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Sara | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's bookI recently discovered Sara’s blog, Rough Diplomacy. Sara is a veteran of Active Duty Air Force and Navy Reserves, plus a Bioinformatics graduate, and her blog reflects her diverse interests. More than anything, however, it highlights how passionate she is about history—and military history in particular. With her permission, I am sharing here some of the wonderful material I have come across as part of my Fun Historical Facts series.

One of Sara’s posts, which is of special interest to authors, deals with the subject of US food rations from the War of Independence todate. As Napoleon famously observed, amateurs discuss tactics; professionals discuss logistics. A lesson all writers should heed in their tales!

“C’est la soupe qui fait le soldat” (The soup makes the soldier)

~ Napoleon

The American Revolutionary War

Armies can’t march on empty stomachs. This simple truth has defined warfare from Ancient Greece (when fighting had to end in time for harvest to begin) to modern times. Since the American Revolutionary War, however, most armies have been following the same rules: When in camp, soldiers are housed in tents shared by six soldiers. These six create a “mess” or an eating unit, which receives the rations fit or available for six men.

For the most part, men cooked the food themselves, except when soldiers had families on a campaign with them. Family members were also included in the rations and, usually, served as cooks for their mess.

Washington's canteen | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

George Washington’s personal camp chest, or “mess kit.” Image: roughdiplomacy.com

A Commissary General of Purchases was appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775, to arrange for the purchase of rations and their transport. The first soldier ration was established by a Congressional Resolution, during the American Revolutionary War. Officially, soldiers in the Continental Army were to be issued daily rations that were to include meat, bread (often hardtack), dry beans or peas, and a gill of rum or beer. Salted and dried foods were necessary because there were no other practical means of food preservation. Quite often, soldiers boiled their dried beans or peas with the meat to make a makeshift stew and many soldiers resorted to soaking their hardtack in warm water or stew to soften it.

While it was the intent of the Continental Congress to provide ample rations for soldiers, good intentions were not enough to keep the army fed. Soldiers were lucky to receive even half their rations, and this did not provide them with a balanced diet- vegetables were often in short supply. Vinegar was later added to the rations to prevent scurvy, but again, it often was not available.

Transportation of supplies was the most serious problem, not only for the Continental Army but also for the British one. Soldiers often relied on local purchases, food donations, and food sent by their families. They also hunted game and gathered wild herbs along the way. General George Washington authorized local farmers to sell their products at camp markets, but most soldiers had little money to buy food. Justifying their actions by necessity of war, soldiers learned to “liberate” provisions.

Civil War

The problems that plagued armies during the Revolutionary War continued during the Civil one. The passage of several generations had muted the country’s memory of the deprivations of the American Revolution.

During the fair-weather campaign season, soldiers could expect to be engaged in battle 1 day out of 30. Instead of fighting, the vast majority of existence revolved around the routines of camp life, which presented its own set of struggles and hardships. While soldiers acknowledged that losses would occur, no one envisioned their potential demise in anything but heroic circumstances. And yet, twice as many Civil War soldiers succumbed to death from disease and hunger (between 400,000 and 500,000 soldiers in all) than they did from bullets, shells, and bayonets.

Iron ration (1907–1922)

Iron ration | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Iron ration (1907-1922). Image: roughdiplomacy.com

The first U.S attempt to make an individual ration for issue to soldiers in the field was the “iron ration”, introduced in 1907. It contained three 3-ounce cakes (made from a concoction of beef bouillon powder and parched and cooked wheat), three 1-oz bars of sweetened chocolate and packets of salt and pepper.

The ration was issued in a sealed tin packet that weighed one pound, to be carried in infantry mans‘ top tunic pockets, for emergency use when the troops were unable to be supplied with food.

World War I

WWI canteen | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

A WWI Division Canteen. Image: roughdiplomacy.com

By 1917 when the AEF arrived in Europe, the guidelines had changed little, with an increase in quantity and the addition of potatoes. In addition to basic foodstuffs, Doughboys also received luxuries such as milk, butter, candy, and cigarettes; luxuries their fellow allied Soldiers lacked. The Army often experienced shortages of fresh fruit, but in general, as one historian noted, “the dough-boys of the American Expeditionary Force were the best-fed army in World War I.”

A fresh meal was always a welcome luxury in the trenches, and whenever possible, soldiers received hot food delivered in food carts. However, getting food to the troops could be difficult, especially when the enemy tried to zero in and attack supply lines. Bad weather, poor organization, and enemy action (which often targets supply lines) were some of the difficulties they faced. Also, any exposed food in the trenches could be ruined during a gas attack. Another hardship was trenches full of rats and other vermin.

