Days Gone Bite: C-Rations, K-Rations and SOS
To the men of the 504th regiment, 82nd Airborne--"the Devils in Baggy Pants"--who crossed the Waal in Holland and battled Panzers in the Ardennes. My uncle 'Highlee' fought with them. And to Marines of the American Legation Guard, Peking, colloquially known as "the North China Marines" who never had the luxury of K-Rations until released from Japanese prison camps in 1945. After 3 and a half years as a POW, my uncle Harold weighed 112 pounds.
In his book Marine at War, Russell Davis recalls grabbing an apple from a bin just before loading into a landing craft bound for the hell of Peleliu. He'd heard, he said to the sergeant, they were supposed to get steak and eggs before a beach assault.
"It's better not to have much on your stomach in case you get hit," the sergeant explained.
Such was comfort in the armed forces. But there's really only a bit of truth to the idea that combat was easier to digest than army meals. As the mention of steak and eggs suggests, food wasn't always that bad. In the safety of a military base, they could count on creamed chipped beef on toast--otherwise known as "shit on a shingle" (SOS)--for breakfast and something hearty from local farms later in the day.
SOS was often made with ground beef, sauteed while other cooked worked on a basic gravy of milk and flour, seasoned with lots of salt and pepper. With just the slightest kitchen competence (sometimes in short supply), it could be quite warming. Many men craved it long after their service days were over.
On the front lines, however, things were different. C-Rations meant 12 ounce cans--two cans for each meal--containing almost 4,000 calories packed into a few crackers, some meat, pressed sugar and candy. The meat was of dubious texture and it was easy to tire of the flavor after a couple days. K-Rations came in slim rectangular boxes and could include pemmican, meats, cheese, gum, powdered drink mixes and other treats at one box per meal...although most men preferred breakfast and supper over the dinner ration.
Yes, the meats were canned or otherwise preserved (this is when Spam came into wide use), the eggs powdered, the coffee instant and lemonade, well, it earned the name "battery acid." The things men would do to vary their diet make it all sound far worse. For instance, one soldier loved to soften K-Ration crackers in water, mush them up and mix in the lemonade powder. The result, he insisted, was lemon pudding.
Spam inspired either tolerance or hatred. The instant coffee--"it didn't taste like coffee but it was brown and hot," said one Marine--undermined America's appreciation of fine roast beans by making "Sanka" and "freeze dried" into household words.
There were other options, such as the 5 in 1 Ration and the high energy chocolate bar. And they were the result of intensive research, packing as much nutrition as possible into the smallest package. Of course, it was also a learning process. After field maneuvers in 1940 or '41, the government cut C-Ration cans from 16 ounces to 12. Sometime in 1944 the military decided to paint the tins olive, after learning that German spotters were using discarded cans to locate our positions.
However bland, however despised, the K-Rations in particular provided a balanced diet. And when rescued from Japanese POW camps, men of the North China Marines said one bite of those several thousand calorie chocolate bars would send warmth shooting through their frail bodies.
And, really, the military had come a long way from the days of green coffee beans, hardtack and salt pork or beef (which the men called "salt horse") in the Civil War. And even that was far better than front line meals in the Revolution.
In fact, on the way to engage the British in South Carolina, starving men of the Continental Army spotted some scrawny cows. While slaughtering these, they also discovered a store of molasses and oats.
After eating stew made from very fresh beef, oats and molasses, men began to drop out of line with severe stomach cramps. They lost the battle.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.