Feeding an army

U.S. Army rations in World War II and before

American soldiers eating their C-rations in Italy, 1943
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

“An army marches on its stomach.” This saying is alternatingly attributed to both Napoleon and Frederick the Great, but whoever said it was right. A starving army cannot fight effectively (and eventually at all), making proper provisioning one of the fundaments of organizing and maintaining an army. Today’s article is about the history of U.S. Army rations up to World War II. 
 
For most of history, the ability of an army to wage war was greatly limited by its ability to feed itself. Meat and fish can last long when salted, and hard tack could be carried around indefinitely (or grain baked into bread at camp); but canned food, most preserves and refrigeration are relatively recent inventions. Another, even harsher limitation stemmed from the inability to actually transport food: food had to be carried by men, pack animals or animal-drawn carts and wagons – and all those porters, animals and their handlers also needed to eat food. The army needed more transport capacity to also carry food and fodder for the transporters – but that extra food, in turn, had to be carried by things that needed to eat. This was a vicious circle which forced armies to rely on raiding and foraging in the field. Foraging, however, greatly limited the length of a military campaign since a single area could only sustain an army for a short while. Campaigns also had to be timed very accurately: you wanted to get to the enemy’s fields when the harvest was already ripe, but before it could be gathered by the locals and safely deposited in the very city or castle you were about to besiege.

1591 etching of a pike formation on the march, accompanied by numerous supply wagons as well as cattle and sheep for slaughter later
(Image: British Museum)

The gradual arrival of the industrial age changed the equation. Higher populations, transportation which didn’t need a large number of humans or animals (such as trains), and the ability to manufacture more weapons and equipment allowed for larger armies and more expansive campaigns, as long as those armies could be fed. Canned food was invented in France in the early 19th century specifically to provide Napoleon’s Grande Armée with nonperishable food, and the technology was also sold to Britain soon after. A need to standardize food rations became necessary to feed the armies of the modern age.

Napoleon’s army: not only the conqueror of Europe, but also a pioneer of food preservation
(Painting: Lawrence Alma-Tadema )

In 1775, Continental Congress established rations for the soldiers of the War of Independence. Each man was to receive 1 lb. of beef or salted fish (or three-quarters of a pound of pork), 1 lb. of flour or bread, 1 pint of milk, 1 quart of spruce beer or cider and a little molasses per day, as well as 3 lbs. of peas or beans, six ounces of butter and half a pint of vinegar per week. Of course, soldiers didn’t always get those rations due to supply problems. One common meal in times of shortage was the “firecake,” a tasteless mixture of flour and water made over a fire. A lack of fresh fruit in the diet often led to cases of scurvy or other diseases related to nutritional deficiency.

George Washington’s personal “camp chest” or mess kit from the War of Independence
(Photo: National Museum of American History)
The Union’s rations during the Civil War were expanded to more items, and included sugar and coffee – the latter not only for its ability to energize soldiers after a long march or a sleepless night, but also as a morale booster. The Confederacy tried to have rations of similar quality and quantity, but the Union blockade led to constant shortages. Confederate soldiers tried to substitute coffee with various brews of dandelions, chicory, corn, sweet potatoes, acorns or other ingredients, but without much success. Confederate soldiers also frequently traded with the Union enemies, offering tobacco in exchange for Northern coffee.
Recreation of a Civil War-era ration storage room at Fort Macon State Park
(Photo: Bahamut0013 / Wikipedia)

U.S. Army rationing continued to improve; when America entered World War I and the American Expeditionary Force arrived in France in 1917, it was considered the best-fed army of the war. Meals included a higher ratio of potatoes, as well as luxuries such as milk, butter, candy and cigarettes, which the soldiers of other nations lacked. There was still a deficiency of fresh fruit and vitamin A, but the doughboys’ food was otherwise up to modern-day nutritional standards. Field bakeries allowed for fresh bread, removing the army’s reliance on hard tack, and the Salvation Army provided the soldiers with another luxury: doughnuts. Emergency rations were tinned to protect them not only from rats and mice, but also from contamination by gas attacks. Such rations were supposed to let soldiers survive for seven days without resupply.