As a result, Quartermaster Corps was asked to make a number of innovations to address the situation in France in 1918. One of the more significant innovations was the creation of Field Bakeries that could provide fresh hot food to the Soldiers. Field Bakeries meant the end of reliance on that old staple of armies in the field: hardtack. American Soldiers relished the fresh bread that came from these bakeries.

WWI bakeries | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

US Army Bakery. Image: roughdiplomacy.com

Field bakeries, however, still needed to be supplied with fresh produce. Well aware of the problems of resupply, the Army developed the first emergency ration in 1901. The idea behind the emergency ration was that Soldiers could carry food for use in the event that they were cut off from supply lines.

Lightweight preserved meats (salted or dried) partly replaced canned meats in order to save weight and allow more rations to be carried by soldiers carrying their supplies on foot. Thus, the reserve ration was born, issued during the latter part of the war to feed troops who were away from a garrison or field kitchen.

“Reserve ration” (1917–1937)

Reverse ration | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Reserve ration (1917–1937). Image: roughdiplomacy.com

The Reserve Ration was issued during the latter part of World War I to feed troops who were away from a garrison or field kitchen. It originally consisted of 12 oz of bacon or 14 oz of canned meat known as the Meat Ration—usually, corned beef—two 8 oz cans of hard bread, a packet of pre-ground coffee, a packet granulated sugar, and a packet of salt. There was also a separate “tobacco ration” and 10 cigarette rolling papers, later replaced by brand-name machine-rolled cigarettes.

After the war, attempts were made to improve the ration based on input from the field. In 1922, the ration was reorganized to consist of meat (usually beef jerky), canned corned beef, chocolate, hard bread, coffee, and sugar.

In 1925, the meat ration was replaced with canned pork and beans. In 1936, there was an attempt at variety by having an “A”-menu of corned beef and a “B”-menu of pork and beans, but this was canceled upon introduction of the new Field Ration, Type C, in 1938.


Before we move on to World War II and C-Ration, we should expand a bit on the canned corn beef — aka spam — that was part of the Reserve Ration. Canning, or bottling, was invented at the turn of the 19th century when the French army offered a reward for someone who could invent a way to keep foods longer. Spam — the square can of pork, salt, water, sugar, potato starch and sodium nitrite that first rolled off the assembly lines during the Great Depression — was originally invented as a way to peddle the then-unprofitable pork shoulder. Spam ads were originally aimed at housewives who wanted cheap, quick meals requiring almost no preparation.

However, it didn’t take long for the U.S. military to find a use for the food innovation. Spam went global during World War II when America shipped out over 100 million cans to the Pacific. As TIME later noted:

Among fed-up fighting men from Attu to Anzio, Spam became one of the most celebrated four-letter words in World War II, gave birth to a flavorsome literature of tales, odes, jokes, limericks.

Amazingly enough, it remains popular even today in areas where soldiers were stationed, especially in Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. Hawaii still consumes more spam than any state, totaling about 7 million cans a year.

During and after the war, spam became part of aid packages to devastated Europe and Russia. As former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoir, Khrushchev Remembers:

There were many jokes going around in the army, some of them off-color, about American Spam; it tasted good, nonetheless. Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army. We had lost our most fertile lands.

World War II

As food historian Marx de Salcedo notes:

In the universe of processed food, World War II was the Big Bang.

Natick Soldier Systems Center, a U.S. Army research complex in Natick, Massachutes, is the federal laboratory investigating how to make soldiers’ rations taste good and last longer. Its initiatives have led to the processed cheese that’s now found in goldfish crackers and Cheetos. The Center has also created longer-lasting loaves of bread and the energy bar, which was originally created to give worn-out soldiers a boost.

C-ration | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

C-Ration cans and condiments. Image: roughdiplomacy.com

In 1940, the laboratory tested the first Type C ration, consisting of a one-pound ‘meat’ unit (M-unit) during the 1940 Louisiana maneuvers; a series of US Army exercises involving 400,000 troops. At the beginning of World War II, a number of new field rations were officially introduced, including the Mountain ration and the Jungle ration. While it was the intention of the War Department that both C rations and K rations be used as a short-term ration until field kitchens could be set up, in many cases, they formed the primary long-term food for GIs in combat or remote conditions all over the globe.

