Drilling By Numbers, Eating by Letters by Gerry Stearns

I think most of us, when we joined the Army, had to make some kind of adjustment to different kinds of food, different ways of being served and different ways to help prepare it. In the regular rotation for KP, who can forget the joys of cleaning the stinking, slimy grease trap? Or getting those fatigues clean again?

Sometimes the GI's names for staples could have been off-putting. The Mess Sergeant's menus listed "creamed chipped beef on toast". What we called it was "Something on a Shingle", or usually S.O.S. I was uneasy about trying that until about three or four o'clock one morning I was checking the buildings of the reception center where I was a limited service MP. There was an interesting smell of frying meat as I approached the mess hall. I was pretty sure my General Orders required me to investigate. What I found were mounds of hamburger being cooked in big pans, a milk and flour sauce being prepared and hundreds of break slices being toasted. I became and instant fan and a regular participant in this and many subsequent S.O.S. Breakfasts. At Butner, I was generally broke and didn't get into town often. Consequently I was around for the Sunday Cold cut meals. You'll remember what we called them. I like to think of those mess hall experiences as part of the alphabet meals. "A" rations, "B" rations, "C", "D", and "K" rations. I recently found a Quartermaster Corps history of Army rations on the Internet:

"A" rations were a field ration, which depended wherever possible on the best fresh food the Army could buy from local farmers. (I wondered at Butner is the local farmers ordinarily grew eggplant or the Army asked them to. The Mediterranean food was familiar to me but maybe not to the rest of the GI's. I gorged myself on those breaded, fried cutlets but there were stacks of them left in the square metal serving trays when we left the mess hall. I believe all the leftovers were sold to the local farmers for hog feed. Was it here, or at my first outfit, we were told to segregate out eggshells and orange peels because the pigs couldn't eat them?)

According to the QM History, the "B" rations differed only in substituting canned foods when refrigeration was unavailable. Lots of canned fruits and vegetables appeared on our tables at Butner and when we got cooked food in the field. The rest of the alphabeticals were basically preserved food. In the early 1800's a Frenchman named Appert discovered how to preserve food by canning. Napoleon, who said, "An Army travels on its stomach", made use of this prepared food. I sometimes think of him as the illegitimate father of the "C" ration. In over a year in the Army, in garrison, I'd only had "A" and "B" rations. I'd never had "C's" until I was first introduced to them at Hunter Liggett. My first "C's" were distributed in two shiny cans, gold colored like the long loaf-shaped Spam cans that we later saw alongside the roads in Normandy. The can with the main course offered a choice of meat and vegetable stew, hash (corned beef?), or pork and beans. The second can met our elemental needs.... four cigarettes, hard candy, toilet paper and crackers. There was also a tin of instant coffee powers, and sugar. (The QMC History says in 1785 a gill (4 ounces) of rum was added to the daily ration but that in 1832, for no good reason I could find, spirits were eliminated and coffee and sugar substituted. It wasn't bad enough they ruined a good thing but they also continued their dumb tradition in the "C" ration! Most often we ate our "C" rations cold at Hunter Liggett. They tasted a little better cold when you added celery and garlic powder, or salt and pepper. I learned from the old hands who shared the enhancers with me until I could get some from home.

It was later, at Butner, that we were issued more interesting "C's" which included franks and beans and I think spaghetti in tomato sauce. Somewhere along the line the "C's" got pretty fancy, with cereal and milk bars which could be dissolved in water but where fine eaten like a candy bar. There was also a fruit and nut bar. The "D" ration was considered the first modern emergency ration and actually came out in the mid-30's before the "C". The 600 calorie chocolate bar was stabilized to a high melting point by adding oat flour. (QMC History). It never melted in my pocket and was always and adventure. Both, because I was afraid I would break a tooth trying to bite into it and because I feared someone in authority would check whether I had eaten it in the absence of an emergency. I never had more than one "D" bar at a time; three bars, a ration, were really unbalanced meal, which is why the "C" was developed and first issued in 1939. That original "C" ration meal had 2974 calories, 114 grams of protein, and an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals.

