C-rations, c-rats, Charlie-rations: Call them what you will, there isn't a soldier from the Korean War- or Vietnam War-era who doesn't remember the military's answer to balanced nutrition.
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 MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat).
"If you were in the field, hungry and you could heat them up, they were great – slightly better than shoe leather," said Dick Thompson, vice-president of the Vietnam War Foundation Museum in Ruckersville, Va., and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. "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.
The U.S. military is no different. From the Revolutionary War to the U.S. Civil War, military rations could be summed up by mentioning the Three Bs: Bread, Beans, and Beef. (However, salt pork made frequent appearances as a meat item as well.)
The items fit the dietary habits of the times, cooked up with relative ease under field conditions and (usually) satisfied the troops. But as time passed spoilage increased – some Civil War hardtack had more weevils than wheat flour in them when soldiers got their rations.
Canned foods improved the situation. They were heavy, but canned food stayed edible and palatable for long periods of time and in a pinch they could be consumed cold right out of the can.
During the 1930s, the U.S. 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 Mother'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 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.
When it comes to palatability, C-rations won hands down. But that didn't keep more than one soldier from cracking wise about the canned rations.
A story goes that a World War II GI 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.
Unimpressed by the spectacle, the soldier turned to a friend sitting next him and asked, "But can he digest C-rations?"
C-rations remained the choice of soldiers in the field. By the Korean War, the Defense Department phased out K-rations and began work on updating the C-ration menu.
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 admitted the updated ration was tastier when heated.
The Pentagon designated the new rations "Meal, Combat, Individual." Whatever – soldiers in the field still called them C-rations.
Troops considered some of the items downright toothsome. 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 disgusting that it acquired an obscene nickname – "Ham and MoFo's" is a polite rendering of its nom de guerre.
"It was an unnatural mix of ingredients," said Vincent E. Falter, who enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private during the Korean War and retired as a major general after 35 years of service. "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 scalding hot. It didn't work – most soldiers from the C-ration era declare Ham and Lima Beans the most detestable military ration ever created.
Other C-ration menu items earned equally colorful names. G.I.s called Beans with Frankfurter Chunks in Tomato Sauce "beans and baby dicks." In addition, Chopped Ham and Eggs earned the nickname "H.E.s" (high explosives) because of the bloating and gas they caused.
Heating your food always was a challenge. Some literally fastened cans of rations to the engine block of vehicles in an effort to warm the ration – just remember to puncture the can for steam vents so it won't explode.
If you didn't have an engine manifold handy, there were "heat tabs" made of a solid-fuel called Trioxin to warm food.
If troops ran out of heat tabs, there was always C-4 – as in 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.
Some soldiers will do anything for a hot meal.