Marching on my stomach

Napolean (or some famous general) said “An army marches on its stomach.”  Obviously this means that you have to feed your soldiers if you expect them to be any use at all.  In World War II, they had the Red Ball Express.  That wasn’t a train; it was a team of truck drivers that ran personnel, fuel, ammo, and food back and forth from the coast, where the Allied headquarters was, to the front lines.  One of my uncles was a driver on the Red Ball Express.  It was dangerous work; they were a favored target of the Nazi Luftwaffe.

But why bring this up?  Well, I’m working on a short story set in World War II, and I needed to know what my heroes (two grunts at the Battle of the Bulge) would have eaten while at Battalion headquarters.  I learned a lot (though not precisely what I needed), and thought, “This information is something that writers and fans of Weird World War stories (like me) would find interesting.  Why don’t I share it?”  I have always intended to write articles on real history on this blog.  Might as well start now.

Quick Note:  unless otherwise indicated, the information I have found is for the U.S. armed services.  Other countries may have used different sorts of classifications, and I don’t have the space here to fit in anything even close to comprehensive information.

So, the first thing I learned is that the WWII army soldier’s food was divided into two groups:  garrison rations and field rations.  The names make it obvious:  garrison rations are what the soldier would get at base or in a permanent garrison. Field rations was food that could be prepared out in the field or anywhere away from a permanent base.

Garrison rations are pretty much what you’d imagine.  Since they had a permanently built and well stocked kitchen, they could have more fresh fruit and veggies, frozen foods (permanent kitchen means refrigerators!).  Pretty much the same sorts of food you’d find in any cafeteria used to feed hundreds of men (school food, hospital food, etc).

Next we get into the field rations, which were broken down by letter:  there were A rations, B rations, C rations, D rations and K rations.

A rations were the best.  They were basically a portable version of the garrison kitchen.  It was used almost exclusively by field HQ type units, and consisted of as much fresh food as they could purchase from local suppliers, supplemented by canned and dried goods from quartermaster.  Again, we’re talking institutional food, sometimes good, sometimes less so.  One article I read talked about the mess serving battered, fried eggplant cutlets, because the eggplant was plentiful and cheap when bought from the local farmers.  The author was of Mediterranean descent, and was glad to gobble up these cutlets; his buddies, who were not familiar with this particular delicacy, were less thrilled, and a lot was wasted.

B rations were the same as an A ration, only without the fresh fruit and veg.  This was for field kitchens outside a garrison, or for places where refrigerating foods was not possible.  All the food that normally be fresh was now canned or dried.  The food was pretty much the same as the A ration, only substituting out the fresh food.  The menus were the same, more or less, and the preparation was done by kitchen specialists.

Both the A and B rations had variations for hospital units, with boosted vitamins and minerals and extra food to encourage healing.  There was also one called a “dental ration,” consisting of an all liquid diet for those who had broken jaws or otherwise couldn’t manage a solid diet.

C rations from World War II

From here, we move on to the infamous C ration.  This is basically a pack lunch for the soldier on the go.  Only with breakfast, lunch and a few comfort items added.  Strangely enough, this idea came from soldiers disobeying orders.  During World War I, food in the military was divided into three groups:  garrison rations (same as above), field rations (for field kitchens) and Iron rations.  The iron rations (called iron because it was in cans), an idea we borrowed from the British, were issued to the soldiers, on the understanding that it was to be saved for an emergency situation, like getting stuck behind enemy lines or anywhere the soldier couldn’t get back to a field kitchen.

And here’s where the disobedience comes in.  The soldiers didn’t bother waiting for a real emergency.  Anytime they were hungry and getting back to a field kitchen was inconvenient, they’d go ahead and dig into the iron rations.  For a while the brass found this annoying.  But eventually they said, “You know what?  This is a good idea!” After a bit of tinkering with the system, the C-Ration was born.

So why was the C ration so hated?  Because it was only designed to feed the soldier for three days.  After three days, it was expected that the soldier would be back at some field kitchen for a proper meal.  In anticipation of this, the C ration only had three possible menus.  The problem was that the men didn’t stick to the schedule.  Can you imagine living on the same three meals over and over again for a month?  No.  Just no.

