Posted July 27, 2015
If you’ve ever served in the U.S. military, you could likely tell dozens of stories about the C-rations you ate—or chose not to eat. If not, like me, your frame of reference is probably rooted in popular culture. When I hear “C-rations” I automatically think of the scene in countless war movies where two guys huddle in a bunker eating cold beans out of a can or the countless quips in MASH about the C-rations being left over from World War II. When I learned the Ohio History Connection collections contained a box of Vietnam War C-rations, I was intrigued.
The U.S. military first developed C-rations, or Type C ration, shortly before the start of the Second World War. The individual, canned, pre-cooked meals were issued to U.S. forces when fresh food and survival rations were unavailable and mess halls or field kitchens were inaccessible for the preparation of packaged, unprepared food. C-rations were widely used after an initial testing period during World War II. Although the MCI, or Meal Combat Individual, replaced C-rations in 1958, most U.S. troops continued to call them C-rations. This continued until about 1980 when the MRE, or Meal, Ready-to-Eat, replaced the MCI.
We collected C-rations because they represent an important part of the military experience: food. One history collections volunteer and Vietnam Veteran told us several stories about eating C-rations in Vietnam and his constant fear of not having enough to eat. I had never really considered the logistical nightmare of feeding hundreds of thousands of combat troops in the middle of a war, but our volunteer’s stories about C-rations revealed the difficulties and realities of soldiers’ access to food. But storing food in historic collections can be tricky, mainly because food attracts mice and other critters that can cause serious damage to objects. In addition, we intend to keep our objects forever, but many food products are not meant to be stored in their original packaging for long periods of time. This became an issue with our Vietnam C-rations when some of the food corroded their cans and the contents corroded their cans and the contents leaked out. Yes, it’s ironic: the food literally ate through its packaging! I’ll admit, I couldn’t help but wonder what it did to the human digestive system!
The simple solution would have been to deaccession and throw away the affected cans. However, we wanted to keep the cans in order to retain this interesting set of objects for our collection. A team of interns took on the task of cleaning the cans. The process went like this: First, they removed the lid of a can with a can-opener. Then they removed the food and gently scrubbed the can with a dry brush. Finally, they cleaned the can with water and a soft brush and gently dried the can with paper towels. The interns worked diligently to remove the food residue to prevent further corrosion and keep the cans from attracting mice and other pests. All but one can were saved!
Have you eaten C-rations? Please share your story in the comments!