Soldier lining up for a hot meal during World War I
(Photo: U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Three types of individual rations were used by the U.S. military. The Iron Ration, introduced in 1907, consisted of three three-ounce cakes of beef bouillon powder and wheat, three one-ounce bars of sweetened chocolate, and packets of salt and pepper, all in a one-pound tin packet. This was designed as an emergency ration for soldiers out of supply.
 
The Trench Ration from 1914 onward was designed for frontline troops whose field kitchens were contaminated by a gas attack. One ration contained one of several types of meats (or fish). The pack was heavy and bulky, and the limited menu made it unpopular with troops.

A soldier warming his rations over a home-made cooker in World War I
(Photo: Charles Martin and Ethel M. Bagg)
The Reserve Ration was created in 1917 to replace both the iron and trench ration. It contained 12 ounces of bacon or a pound of canned meat, two 8-ounce cans of hard bread or hardtack biscuits, packets of ground coffee, sugar and salt. The pack also came with a separate tobacco ration and cigarette rolling paper (later machine-rolled cigarettes).
 
The ration system was revised several times between the world wars, leading to a system based on the local availability of ingredients and facilities. A-rations in World War II were made at garrisons from fresh, refrigerated or frozen food prepared in dining halls and field kitchens. B-rations made from canned, packaged or preserved ingredients were offered when refrigeration and permanent facilities were not available, but a field kitchen and trained cooks were still present.
A U.S. field kitchen set up under a derelict French bomber in North Africa
(Photo: Library of Congress)
The next step “down” was the C-ration. It’s often called “Combat Ration,” but the letter C was actually just the next one in the alphabet. The development of a successor for the Reserve Rations began in the late 30s at the Quartermaster Subsistence Research and Development Laboratory (SRL) in Chicago. The original design called for three rectangular cans per day, each containing bean-cereal, coffee and chocolate-jam bar, with each meal providing 1,400 calories for a total daily caloric intake of 4,200. Early tests showed that the caloric content was greatly overestimated, and the three meals only provided 2,000 calories, not nearly enough for a soldier in combat.
Pre-war testing of the C-ration. This early version was found to contain too much food to eat and was cut down in size to save on weight.
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
The three rectangular cans were replaced by six cylindrical ones (due to a shortage of the former). Each meal now consisted of two cans labeled A and B. This proved confusing, so the cans were redesignated as “M-unit” for meat and “B-unit” for bread. Since it was intended to be an emergency ration, only three different M-units (Meat and Bean, Meat and Vegetable Hash, Meat Stew with Vegetables) were offered at first, along with a single type of biscuit in the B-unit. The cans also contained other foodstuffs: sugar, soluble coffee, fudge and hard candies along with some other similar items introduced later. The cans came with a twist key that had to be applied to the opening strip soldered to them.
Several C-ration cans on display in the Mesa Historical Museum. The vanilla caramel and the cigarettes were not originally part of the ration.
(Photo: Wikipedia)
The rations came with a separate brown paper accessory pack containing items such as sugar tablets, chewing gum, cigarettes and matches, toilet paper, a wooden spoon and a can opener.
 