According to my reading, a C ration would contain:

  • in the first can:  a main course of meat and veggie stew or corned beef hash or pork and beans (later on, franks and beans and spaghetti in tomato sauce were added)
  • The second can:  bread and a dessert of some sort (canned fruit was typical)
  • The third can:   cigarettes, hard candy, toilet paper, crackers, instant coffee, and sugar.  There was also usually a P-38 can opener to help open other cans (how you’d open the can to get out the can opener is not something I think they thought through completely).

Each soldier was issued three C rations per day, enough for three meals.  Savvy soldiers wrote home and had their families send them little jars of salt, pepper, garlic powder and other spices to goose the incredibly bland food.  (seriously, can you imagine surviving a year, breakfast, lunch and dinner, on Chef Boyardee, Dinty Moore and Van de Camp’s?  No, thanks)

Technically, these C rations could be eaten cold, but the men found ways to heat it up.  Stick a couple holes in the top of a can and toss it on a fire, setting it into boiling water, whatever they could manage.  One clever fellow I read about would take an empty can, fill it with gasoline, set that on fire, and voila!  instant hibachi!  My uncle, the one who drove on the Red Ball Express, told a funny story on himself regarding the C ration.  He said he had a can of pork and beans for his lunch one day.  He was in the habit of putting the can under the hood of his truck, laying it on the engine manifold, because that manifold (where the exhaust connects to the engine) gets hella hot, and it would heat up his meal.

So anyway, he put his lunch in the truck to get warmed up and off he drove.  But en route the convoy was attacked.  Not wanting to get his ass shot, Uncle climbed under the truck and hid there.  Problem:  he had been in a hurry that morning, and had forgotten to put a couple vent holes in the can of beans.  About the time he got under the truck, that can exploded and splattered his head and face with red hot pork and beans.  He started screaming in terror, thinking he’d gotten his head blown off, until he figured out what had actually happened.

Not the brightest or sharpest knife in the drawer, was my uncle.  But I’m sure he meant well.

Since the Iron ration had become the C ration, the D ration came along to take the Iron ration’s place.  This, surprisingly enough, was just a chocolate bar, usually Hershey brand.  It wasn’t what you’d buy in the store nowadays though; they made it into a pretty thick brick.  It was made with a lot of oat flour to make it less melty; you could conceivably carry it in your pocket indefinitely without it going to goo. It was also pretty nasty, and on purpose.  When the army asked Hershey’s to make them, they asked that they be made as flavorless as could be managed; this was to keep the soldiers from gobbling them down as a treat, instead of saving them for a proper emergency.  Of course, the soldiers hated them, and who can blame them?  There was also a variant D ration that was mixed with other adulterations to make it tolerate much higher heat; this was called the Tropical Bar.

Next we have the K ration.  This was designed for paratroopers, artillery, couriers, and others that were in highly mobile occupations.  It was the same idea as a C ration, a packaged meal, but with the difference that the K ration could be slipped into the pocket and eaten on the go, invariably cold.  This is where Spam comes into the picture.  It was one of the available meat components of the K ration.  Along with it, a typical lunch would also have a can of processed cheese, some crackers, some candies, gum, powdered lemonade mix, cigarettes, toilet paper, instant coffee and sugar.

The C ration was the standard food that a soldier ate.  There were a couple variants on it, besides the K  There was the Jungle ration, which was a C ration that had been modified to be used in tropical environments.  There was little canned food; most of the food was dried or dehydrated, to make it shelf stable in high heat and humidity.  These were not individula meals; instead they were packaged in four packs, to feed four soldiers at a time. A typical Jungle ration was hardtack biscuits, salted meet, a dried cereal (what we’d call granola), dried fruit, gun, candy, nuts, powdered milk salt, pepper, sugar, coffee, cigarette, toilet paper, plus water purification tablets.  Like the C ration, this was not popular with the soldiers.

Like the Jungle ration, the mountain ration was designed for a specific climate; high altitude, in this case.  It was the same basic idea, with lots of dried and dehydrated foods.  The foods were chosen to be easily digested by men suffering under the low oxygen conditions and what that did to the body.  It was not well liked because it was difficult to heat the food in the sort of conditions soldiers would find in the field.  But it served its purpose.


Whoo!  Lots of information, huh?  It’s interesting stuff.  Though I kind of wish my one of my uncles, or my Cousin Jack were still around so I could have asked them what they thought of the food, what tasted good, what tasted bad, stuff like that.    Anyway, that’s it from me for today.  Don’t forget to tweet, share, comment, email.  And don’t forget about Fun Friday!  Ta ta for now!



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