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Collection Spotlight

World War II Mess Kit

This steel-clad mess kit was recently donated to the Dubuque County Historical Society, complete with 15 plates, 2 bowls, 1 larger platter, and a few smaller pieces. The term “mess kit” simply refers to a set of cooking ware, dishes, and silverware. Mess kits are used by the military as well as campers and backpackers.

The kit belonged to Martin Underwood, a World War II Army soldier who served in the European theater. Like many military personnel, Underwood had unpleasant memories from his wartime experiences and didn’t discuss them, even with his family. During his service, he earned the rank of sergeant major and landed at Normandy under General Patton.

Martin Underwood was born and raised in Ryan, Iowa, attended the University of Iowa, and lived in Iowa City and Davenport for many years. His mother, Anna Underwood, lived in Dubuque. After graduating from college, Underwood was a sales manager for a pen company and sold “fancy pens to farmers in Dubuque and Cedar Rapids,” according to his son.

After the war, Underwood lived in Chicago and occasionally bumped into gangster Al Capone at the Black Hawk Hotel, according to his son. Later, he worked for Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. It was in Daley’s office in 1960 when he received a call from the Kennedy campaign to become JFK’s advance man – someone who makes arrangements and handles publicity ahead of a visit by a high-profile person.

In November of 1963, Underwood had been assigned to handle President Kennedy’s fateful visit to Texas. Underwood was riding in the Dallas motorcade when the President was assassinated. Immediately after the President’s death, he was sent to obtain the wording for the presidential oath for Lyndon B. Johnson.

Underwood continued working for the White House under President Johnson. He then spent the remainder of his career working in governmental posts in Maryland.

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