By: Randy Tucker
It’s a quote often ascribed to Napoleon, but evidence indicates the Corsican conqueror lifted the phrase from Frederick the Great: “An army marches on its stomach.”
Feeding the troops has been a problem since the Assyrians ravaged the ancient world, and it remains so today. The MRE (meal ready to eat), freeze-dried food and the quick transport of hot food to battlefield areas has changed the way armies are fed, but just a few decades ago, it was still the C-ration that kept men fed in the field.
Dave Orbell was an M-60 gunner in a rifle platoon in South Vietnam. His weapon, the ubiquitous M-60, weighed in at a hefty 23 pounds. A 100-round belt of 7.62×51 ammunition added another six pounds. M-60 gunners generally carried at least two bandoliers of ammunition, adding a dozen pounds to an already heavily laden soldier.
“My assistant gunner carried another 200 rounds at least and an extra barrel,” Orbell said. “Our ammo carrier had four or five belts on him.”
That’s a lot of weight for a soldier humping it through highland terrain, slogging through jungles, or high-stepping along rice paddies to carry.
In addition to their weapons and ammunition, soldiers carried claymore mines, hand grenades, flashlights, entrenching tools, and other equipment, making a very heavy pack. Canteens of water just added a couple of pounds per pint, and depending on the mission, men could carry an extra 10 to 12 pounds in water into the field.
Add to that a rucksack with personal belongings and enough food to survive for three days in the field, and you have a terrific weight to pack on your back.
Food has always been the grumbling point of every army since the dawn of time. The foremen on cattle drives in the old west knew that it would be easier to recruit the best cow hands if they had a top-notch cook running the chuck wagon. Men move and fight better when they’re well-fed.
In World War II, Korea and Vietnam food in the field came in the form of the familiar green C-ration can. Veterans claimed the C-ration was an improvement on the universally despised K-ration, but that was clearly a matter of opinion.
In 1958, the defense department decided to vary the offerings in C-rations with a menu that featured a dozen different items. The ration had to contain meat, bread, canned fruit, and some kind of dessert. A second or B unit might include peanut butter and crackers, chocolate, gum, cigarettes, salt, pepper, and sugar, among other items.
“Peanut butter and crackers was the best,” Orbell said. “The bread was awful. The only way you could eat it was to toast it on the end of your bayonet over a fire. We put some bread on a pile of sandbags around our position one day, and after three day,s it hadn’t change at all. Even the flies wouldn’t land on it. It was that bad.”
The meat ration could be beef, chicken, turkey loaf, or ham slices. Sometimes it was tuna fish or ham and eggs. Spaghetti and meatballs and beans and wieners were popular, but one ration was despised more than any other in the history of the army.
“Ham and lima beans were disgusting, and they were heavy to carry,” Orbell said. “You could find crates of them in the dump. The only time anyone ever ate them was when you were completely out of food and so hungry you could force them down.”
Even the native Vietnamese learned to read the label marking this disgusting concoction.
“We gave food to the people when we could tell they were hungry,” Orbell said. “One day, a guy in my unit tossed a couple of cans of ham and lima beans to an old man outside a village. The old guy caught the can, read the label, and threw it back, hitting the guy who tossed it to him in the head. Nobody liked them.”
Heating C-rations was an interesting challenge. Sometimes men would put their C-rations on the exhaust manifold of a truck to heat, but if they didn’t poke a few holes for the steam to escape, they would explode all over the engine.
“The quickest way to heat up a meal was with a pinch of C-4,” Orbell said. “Every man had to carry a few pounds of C-4. We were supposed to gather it all together if we needed to blow up trees to clear an LZ or blow up something. Most of the time we just tore off a piece, lit it with a lighter, and used it to heat our C-rations. One day the captain called us all together to gather C-4 to blow up some big teak trees, and we only had a few pounds in the entire outfit. He wasn’t happy.”
In 1981, the C-ration went into the vault of history with the arrival of MREs, a vault many Vietnam veterans were glad to see closed.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.