Both Napoleon and Frederick the Great are credited with the quote, “an army marches on its stomach.” Whoever actually coined the phrase hit on an important factor in warfare – logistics. And within the realm of supply, food is vital.
My own time serving in the 1980s saw a transition in some aspects of military rations, but the age-old necessity of feeding troops, and some of the traditions associated with it remained the same.
Field rations are literally the meals an army marches on. I was first introduced to C-Rations when I went to Infantry Training School. These canned (tinned) meals were issued at three a day when in the field. Poultry loaf, beans a franks, and plain tinned tuna were among the offerings. There was also the dreaded eggs and ham, which had to have been the inspiration for Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, as they did actually have a slight greenish tinge to them. These meals were accompanied with crackers, sometimes canned cheese spread, and always coffee, sugar and creamer. Dessert was a semi-chew-able cookie which took some effort to bite through or brake.
Certain points of fairness, etiquette, and tradition came into play with these tinned meals. To keep the first Marines drawing their meals from grabbing the favourites and leaving latecomers with green eggs and ham, the sergeant would open the ration case from the bottom, so only the bottoms of the individual meal boxes could be seen. This hide the labels, and made it a bit of a lottery of who drew which meal. That said there was a fair measure of trading after the fact, if time allowed.
John Wayne from my key chain. Most Marine P-38s were mat base metal, somehow, I ended up with one of the shiny ones (though my other is dull metal).
Time was indeed a factor, the cans had to be opened with a P-38 can opener, known to us as a John Wayne. This little device was essential in getting into your meal. There were a few of them in every C-Ration case, and once you had one you hung onto it for dear life. Most of us had them attached to our dog tags, and a spare somewhere in a pocket. [I still have one stored in a jewelry box, and another always with me on my key chain]. These little wonders opened cans, were used to cut string, and the flat end could be used as a screwdriver. These openers were absolutely manual using a lever action, and thus the time pressure. This was accentuated by the NCOs regulating the eating time. From the sergeant saying “Crack them” to “You’re done” never seemed long enough.
One thing about these rations and Marine tradition that has always impressed me is the reversed eating order. When in the field the enlisted were given meals first. Only after the troops were taken care of did the officers and staff NCOs get theirs.
As you can see from the above description, these meals were mostly eaten cold, and straight from the can. Occasionally we would have enough down time to heat the meals in the supplied “heat tabs.” Even more occasionally we would have the opportunity to pool our meals into a Mulligan Stew. Everything went into the pot, even the eggs and ham, and it was stewed up and there was always an “Old Salt” that had a bottle of Tabasco to spice it up. It was said that in the “Old Corps” such stews were cooked in a helmet. I really can’t remember ever seeing it done, but I do remember a large cook pot appearing to make it. By the time I was out in the fleet for a year or two this became a mute point as we handed in our steel pots in exchange for Kevlar helmets, so stewing in you helmet went to the wind. But in the end, these hot stew days were a real treat when in the field.
The problem with C-Rations was that they were heavy. Remember an infantryman carries everything. Uncle Sam in his infinite wisdom, therefore devised a new field ration – the MRE. Officially these “Meals Ready to Eat” were an improvement. Many of the the items were freeze dried and the entrees were vacuum packed in an “easy open” pouch. There was no longer a need for a can opener. They were more portable, and lighter. Of course with so much of the MRE content being dried, it did require carrying more water, or eating it as cardboard. It is why many of us dubbed them “Meals Rarely Edible.”
Chaplain’s altar made from ration boxes
It can’t be said that MREs were any better than C-Rats in choice either. There was a new eggs and ham equivalent, “Chicken Chow Mein.” This creamed chicken-based paste was avoided. It is notable that while we were in Korea we sometimes tossed some of our food packets out of the perimeter to the kids that used to come to see us. It is laughable to think that they took every meal tossed to them except the Chow Mein. In the morning there would still be these packets left where they landed the day before.
MREs introduced some other new varients. The “Gorilla” cookies still existed, and were just as hard to eat. Hash brown paddies were like eating Styrofoam, unless moistened (an there never seemed enough time for that). There was also an overly sweet fruit cake, which was a love or hate affair.
Back at base there was the mess hall. Marine Corps chow is hot, it is nutritious, and it is a bit predictable. Salad seemed to always be on hand, and hot meals were very much cafeteria style. We often joked that there were seconds available in the mess hall, but it was a measure of the time you had to eat, rather than the quantity available.
Not surprisingly we enjoyed the meals when “on float.” The Navy fed us with more variety, and often more abundantly. But the real “holy grail” was getting the chance to eat on an Air Force base. I know of a few Marine duty drivers that managed to always arrange their rounds in such a way that they were at or near the air base at meal time. There is a Meme which shows Willy Wanka and the golden ticket winners when they first see inside the factory. Their wide-eyed looks of wonder are shown, but the caption reads, “The first time you visit an Air Force base.” It really is! The Enlisted Dining Facility (note not mess hall or chow hall, but “dining” facility) is a thing of wonder! Choices of entrees, seconds (this time meaning helpings), and real desserts – yes, dining.
Ironically, Napoleon said “an army marches on its stomach.” But the best military meals are provided to those who don’t march. Well, such is life.