July 30, 2009:
A U.S. Army colonel (Henry A. Moak Jr.) recently retired, and at the ceremony took out a forty year old can of C Ration pound cake. He opened it and ate it, and invited others to join him, and a retired general did so with gusto. Colonel Moak had picked up the small can of pound cake in 1973, when it was already four years old, and vowed that, if he made it to retirement, he would eat the damn thing.
So what's the big deal about forty year old canned cake? Well, for forty years (until 1979, when it was replaced by MREs), the C Ration was what you ate a lot of the time you were in the field. If there were no field kitchens nearby, you got tossed cans of C Rats (and the accessory pack, which contained crackers, cigarettes, condiments and toilet paper, all useful stuff). The C Ration was unpopular from the start. A day's worth of food weighed five pounds and consisted of three 12 ounce cans of entrees, that could be eaten cold (and usually were). There was little variety, which was a killer when troops were forced to subsist on C-Rats for weeks on end. The daily ration also had three smaller cans with desert type items (of which the pound cake was the most popular), and three accessory packets. The cans were bulky and, for troops in a combat zone, noisy. The canned stuff was built to last, with American troops in the 1960s still getting C Rations stamped "1944". There was so much of these World War II surplus stuff, that in some Basic Training units, several nights a month, you got "C-Rat Stew" (and the trainees on KP spent hours opening hundreds of C-Ration cans and putting the contents into large pots for "cooking." Yum.)
When the C Rations disappeared in the 1970s, they were not missed, except possibly for the pound cake. The new MREs were lighter and easier to carry in a pack (or pockets). The MREs were tastier as well.
The only thing that was missing was the old World War II, ultra portable, "assault ration." That eventually showed up in 2003, after an absence of over fifty years. The new, lightweight, "assault ration" was designed for combat troops, especially those who march long distances carrying all their gear. During World War II, two special, lightweight, rations were developed for troops going into an offensive where they might not be resupplied for a few days. The "K Ration" was smaller and lighter than the C Ration, using more food in pouches. Three meals, containing 3,000 calories, weighted 2.31 pounds and could be carried in the large pockets of the combat uniform. There was also the "D Ration," a concentrated four ounce "food bar" containing chocolate and a lot of other stuff, as well as 600 calories. It tasted terrible, but if you were hungry enough, you would eat it.
The concept of an "assault ration" actually goes back to the 19th century, when American troops fighting Indians adopted jerky and precooked grain as a lightweight food supply for long marches. During World War I, an assault ration that could be used in moist environments (where jerky goes bad quickly) was developed. Jerky (dried or smoked meat), of course, is an ancient form of portable food, but it wasn't formally adopted by the U.S. Army until after the Civil War.
Wartime is sort of a lie detector for military equipment developed during peacetime. Case in point is the MRE (Meals, Ready to Eat), which have been around for over three decades. You'd think that by now all the kinks would have been worked out. Well, sort of. It turns out that for years, the minority of troops (some commandoes and light infantry) spent a lot time marching, carrying all their weapons, equipment and food with them. During the Afghanistan campaign, it became widely known that troops would strip non-essential stuff from their MREs so they could carry less weight with them. Normally, a MRE weighs 1.5 pounds (24 ounces) and contains about 1200 calories. Stripping out packaging, heat tabs and the like could remove almost half a pound. The new "first strike" ration weighs about 14 ounces and has about a thousand calories. So a day's worth of food is three pounds and is more nutritionally complete than the "stripped" regular MREs. The new ration has been tested by Special Forces and SEALs, who liked it. The new ration was issued two years ago, and is used by all services. In the air force, for example, pilots carry emergency rations in case they have to bail out.
It's ironic that food in pouches was developed during World War II (although not using MREs retort pouch, which wasn't invented until the 1950s), but wasn't used more. Apparently the need to produce as much of the C Rations as possible was a more important consideration. Many starving civilians survived because Allied troops freely distributed C Rations as they advanced into enemy territory. But once the MREs began showing up in the 1970s, they eventually caught on not just because of the superior packaging, but because the military finally wised up to the need of variety (going from 12 to 24 entrees, and regularly dropping unpopular ones and trying new stuff).
In one area, however, the C Rats have MREs beat; shelf life. No MRE is believed capable of still being edible after forty years. And the MREs have yet to come with something as tasty as than canned pound cake.