For 13 months in Vietnam, I lived mostly on C rations. A lot of U.S. Marines complained about the food, but it was better than nothing.
Actually, I enjoyed some of it. Most C rations were canned between 1938 and 1958. They were used extensively during World War II.
My 13-month Vietnam tour lasted from 1966-67, which made some of the food we were eating more than 25 years old. I really enjoyed the fruit cocktail and pears, especially with pound cake. The fruitcake was dry, but I still ate it. I did not drink coffee, but I did enjoy hot cocoa with cookies. Crackers and peanut butter were a good snack. Crackers with pimento cheese were also OK.
For those interested in whether we were getting enough calories, each meal contained approximately 1,200 calories. The daily ration of three meals provided us with approximately 3,600 calories.
B-1 units in small cans included beef steak, ham and eggs, chopped ham slices and turkey loaf for meat choices. Fruit choices included applesauce, fruit cocktail, peaches and pears. They also included crackers, peanut butter, a chocolate candy disc, chocolate cream coconut.
B-2 units in larger cans included beans and wieners, spaghetti and meatballs, beefsteak with potatoes and gravy, ham and lima beans, meatballs and beans, crackers, processed cheese spread with either caraway or pimento, fruitcake, a pecan roll or a pound cake.
B-3 units in small cans included boned chicken, chicken and noodles, meatloaf, spiced beef, bread, cookies, cocoa beverage powder or jam (apple, berry, grape, mixed fruit or strawberry).
They came with an accessory pack that had a plastic spoon, salt and pepper, instant coffee, sugar, creamer, Chiclets gum, four cigarettes, matches and toilet paper. We all carried a “P-38” can opener and usually had heat tabs or a small chunk of C4 to heat things.
The P-38 supposedly acquired its name from the 38 punctures required to open a C ration can. It’s also known as a “John Wayne” by many because the story goes that he demonstrated using them in a World War II training film. So when soldiers would ask for one, if they forgot the name, they would ask for a “John Wayne.” These handy little gadgets have adorned dog tag chains and key rings ever since.
My favorite recipe was to get a can of bread from the B-3 unit and a can of cheese from a B-2 unit, then open both cans but not take off the lid, and then place both cans in an empty B unit box. I would light the box on fire until it burned completely, remove the bread and open it, then pour the melted cheese over the bread. The result was a toasted cheese sandwich.
In a war zone, we never celebrated holidays or birthdays. One day was no different than any other. There were several of us sitting on the ground eating our lunch. As I was eating, I noticed that the box the C rations were in had a date: February 1944. I became so excited, I said, “You guys are not going to believe this, but today is my birthday, and this food was processed the same year I was born!”
It was weird. I had been in the country for six months and never paid any attention to the date of our C rations. I did know they were canned during World War II. I thought that was special. I kept the box for years as a memento.
Later that day, a Marine came up to me and told me to get my first aid bag and come to his grass hut, where six Marines lived. I rushed to get my bag and met him at the hut. When I walked in, there were several Marines standing, and they started to sing “Happy Birthday” to me. On a wooden ammo crate in the center of the room was a C ration pound cake with chocolate icing made from a melted chocolate candy disk. They also had one lit candle on the cake, which added to the festivities.
It was a very emotional moment for me, as before this time I was feeling melancholy. I was missing my family and mom making her usual birthday cake for my twin brother and me. I wish I had a picture of that surprise birthday party. This act of kindness from the Marines was overwhelming. I was proud to be a member of the Marine Corps that day. I don’t mind saying I shed a few tears of joy that day, and some of the Marines did likewise.
Later that evening, I was getting ready for a night ambush when the commanding officer informed me that because it was my birthday, I had the evening off. I went back to my room in the first aid area, lit the candle that was on my birthday cake and lay on my Army cot, reminiscing about my family back home. I thanked God for the many blessings he had bestowed upon me.