There’s an old war story about a G.I. who attended a USO show where one of the acts was a man who consumed unusual items. As the audience watched, the entertainer chewed glass, gobbled nails and even swallowed swords.
Unperturbed by the spectacle, the soldier turned to a friend sitting next him and asked, “But can he digest C-rations?”
Relished and reviled, C-rations fed millions of troops in the field. The iconic green cans were far from home cooking, but they did sustain a fighting man when he was far from home—or at least the mess hall—until 1981, when they were replaced by the Meal Ready to Eat, or MRE.
“If you were in the field, hungry and you could heat them up, they were great—slightly better than shoe leather,” Dick Thompson, vice president of the Vietnam War Foundation & Museum in Ruckersville, Virginia, and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, told War Is Boring. “If you were in garrison where you had a choice, forget about it!”
Napoleon once said an army marches on its stomach. In other words, poorly fed troops fight poorly—food is a force multiplier.
But food preservation for long periods of time and the logistics of moving food to troops on the battlefield are two of warfare’s oldest challenges.
The U.S. military is no different. During the 1930s, the War Department did its best to develop several kinds of compact, long-lasting rations that could feed men in combat.
One was the C-ration, first issued in 1939. It was three cans of different meat and vegetables—field manuals of the time described the contents as having “the taste and appearance of a hearty stew”—and three cans containing crackers, instant coffee and sugar.
It wasn’t Mom’s home cooking, but it was filling. Each complete C-ration contained about 2,900 calories and sufficient vitamins to keep the troops healthy.
C-rations were just one of the letter-coded rations the military issued during World War II. Most soldiers and Marines from that time remember—and detest—the K-rations of the era, which had three separate meal units for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
During the Korean War, C-rations soon eclipsed the K-ration as the most commonly issued field ration.
But the food was boring—“menu fatigue” was the term military dieticians used.
In 1958, the Defense Department created 12 different menus. Each menu contained one canned meat item; one canned fruit, bread or dessert item; one “B unit” that contained items such as crackers and chocolate; an accessory packet containing cigarettes, matches, chewing gum, toilet paper, coffee, creamer, sugar, and salt; and a spoon.
Although the meat item could be eaten cold, even the military conceded the improved ration was more palatable when heated.
The Pentagon dubbed the new rations “Meal, Combat, Individual.” Nobody paid attention—soldiers in the field still called them C-rations.
Troops considered some of the items downright tasty. Canned fruit, canned fruit cocktail, canned baked goods like pound cake and cinnamon nut roll and canned meat items like ham slices and turkey loaf were G.I. favorites.
But one menu item was universally loathed by soldiers—ham and lima beans. It was considered so ghastly that it acquired an obscene nickname— “ham and mo-fo’s” is a polite rendering of its nom de guerre.
“It was an unnatural mix of ingredients,” Vincent Falter, who enlisted in the Army as a private during the Korean War and retired as a major general after 35 years of service, told War Is Boring. “Why not red beans? Navy beans? Any beans other than lima beans?”
Efforts to improve the taste included troops adding heavy doses of Tabasco sauce or serving the ration hot. Falter, who served in the 101st Airborne and commanded various nuclear weapons units in the Army, tells of a time when his men attempted to heat their ham and lima beans on the engine manifolds of their vehicles.
There was just one problem—the soldier tasked with strapping the C-rations to the engines forgot to punch holes in the cans to release the steam.
“A few miles into our road march the cans started exploding,” Falter said. “We were denied permission to stop, shut off the engines and clean up the mess. In less than five minutes we were subjected to a stink that lingered for days, even after repetitive engine cleanings. It smelled something like ham and lima beans.”
Other C-ration menu items earned equally colorful names. G.I.s called beans with frankfurter chunks in tomato sauce “beans and baby dicks.”
Chopped ham and eggs earned the nickname “H.E.s”—high explosives—because of the bloating and gas they caused.
If you didn’t have an engine manifold handy, there were “heat tabs” made of a solid fuel called Trioxane to warm food. If troops ran out of heat tabs, there was always C-4.
Yes, C-4 the explosive. When ignited, a small chunk of it burned like Sterno with a steady, hot flame sufficient to heat food and beverages.
To open the cans, C-rations came with what many consider the Army’s greatest invention—the P-38 can opener.
Some say the P-38 acquired its name from the 38 punctures around the C-ration can that were necessary to open it. Another theory is the can opener performed with the speed of the legendary World War II P-38 fighter plane.
Whatever the origins of its name, the P-38 could do more than open cans. Made of sheet metal, it was just the right size and shape to serve as a tool used to field strip a soldier’s weapon, pry open a jammed lid or dig out an ingrown toenail.
“If you ask any GI from the C-ration era, he will still have his P-38 on his dog tags,” explained Thompson, who flew both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft during the Vietnam War.