thanksgiving dinners that were delivered to almost 100 Marine camps scattered across the desert.
Lance Cpl. Bradley Welsch, 21, of Stillwater, Maine, was one of the first through the line. He stood in the sand, devouring the boneless turkey, gravy-covered potatoes, canned corn and cranberry sauce.
"This isn't half bad," he said. "It's closer to Ma's cooking than I thought I'd get. Definitely the best meal we've had since we got here."
Cpl. Spencer Jensen wasn't so lucky. By the time he reached the servers, the turkey vat was bare.
Canned ham proved a poor substitute for a man whose family Thanksgiving morning tradition is to trek into the ridges of the Sierra Nevada near his hometown of Three Rivers, Calif., and shoot wild turkeys for dinner.
For many of the troops here in isolated desert camps, the Thanksgiving dinner eaten off plastic plates while standing in the sand -- using the dusty bumpers of five-ton trucks as dining tables -- was the most melancholy reminder yet of what they left at home.
"This is what I've missed the most: sitting down with my family and having a nice dinner," said Cpl. Andrew Johnson, 22, of Liberty, Mo.
That, said battery commander Lt. Bill Schulz, is why his gunners, mechanics and other artillery troops continued routine training today, despite the holiday.
"It's better than sitting around moping about what's going on at home," he remarked.
So this morning, a few hours before their holiday meal, several dozen Marines were sitting on the sand for morning classes.
"Happy Thanksgiving," welcomed the instructor. "Today we're here to show you how to destroy your ammunition so it can't be used by the enemy if you're overrun."
Other units did try to create a special holiday atmosphere in their spartan camps, tents and mess halls.
The Army's 82nd Airborne Division conducted its "first annual" Desert Classic 10-kilometer run -- at 6 a.m. One Air Force unit based near a major Saudi city collected money for a caterer to serve Thanksgiving dinner, complete with table linens and silverware, in its mess hall. An artillery battalion in the Army's 24th Infantry Division scheduled a day of football and other sporting events.
And, of course, there were the lucky unit representatives selected to be among the 6,000 troops to dine with the president and first lady. Those Marines, most of them the top achievers in their units, were ordered to shave before they left for the televised dinner and to bring their own sandbags because there weren't enough chairs to go around.
For those who couldn't attend, Armed Forces Radio and Television Service broadcast all three of Bush's speeches live. Only a handful of the men in this distant Marine unit here were able to pick up the broadcasts, however, because the midday heat weakens the signal.
But Bush's presence at a rear headquarters area 50 miles away was enough to stir debate among the Marines.
"I think it was very risky for him to come over here," said one Marine as he ladled globs of mashed potatoes on plates. "I think it shows he cares."
Others, like Lance Cpl. Brian Kyle, a native of Fresno, Calif., was skeptical of Bush's brief exposure to desert life.
"He should come live with us for a week, but he can't go fishing out here," he said.
After their midafternoon holiday chow, the Marines went back under their camouflage nets and began packing up to move to a new desert position at nightfall.
Their plans for Thanksgiving night once they settle into a new spot on sand?
The desert-hardened Marines said they would pop the tops on the cans of non-alcoholic "near beer" left over from dinner, settle down on comfortable canvas cots, tune in Armed Forces Radio and try to catch the Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys football game that was to air live at midnight local time.
Cpl. Angel Rios of Puerto Rico, a Redskins fan by virtue of his distaste for the Cowboys, observed, "We may not have listened to the president, but we're not going to miss the football game."