Included in the C-Ration were only three variations of the main course: meat and beans, meat and potato hash, and meat and vegetable stew. Also issued was one bread-and-dessert can, or B-unit. The cans had been replaced with the more common cylindrical design in June 1939 due to mass production problems with the former shape of cans. During the war, soldiers frequently requested that the cylindrical cans be replaced with flat, rectangular ones (similar to a sardine can), because of their compactness and packability. Unfortunately, this was deemed impractical because of the shortage of commercial machinery available to produce them.

Among other innovations, in the late 1940s, the rations acquired a gold lacquer finish to improve corrosion resistance. As for the cans themselves, initially, there was noticeable variation in color because of the large number of suppliers involved. Later in the war, however, this was changed to drab green paint, which remained standard throughout the remainder of the C-ration’s service life, as well as that of its (very similar) successor, the Meal Combat Individual (MCI).

At first, C-Ration cans were marked only with paper labels, which soon fell off and made a guessing game out of evening meals: US Soldiers and Marines receiving an unpopular menu item several nights in a row often found themselves powerless to bargain for a more palatable one. C-Ration was, in general, not well liked by U.S. Army or Marine forces in World War II, who found the cans heavy and cumbersome, and the menu monotonous after a short period of exposure.

There were also inevitable problems with product consistency given the large number of suppliers involved and the pressures of wartime production. The problems were exacerbated by the fact that the exigencies of combat sometimes forced the C ration to be the only source of sustenance for several weeks in succession. In 1943, a ration board reviewing medical examinations of soldiers after long-term use of Type C rations recommended that they be restricted to a maximum of five continuous days in the absence of supplementation with other rations.

Field Ration D: Hershey’s D-Bar

D-ration | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

D-ration. Image: roughdiplomacy.com

The US Army Field Ration D (D ration or “D Bar”), developed by the Quartermaster Corps, was intended exclusively for survival. It contained three 4-ounce bars of thick, high-calorie chocolate.

Col. Paul Logan developed the bar in 1937 with the intent that it not taste too good, for fear the men would consume it rather than carry it until an emergency arose. He gave these requirements to Hershey:

…a bar weighing about four ounces, able to withstand high temperatures, high in food energy value, and tasting just a little better than a boiled potato.

The M-Unit

M-unit | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

M-unit. Image: roughdiplomacy.com

Another unit introduced during the war was the M-unit. This contained a canned entrée originally made of stew meat seasoned with salt, various spices, and chopped onions. M-units initially came in three varieties: Meat Stew with Beans, Meat with Vegetable Hash, and Meat Stew with Vegetables (carrots and potatoes). The commonplace nature of the menu was intentional and designed to duplicate the menu items (hash, stews, etc.) soldiers were normally served in Army mess halls.

Another new menu item, “Meat & Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce” was added in 1943, and other mixtures followed. By all accounts, after the meat hash and mutton stew, the Ham and Lima Beans entree was the most unpopular. Despite continued negative field reports, it unaccountably remained a standard entree item not only during World War II but also during the Korean War and Vietnam War.

The Accessory Pack

Accessory pack | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Accessory pack. Image: roughdiplomacy.com

Except for food rations, other necessities, from water purification to smoking, were also addressed by other rations. For example, in 1945, the accessory pack was modified. Initially, this contained chlorine-based halazone tablets, popularly used for portable water purification. Chlorine in water is more than three times more effective as a disinfectant against Escherichia coli than iodine. However, it can cause dermatitis, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, and bronchitis as well as asthmatic symptoms and sensitization among those exposed to this compound. Per the order of the Surgeon General, the halazone tablets were now removed and salt tablets were added instead.

Feedback from the field also revealed that soldiers who smoked often opened up packs just to get the cigarettes and threw away the rest of the items. To reduce waste, the accessory pack was now divided into the “short” pack, with cigarettes and matches, and the “long” pack containing the other accessories.

The Mountain Ration

K-ration | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Mountain Ration. Image: roughdiplomacy.com

The components of what would become the Mountain ration were developed in 1941-42 by U.S. Army officers in experimental mountain warfare companies, largely consisting of former ski instructors, forest rangers, and other experienced alpine travelers. Based on their recommendations, the Mountain ration was finalized and packaged for use by mountain and alpine troops.

In order to make the rations suitable for high-altitude climates, the Mountain ration was designed to be compact, easier to prepare at high-altitude, have enough roughage capable of slow digestion and enough bulk to satisfy four men in one day at high altitude. It also needed to weigh less than 40 ounces and contain a total of 4,800 calories per man per day.

