1946 Fifty Years Ago

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In Tokyo on November 11 Kiyoshi Matsuzaki struck a blow for Japanese technological supremacy by defeating a GI’s electric calculating machine with an old-fashioned abacus. Matsuzaki, a government clerk, outpaced Pvt. Thomas Wood of Deering, Missouri, in subtraction, addition, and division, losing only in multiplication. In a final problem combining all four arithmetical disciplines, Matsuzaki produced the correct answer four seconds ahead of his rival. Wood, an experienced bookkeeper, was gracious in defeat, shaking hands with Matsuzaki as he maintained his preference for the seven-hundred-dollar mechanical calculator over the six-dollar soroban. Another soldier was less magnanimous: “It’s the first time the Japs have won anything since the battle off Savo Island.” In the aftermath (so to speak) of the event, no politicians felt the need to call for trade sanctions.

C-Minus Rations

On November 13 U.S. Army brass announced scientific proof of what any World War II veteran could have told them: C rations tasted lousy. In tests at Camp Carson, Colorado, soldiers fed on traditional C rations for a month had lost an average of one pound apiece, while those given a reformulated version had gained an average of three pounds. The data came as no surprise to GIs who had suffered through the war on the prepackaged diet of meat-and-beans, hash, or stew (a largely theoretical distinction), accompanied by desiccated crackers and vile alleged coffee. The C ration, a day’s worth of meals contained in an inconvenient cylindrical can weighing a hefty five pounds, had been meant for emergency use only, but as always in wartime, the distinction between emergency and normal situations quickly evaporated.

According to an official Army history, the World War II C ration “was seriously lacking in variety” and “would become monotonous if it were the only food available over protracted periods,” which happened with distressing frequency. Furthermore, “crackers, stored for a year or more, underwent chemical changes that made them rancid and gave them unpleasant flavors,” and the fat in meat items often “separated from the other elements and formed a reddish conglomeration at the ends of the can, so distasteful in appearance that soldiers repeatedly threw the whole mass of food away. With age the onions, carrots, and meats acquired new and less acceptable flavors and, according to some consumers, came to look and taste like ‘dog food.’” Even Uncle Sam’s toughest Marines “could not eat more than half a canful of C hash at a time.” Bill Mauldin’s highly unofficial book on the war, Up Front , reported that “prisoners scream when we throw C rations at them. According to the rules, they are supposed to get the same food as their captors, and they refuse to believe that we also eat C rations.”

The revised version was improved in both quantity (an extra meat item was included) and variety (the available dishes eventually included hamburgers, franks and beans, spaghetti, pork sausages, ham, and chicken). Army culinary standards still prevailed, which may explain why another addition, canned fruit, was best received by the soldiers. A further welcome novelty was a tin of real bread to supplement the “biscuit units.” The cigarette allowance was also increased, from nine to twenty.

Although the revised bill of fare was an improvement on the old C rations, it was not exactly appetizing. A Korean War soldier later recalled: “Ham and limas I don’t think nobody wanted. We gave a can to a Chinese prisoner once, and even he wouldn’t eat it. On the other hand, everybody wanted the cans of fruit. Can of peaches, or fruit cocktail, it made your day.” The Korean War’s multinational character would create other headaches for American procurement officers. Muslim troops from Turkey would not eat pork, until finally religious leaders gave them permission to consume it in combat rations (a mixed blessing, to be sure); they also scoffed at what Americans called coffee. Hindus shunned beef and demanded rice and spices; Italians required tomato paste; Greeks had olive oil shipped from home. Thai and Ethiopian soldiers came up with what may be the best way to make military food palatable: They requested a supplement of hot sauce and applied it liberally to everything.