This article was originally published on Aug. 13, 2019, by the Department of Defense.
An old saying declares that an army marches on its stomach, meaning it needs food to survive, thrive and conquer.
Soldiers, sailors and Marines were often far from their mess halls, galleys and field kitchens during World War II, so they had to haul around heavy boxes of prepackaged food to survive.
The rations they carried were known as C-Rations, but were more often referred to as “C-Rats.”
C-Rations were developed in 1938 as a replacement for reserve rations, which sustained troops during World War I, and consisted chiefly of canned corned beef or bacon and cans of hardtack biscuits, as well as ground coffee, sugar, salt and tobacco with rolling paper — not much in the way of variety.
Researchers at the Quartermaster Subsistence Research and Development Laboratory in Chicago went to work to design food products that could be kept for long time periods and were more delicious and nutritious than reserve rations.
The design they came up with consisted of 12-ounce tinplate cans that were opened with a key. At first, the meals were stews, and more varieties were added as the war went on, including meat and spaghetti in tomato sauce, chopped ham, eggs and potatoes, meat and noodles, pork and beans; ham and lima beans, and chicken and vegetables.
Besides these main courses, chocolate or other candies, gum, biscuits and cigarettes were added.
When three meals a day were consumed, C-Rations provided about 3,700 calories. They could be eaten cold, but tasted better cooked.
Troop feedback on C-Rations often went unheeded. For instance, the ham and lima beans entree was unpopular, but it remained in the C-Ration mix until well into the Vietnam War. Two other complaints were that the food selection was monotonous and the meals were heavy to carry into combat on foot.
In 1958, C-Rations were replaced by “Meal, Combat, Individual” rations. The contents were almost identical to C-Rations, so they continued to be called C-Rats until the early 1980s, when “Meal, Ready-to-Eat” replaced them. MREs came in packages instead of cans, so they were much lighter than C-Rations.
Besides C-Rations, K-Rations were also issued during World War II, but in a more limited number. These were distributed for missions of short duration, such as paratroopers participating in airborne operations.
K-Rations were lighter than C-Rations, and three meals a day netted only 2,830 calories. Soldiers complained about the taste and lack of calories, and so entrepreneurial leaders often found supplements such as rice, bread and C-Rations.
K-Rations were discontinued at the end of World War II.
Today, MREs are issued to troops. The early versions were disliked by many, so the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts, which does food research for the Defense Department, improved the taste of MREs over time.
However, many veterans who’ve eaten both C-Rats and MREs, still have nostalgia for C-Rats and prefer them over MREs.