K-ration | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

K-Ration. Image: roughdiplomacy.com

The Mountain ration was issued to soldiers of several elite U.S. and British Commonwealth forces in training for alpine or winter combat. However, it was criticized for its involved preparation times; and that it required heating, which was difficult for ordinary infantry soldiers without individual or squad–level cooking stoves. Also, the noise and bulk of heating equipment and additional cooking utensils was disliked by some, who viewed the mountain ration as better suited to bivouac areas or mountain strongholds not subject to sudden enemy assault.

By early 1943, the Army abolished all non-standard lightweight individual rations except for the K and D rations. The decision was not uncontroversial: by the war’s end, undernourishment and vitamin deficiency had become apparent. This led to the introduction of the revised C-Ration.

Filed Ration Type C 2 (Revised) (1948–1958)

After the war, the E-Ration was unsuccessfully tried out. Following its failure, ration planners decided to save costs by returning to the basic C-ration designation, intermittently revised with new menus and item specifications.

Food packet 1952 MRE | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

1952 food packet. Image: roughdiplomacy.com

The Army formed an individual ration which consisted of packaged pre-cooked foods which could be eaten hot or cold. It could be carried and prepared by the individual soldier. Due to the required individual portability of this ration, maximum nourishment had to be provided in the smallest physical unit. The components of this ration were prepared in five different menus.

During the latter part of World War II and the Korean War again saw the predominance of heavy canned C rations issued to troops, regardless of operating environment or mission. The Type C ration was intended for short-term use for periods not to exceed three days. The QMC also successfully campaigned for the elimination of alternatives, including the K-ration, Mountain ration, and Jungle ration. Also, due to cost-cutting measures by Quartermaster Command, officials decided not to develop or introduce new alternative lightweight individual rations.

Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI) Ration (1958)

Moak cake | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Army Colonel Henry Moak and his pound cake. Image: roughdiplomacy.com

Starting in 1958, C-Rations were slowly replaced by the nearly identical canned Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI) ration. These offered more variety, thus creating their own set of problems: Paratroops, Infantry Soldiers, and Armored Vehicle Crewmen, particularly AMTRAC (Amphibious Tractor) personnel, believed that halved apricots were bad luck to eat during combat operations. Other menu items were more popular, such as the pound cake, canned pears, and the spaghetti & meatballs.

To demonstrate the durability of the MCI ration, Army Colonel Henry Moak was issued an MCI in 1973, which included a can of pound cake, manufactured in 1969. He kept the unopened can and vowed to eat the pound cake when he retired from the Army. On July 24, 2009, with news media and dignitaries in attendance, Moak opened the forty-year-old can and ate the contents. He noted that the pound cake still looked and smelled the same.

Long Range Patrol (LPR) Ration (1966)

Long Range Patrol | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Long Range Patrol ration (1966). Image: roughdiplomacy.com

Use of heavy canned wet rations resulted in a severe weight penalty for troops marching on foot and forced to carry a multi-day supply of rations. The overuse of the canned wet ration reached an extreme during the Vietnam War, where American troops resorted to placing stacked ration cans in socks to save bulk and reduce noise on patrol.

Their enemy, however, increased their mobility by carrying lightweight rations of dry rice which gave them an edge.

The Quartermaster Branch’s insistence on canned wet rations for all postwar field issue and the failure to develop a suitable lightweight dehydrated or other dry ration for jungle and other extreme environments led to the hurried development of the Long Range Patrol (LPR) ration in 1966. This also contained a B-unit, whose introduction was met had mixed feelings.

The Peanut Butter issued in the B-1 unit was unappetizing and often discarded by some, although it was readily consumed by those with dysentery, as it was certain to stop it. Soldiers in Special Operations units also used to hoard B-1 peanut butter in empty ration cans to make improvised smoke candles while on long patrols. Being extremely oily, the peanut butter burned with ease and could be used to boil water for coffee, although it left a greasy black stain on the bottom of the canteen cup.

Vietnam war food ration | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Vietnam War Airforce Survival Rations & Pilots Kit (1969). Image: roughdiplomacy.com

Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) (1981)

MRE | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE). Image: roughdiplomacy.com

These rations were issued for most of the next two-plus decades until they were replaced in 1981 by the Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE). Finally, the cumbersome metal cans which enclosed the rations were gone.

For the last three decades, and for at least as many generations of warfighters, the MRE has been a staple of modern warfare and training. They are described as “shelf stable” There are many types of MREs including Kosher or Halal and even vegetarian.

It is worth noting that, in modern times, the MREs are not just used by military personnel. They are given out by US Aid in high emergency areas, where food can be scarce or contaminated, and are also distributed to civilians or refugee camps.

You can read Sara’s complete post on Rough Diplomacy.