About two months ago the Army announced that the old C ration was to be no more; it would be phased out over the next three years. An Atlanta paper, commenting on the announcement, editorialized that no GI would ever mourn the passing of either the C or K ration. It was clear, however, that the anonymous editorialist had never been intimately acquainted with either of the original field rations. In regard to the C ration, he wrote that "they tended to such delicacies as powdered eggs, powdered milk and inedible sausage and ham," and of the K ration, that its main course was a small can of Spam, "a dish that will live in infamy." He viewed both with terror and as "food unfit for human consumption."
Well, while no gourmand ever went into ecstasy over either the K or C ration, the editorial judgment was much too harsh. As a former consumer of both during World War II, we feel an obligation to rise in defense and set the matter straight.
In the first place, the C ration, as most of us knew it in 1942, was a two-can meal; a heavy, main course can, and a lighter, second can of dry biscuits, powdered coffee or cocoa, and a few hard candies. There were only three variations of the main course: meat and beans, meat and potato hash, meat and vegetable stew. We found the C ration a great improvement over the earlier, standard field ration which usually consisted of a waxed-paper wrapped sandwich of dry bread and a slice of salami, thrown at you by the mess sergeant as you filed by. The main trouble with the C ration in combat, when you often had to eat it for days on end, was its weight and bulkiness. Besides being uncomfortable to carry, it was almost impossible to stuff a two-day supply of cans into an already crowded backpack.
The K rations, which appeared about the same time in 1942, were more suited to the demands of combat since they were one-unit meals neatly packaged into a double cardboard carton about the size of a Cracker Jack box. The outer cardboard layer was heavily waxed and waterproofed and could serve as a container for liquid if necessary, or burned to heat whatever needed to be heated. They were light, compact, and a day's ration of three boxes could easily be packed or stashed away into some pocket. If we remember correctly, the early K rations came in two varieties: a breakfast ration with a small, flat can of congealed powdered eggs with ham bits, and a dinner ration with a similar can of deviled ham or chicken pate. In addition, each package contained three oblong, hardtack biscuits, a small D-bar of rock-like chocolate, powdered coffee or lemon drink or bouillon, some sugar, and a flat package of four cigarettes [usually Wings, Avalon's, or Twenty Grands].
No such ingredients as powdered milk, sausage, ham, or Spam ever appeared in the K and C rations we consumed in 1942 and 1943. And as to Spam being unfit to eat, we disagree. Actually, we remember it with much affection; a slightly warmed, inch slab of Spam was the delectable treat we looked forward to once a week during our prison camp days [two slices on Thanksgiving and Christmas]. Compared with worm-eaten potatoes and a watery stew of horsemeat scraps, tough cabbage leaves and rotting kohlrabi, Spam was delicious ... but it came out of Red Cross parcels, not K and C rations.
There were times in combat when, for two or three weeks in a row, we ate nothing but C or K rations. All soldiers were gripers and combat infantrymen were no exception; of course we griped about the monotony of C and K rations, but even the dullest GI came up with ways to break the monotony. You liberated a small, carrying-size pot or pan from some peasant house, kept an onion or two always in your pack, scrounged whatever else you could find in the gardens or fields - peppers, fennel, tomatoes, horse beans, garlic, a real egg occasionally - and with a little heat, ingenuity, and a main course can, could concoct a very appetizing meal.
Not all GIs will be glad to see the old C ration disappear; some of us who remember it fondly will hate to say goodbye. The only real gripers about Army field rations were the "rear area bastards," conditioned to comfort and luxury foods, who were served them occasionally on plates in a permanent mess by some uninspired mess sergeant. C and K rations were the combat soldier's best friends. In a combat area, where most of the civilian population was starved for food, if you could no longer stomach them yourself, you could always trade them for anything - even wine and women.
(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", Mar 1979, Vol. XXVI No.3, p.14