When I think back I wonder about those gold-colored Spam cans along the Normandy roads, because the "C" ration cans eventually became OD-colored; the same way the white underwear and handkerchiefs, first issued, were re-issued in OD. The details of eating in the field were pretty special, too. Like, watching Rex Carey, the transportation corporal of the second platoon, How company, stuffing a little German roadside dirt in a C "Cracker" can, pouring a little gasoline on the dirt, lighting it to heat a canteen cup of water for instant coffee. I carried my mess kit spoon in my canteen case and either lost it or decided it wasn't dainty enough. Thus I liberated a teaspoon which I eventually did lose. I dimly remember making holes in the top of a can of "C" Hash before heating the can in the embers of a campfire. This was to prevent explosion of the can and contents. The powdered egg served in the mess hall was pretty sorry. We must also have been issued some dried powder in the field. On the advice of a soldier who joined up is Butner, based on his previous experience in Alaska, we made patties rather than the hall's scrambled eggs. They tasted better than pancakes! Then there was the great "ersatz" dessert, a mush of ration crackers, lemonade powder and water. Instant Lemon Pudding! My most interesting eating, though, were the K and the Ten-In-One Rations. I'll talk about these under the following title.


There was a lot of talk during WWII about Spam as a basic and most hated food in the Army. I thought I'd never had military Spam, although I still bear a scar on a finger tip from opening my first can of civilian Spam in 1937 or '38. Then recently I heard Andy Rooney on 60 minutes talking about the can of Spam in "K" ration. Now I remember why I was so fond of "K's". I could swap my can of pork and apple, or the third common mean (whatever that was) for my favorite cheese with bacon and manage to get three cheese meals a day! I was fond of the "K's" for another reason. I had an elaborate story I would tell anyone who'd listen. A Harvard Professor named Keyes invented this emergency ration packaged by the Cracker Jack people in the same cardboard carton dipped in wax that they used to sell their candy-coated popcorn, each with a toy. Lucky Strike Green wasn't the only civilian product that had gone to war. Of course, the ration was named after its developer. K for Keyes, maybe.

Frankly it was a better story before I began digging around to get my facts straight. I discovered the Internet's Google Search had about 104 items on Ancel Keyes. He was a professor, not at Harvard, but the University of Minnesota, where he founded the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene. At the U of M's Gateway Heritage Gallery is a humble, olive drab lunch box with the lunch still in it...a can of cheese with bacon, crackers, dextrose tablets, gum and cigarettes, my favorite. Even before the U. S. entered the war, Keyes had been asked to develop a lightweight, nutritionally dense meal for troops in combat. Keyes is quoted as saying his first attempts resembled a typical bag lunch with the contents bought at the best market in the Twin Cities in those days. Troops at Ft. Snelling (Minneapolis) were the first to try out the K's. Later, when Keyes visited at Fort Benning, General McNair, Chief of Infantry told him, " This is going to be the combat ration because it was easy to hand out. Also to carry. On that March day in 1945, when with the rest of the second battalion of the 354th, I paddled across to St. Goarhausen I had at least a full day's meals inside my field jacket, bloused out over my ammunition belt; our vehicles didn't come over for two days. Keyes was surprised to see the packages with the K on them. Other stories in the first ten Internet references pointed up just how impressive a guy Keyes was. He was listed among those persons whose portraits appeared on cover of TIME Magazine, his nutrition studies not only pioneered the low fat, low cholesterol Mediterranean diet which angered the dairy, poultry and meat industries. He did special nutritional research for the government, aimed at helping to recover their health populations which had been starved during and after the war.

The historical report prepared for the Army's Quartermaster General in 1949 points out that neither the C nor the D rations were adequate for highly mobile warfare and credits Dr. Keyes with suggesting a ration for paratroopers, tank corps, motorcycle troops and other mobile units. The K's were officially adopted in 1942 and were also used during the Korean conflict. The letter K had no particular significance. It was chosen merely to have a phonetically different letter from C and D. (The QM Story) I'm sorry but I think Dr K thought there was significance. Besides, how can you trust a gang, who by their own admission, didn't find one C-ration adequate but had to develop later a C-2 and C-3.

The Ten-in-One came late in the war to us. The QM account says it actually was available in the spring of 1943. It provided type B field rations (canned) in units of ten, weighing around 50 pounds. The most memorable part was the pound of bacon in a tin. Pretty tasty. I can't believe each pack had a tiny stove but remember the stove, if not the fuel. I think we must have used our mess kits as fry pans. One QM article said that before MRE's went out on Shield and Storm the Army was issuing "I" rations. I've never heard of T's. I've just got to find out what the Army has been doing since I left it back in 1946.