The C-ration had several problems. Carrying around six cylindrical cans for each day of meals was cumbersome and loud, forcing soldiers to wrap the cans in socks and rags to dampen the noise that might give away their positions. A second problem was that troops in the field often failed to realize that a single day’s worth of food consisted of six cans. Many soldiers were issued only three for a single day, often only M- or only B-units. This was eventually fixed by stencil-painting instructions and a diagram on the wooden crates the cans came in to explain the proper portions.  
A later version of the packaging, with a separate sleeve demonstrating the proper ration size
(Photo: kration.info)
A third issue was that while the ration was designed for emergencies, in practice it was often issued for several weeks at a time, and having only three types of meals became extremely monotonous. Additional types of meats were added for greater variety, eventually reaching ten different courses. (Fish was also experimented with, but discarded since some people just hate the taste.) Cocoa powder, synthetic lemon juice (and later orange and grape juices) joined coffee as possible drinks. The realization that serving the M-unit hot made it much more palatable led to the introduction of a folding cooking stand which could be used with a fuel tablet.
 A Marine heating up C-ration M-units and brewing coffee on Saipan
(Photo: U.S. military)
As a short note of interest, the embossing machines used for manufacturing the cans could only write two lines of text on top, with no more than five characters per line. This suited the Army just fine, as they were afraid that too much embossing might damage the protective coating on the cans. This limitation did result in the orange juice being marked as “ORANG”.
A B-unit with “ORANG” (read: orange) juice in it
(Photo: kration.info)
New types of C-rations were developed after the end of World War II, and saw use in the Korean War (where they became responsible for introducing instant coffee to South Korea), and even in Vietnam. The day, however, had set over the C-ration, and it began to be phased out in favor of the Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI) ration from the late 50s onward.
A C-ration in the field during World War II
(Photo: U.S. Army)
The C-ration was originally conceived as an emergency ration, but ended up seeing much more widespread use. The D-ration, in contrast, remained strictly for emergencies. A single D-ration (enough for a full day) consisted of three chocolate bars, with each “D-bar” replacing a single meal when necessary. The chocolate was designed to be unappetizing to discourage soldiers from eating it as a luxury item. It was extremely tough, and troops preferred to scrape off shavings rather than risk damaging their teeth. It was also given a deliberately bad taste – one common legend is that kerosene was used as an additive, but the truth is that it was only used in one particular experiment. Nicknamed “Hitler’s secret weapon” for its effect on the eater’s intestines, the standard bar weighed four ounces, but a 2-ounce bar was also produced for inclusion in other rations.
A four-ounce D-bar
(Photo: U.S. Army Center of Military History)
The D-bar was also adopted by the Marine Corps and the Navy. Of course, the Navy would rather sink than use anything that has “U.S. Army” written on it, so they opted for a different package for their life raft rations. These wrappers contained the same chocolate, but had Logan Emergency Bar (conforms to specification for Army Field Ration “D”) written on them, the name referring to Paul Logan, the Quartermaster Corps officer who first approached Hershey’s Chocolate in 1937 with plans for the product.
 
And then there was the infamous K-ration. Development on the K-ration was begun in 1941 by physiologist Ancel Keys with the goal of creating a small, lightweight ration that could be carried by paratroopers, tank crews and motorbike couriers. Keys started by going to a supermarket and compiling a menu of commercially available hard biscuits, dry sausages, hard candy and chocolate bars in a 28-ounce (800 gram) package that contained 3,200 calories. He tested this on six soldiers who rated it between “palatable” and “better than nothing” – it didn’t taste good, but it was sufficient for providing energy and suppressing hunger.
Ancel Benjamin Keys, creator of the K-ration
(Photo: unknown photographer)
The first two actual prototype samples created in the Subsistence Research Laboratory were based on pemmican, a Native American nonperishable food made of dried meat, tallow and sometimes berries – this version was quickly discarded as unpalatable. The name “K-ration” was adopted for unclear reasons. It’s been suggested that it was to honor its inventor, or that it stood for “commando,” but it’s far more likely that the Army simply wanted a letter that was phonetically different from the A-D range already in use.
 
The first K-rations to actually go into production came in cardboard boxes: three boxes per day, one for each meal. Every meal contained a can of meat, two types of biscuits, some kind of beverage powder, sugar to sweeten the drink, either candy or chocolate that could be carried in the pocket and snacked on between meals, and some miscellaneous items such as chewing gum and cigarettes.
Replacements picking up K-rations before being assigned to combat units, France, 1944
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
K-rations were put through hasty testing with a small number of soldiers over a very short time period. The lack of proper testing resulted in the finished product only containing 2,830 calories. This was sufficient during the tests, which involved marches in light gear over open roads. In actual use, however, this was too little energy for soldiers who had to travel with heavy gear in jungles or mountainous terrain, were exposed to tropical heat or bitter cold, and had to dig and fight regularly.
 
