C-Rat Reflections

By Kevin Dockery & Dan Shea

Kevin starts out:

The old adage “an Army travels on its stomach,” has held true for centuries. There has always been a problem with feeding large numbers of troops in the field. The simple fact that troops are almost always men on the move prevents sophisticated food from being prepared - there just isn’t time and often not the ingredients. I’m certain that Roman Centurions bitched about the chow as they stood watch at Hadrian’s Wall. And some future grunt on a bug hunt under a distant star will probably repeat those same gripes.

Things have changed a lot from the beginning of the 20th Century and its tinned beef and biscuit. By the time of the Vietnam War, the meals that were packaged for quick and easy use in combat were actually very sophisticated. They would have been unrecognizable even as food to that Roman Centurion. But they were still mostly canned meat and crackers.

C-Rations, C-rats, chow, those goddamned cans, again, these were the constant companion, and fuel, for the grunt of countless swamps, firebases, and simple holes in the ground. No one who served in the military doesn’t hold an opinion about the food. You could move units almost instantly on the rumor of better chow. But if it turned out to be more of those ubiquitous green cans in their cardboard boxes, if you were the one who started that rumor, you had best be someplace else.

A-rations were regular food produced in a mess hall and served up in bulk. B-rations were canned foods that required much less preparation, but were also served up cooked in bulk. C-rations were a boxed meal that could be eaten with no preparation besides opening the can. And the case that twelve of the rations were shipped in held the only preparation tool you needed for the meal - a can opener.

Per twelve meals came six P-38 can openers. It was the mark of a very new guy if he didn’t have his P-38 with him at all times. The new generation of troops today have never even seen a P-38 can opener. But ask almost any old vet and somewhere, on a key ring, in an old footlocker, stashed in a junk drawer, he has a P-38, the key to his food.

When you get right down to it, C-rats weren’t all that bad, at least some of them weren’t. Everyone had their favorites, and those that they hated. “Chopped eggs and Ham” was not one of the big favorites. Beans with Meatballs and Tomato Sauce was fairly common, Ham with Lima Beans (can’t use the common name - this isn’t that kind of publication) was either hated or loved, but it was certainly around. Recently, Turkey Spam has hit the markets. Surprise, Blue Star Foods must have found the old Turkey Loaf recipe and is now marketing it.

In a rush, you opened a case of C’s with the labels facing down. “Just grab one and go,” would be the sergeant’s order. This often led to the social activity of swapping components, something that still goes on today, only they aren’t green cans.

Each individual C-ration came in a cardboard box with an assortment of cans, a plastic spoon, and a goody bag AKA the accessory packet.

The accessory packet, that brown plastic bag, led to some very interesting developments. Back in the 60s and into the 70s, that bag held matches, chewing gum (a little box of two chiclets), toilet paper, instant coffee (more on that later), cream substitute, sugar, and salt. In addition to all of that, there was a small box of 4 cigarettes. Winstons, Lucky Strikes, Camels, Pall Malls (damn, that red box stood out) and even white box generics.

By the early 1970s, the socially conscious government decided to remove the cigarettes from C-rations. Their reasoning? They didn’t want to expose the young men in uniform to a possible lifelong, cancer-causing habit. Cancer? That is not the first concern that springs to mind in a combat zone. Just tell us that you’re saving money, not hand the grunts a line like that.

The matches were real handy though, and they stayed in the rats to this day. One “old dick” trick. The peanut butter came in a small, flat, tin and was “fortified.” As near as I can tell, fortified means “soaked in oil until it floats. It was great peanut butter, but it was so heavy in fats that it burned.

A couple of matches to act as a wick, stick them in the center of the can and light them off - presto, a heater for the rest of the ration. You had to accept that burned peanut smell though.

A pinch (literally!) of C-4 would make a hot enough fire to heat a c-rat can, sitting on a field stove made of an empty can with the ends opened (Don’t inhale the fumes though). (Dan’s note: People say that wasn’t done. Baloney. In the Engineers we did, and like Kevin said, don’t inhale the fumes, they are poisonous). The rats were a lot better hot, and going out of your way to heat them up was worth the trouble. Eating them cold was a common occurrence. And it was okay, as long as you didn’t first look at what you were about to eat. The little brown packet of instant coffee made a terrible drink, but it was coffee.

Here’s a little secret, you could be ordered to drink the coffee in the field. There were only about 12 different menus in the average issue of c-rats. Even if the stuff was canned lobster and steak, you would get tired of it eating the same stuff day after day for weeks. But out of the whole ration, the only food item that always had Vitamin C in it was the coffee.

Coffee Instant Type I. 2.5 grams net, with Ascorbic Acid. The reason it tasted like shit was that the only thing in the whole box that wasn’t processed to death for long term storage was the coffee. C-rat coffee prevented scurvy! And it tasted like it did too.

Dan chimes in:

What can C-rats possibly have to do with small arms? Well, aside from that great t-shirt “Head Cook: Death from Within”, I guess not a whole lot, but we wanted to get off topic with some old vet stuff. Kevin was talking about the exchanging and trading of the parts of the meals. The more creative people worked things out... if I had peaches, and you had pound cake, man, we had a feast when it was mixed together. I did see someone punched out for taking someone else’s peaches. Bad thing, that. The taking the peaches, I mean... I would have punched him out if he took mine... it was the right thing to do.

On a lucky day, we could heat the C’s in an immersion heater, but truck engines did the job as well as almost any other heat source. Just trying to get some of that solidified grease to liquefy and drain off was important. Later rations like the MRE’s have little bottles of hot sauce in them, but not the old C’s. It would have been nice.

I was at the Springfield Mass “Big E” gunshow quite a few years ago, about 1994 I think, and I was walking along and saw a little cardboard box on a table. Yup, C’s. It said B-2 unit on it, so I bought it and walked over to my tables full of machine guns, musing about the box. I put it on the table, and it wasn’t a minute until some boonie rat looking dude walks up and says “How much for the C’s?” He wasn’t wearing camo, of course, but he just had that droopy mustache, thin frame, and cavalier “Don’t mean nothing” attitude. I said I wasn’t selling, just picked them up. Another guy from another direction walks up and says “Hey! A B-2 unit! Have you checked it yet?”, and yet a third guy walks around and pokes his nose in and says “I have my P38!”.

After a couple of minutes of hellos and how are yous, and what unit, etc, we start showing P38 scars (Usually hung on your dogtag chain if you wore it, and it would open and cut you at the most inopportune moments.) We opened the box, and started laughing about the contents until we hit the B2 Unit, which said “Crackers and Candy”.

A moment of silence, please.

Then, someone asked; “You don’t think there’s Vanilla Fudge in there, do you?” We all laughed nervously. Then, out came a P38 that looked like it had been in the guy’s pocket for 25 years, and we opened it up. Lo and behold, there was the sacred Vanilla Fudge disc, in its wrapper. We stopped for a moment, and then without further comment, cut it into 4 equal pieces. Each of us took a piece and placed it in our mouths, and stood there in that gun show, sharing a moment- four forty year old eighteen year olds standing around with some Vanilla Fudge. People walking by were looking at us like we were nuts, eating old C-rats.

They didn’t know what they were missing.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V5N9 (June 2002)
and was posted online on February 14, 2014


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