Remembering Military C-rations

This pre-Thanksgiving column is dedicated to every GI whose combat-zone holiday meal was C-ration ham with lima beans, beef slices with potatoes and gravy, and almost-inedible-despite-the-sugar fruitcake.

We are the last ones to know the infrequent joys and lasting hatreds of military C-rations. And then there’s the P-38 can opener.


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Fruit cake, a C-ration delight. Photos from Bob Jones

I’m giving them last rites here.

Many assume the “C” was shorthand for combat. Not. An A-ration was fresh food, a B-ration what a field kitchen could create. C’s were tinned food. They went into use in about 1940 and were gone by 1980.

We all have horror stories about them, except when we scored the peaches or fruit salad.

C’s came in tin packed in boxes marked for breakfast, lunch and supper. My C’s on Cold War maneuvers in Europe in 1956-58 consisted of meat and beans, beef-vegetable stew, meat-balls and spaghetti, ham and egg (or lima beans), franks and beans, and chicken with vegetables. Powdered coffee, sugar, cocoa powder, biscuits, jam, peanut butter. Always cigarettes, toilet paper and matches. A plastic spoon.

Cigarettes were eliminated from rations in 1972. You don’t want soldiers in war zones endangering their health!

The ham and eggs were inedible. We had to heat them on the engine block of a truck or the exhaust grill of a tank. No heat tablets before Vietnam.

You’d grab the biscuits, jam and peanut butter and especially the tins of fruit salad or peaches. Few of those reached people in the field. The boxes were ripped open and the favored rations pilfered at the battalion and brigade levels.

The P-38 can opener is sometimes called the military’s greatest invention. Officially it was the OPENER, CAN, HAND, FOLDING, TYPE I. A 1-1/2 inch piece of stamped metal developed in 1942 by the Subsistence Research Laboratory of Chicago. Used in WWII, Korea and Vietnam until the new, tear-open, add-water, so-called long-range-reconnaissance eats came out.

But C’s did stick around and have been included in humanitarian relief packages distributed to villagers in Afghanistan.

Both C rations and P-38s have become collectors’ items, and you’ll find them hawked for $30 a can or opener on eBay. C’s don’t go bad so long as the can isn’t punctured.

Thousands of years from now all that paper and cardboard that once held Big Macs will have disappeared and archeologists will find some C’s and maybe assume earlier humans lived on crappy ham and eggs and franks with beans. If the diggers look closely, they might find a P-38.

“Must have been a primitive combat surgery tool,” they may say.