Calory deficiency was also a result of a poor understanding of sugars. It was already known in the 1940s that sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. What physiologists did not yet understand was that muscles can only use glucose as “fuel,” and fructose was useless; this meant that the actual caloric intake from the sugar in the ration was only half of what it was believed to be.
K-rations on display at the Fort Devens Museum. This particular pack is from the “Morale Series” later in the war, as evidenced by the color-coding of the three main packs in the upper left.
(Photo: Daderot / Wikipedia)
To make things worse, the K-ration followed the C-rations example: originally intended to only be used for short periods of time, but eventually issued to troops for weeks on end. Constant malnutrition caused weight loss and muscle waste, along with an increase in tropical diseases among troops in the Pacific. Merril’s Marauders, a long-range penetration special operations unit operating in the China-India-Burma Theater, subsisted largely on K-rations for five months, supplementing it with rice, tea, sugar, bread, jam and canned meat; each man lost 35 pounds (16 kg) on average in that half-year timespan. The rations were discontinued after the war, and surviving stocks sent overseas for civilian feeding programs.
Men from Merril’s Marauders, chilling out 75 yards from the enemy
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
Several other, specialized rations were also introduced during the war, but we will only look at the more interesting ones.
 
10-in-1 and 5-in-1 rations. These were inspired by the British “Combined 14-in-1 ration” used in North Africa. These large packages could feed either ten or five people for a day (though the 5-in-1 ration actually came in two-day packages). Somewhat similar to K-rations, these were more popular because of a wider menu selection.
 World War II-era ad for the 5-in-1 ration as used by tank crews
(Photo: wwiidogtags.com)
J-ration. The Jungle Ration was based on lightweight dry foods such as dried meat, peaches and apricots that could be carried by troops on extended missions in tropical areas. A single pack could feed four men for a day, and water purification tablets were included so local water sources could be used to rehydrate the food and create drinking water. The Army’s Quartermaster Command hated the ration, as its specialized nature made procurement difficult and expensive. None of the people working in the SRL had first-hand infantry experience, and they failed to understand the importance of keeping the ration light and easily carried in waterproof bags. Several updates made the ration cheaper and heavier until it was discontinued in 1943 in favor of the K-ration.
 
M-ration. The appropriately named Mountain Ration was designed to feed four mountain troops in a cold, high-altitude, low-air-pressure environment with 4,800 calories per man per day. Despite being nutritious and relatively lightweight for its caloric content, it was criticized for requiring heating, which was not always available. An even bigger problem was that Quartermaster Command hated it for the same reasons it did the J-ration, and it was happy to terminate the ration in 1943.
Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, one particular unit that used the M-ration
(Photo: Colorado Snowsports Museum)
The Assault ration used in the Pacific Theater was simply 28 pieces of hard candy, a chocolate peanut bar, chewing gum and cigarettes; not a proper meal, but a quick way to get an energy boost before combat.
 
The Type X ration is probably the single most mysterious World War II-era ration, its existence only recorded in a single Quartermaster Corps study written after the war. Its components were K-ration biscuits, chocolate or D-bars, bouillon powder, soluble coffee, fruit bars, sugar, gum, hard candy, canned meat, and multi-vitamin tablets. Only two production runs were ordered, one for 600,000 units in late 1943, and one for 250,000 in late 1944. The ration’s most distinguishing feature was that both the package and all of its contents were completely unlabeled.
Type X ration
(Photo: kration.info)
It's been speculated that maybe they were intended for D-Day, and later for the invasion of Japan, but it seems unlikely. Once American paratroopers (or other soldiers) were on the ground and engaged in combat, the enemy would assumably figure out the attackers’ identity pretty quickly, and removing the labeling from their food wouldn’t change that. It is perhaps more likely that the rations were designed for special units operating behind enemy lines, possibly in civilian clothing. Unlabeled discarded food parcels would not give away their presence and affiliation, and might even possibly prevent them from being executed as spies. But all this is speculation with no solid facts behind it.

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