Feasting on the Frontlines: The Vietnam War

Today, I stumbled on something pretty cool: an official photo catalogue by the U.S. Marine Corps of the eating habits of soldiers during the Vietnam War. War doesn’t exactly conjure pleasant images, and especially not for food. Army rations are rarely spoken of positively. Most stuff was cold, canned, nasty, or all the the above, nothing like a home-cooked meal, and it was just one more way the soldiers lost a taste of home (in this case, quite literally). But a well-fed army was a happy army, and a happy army was a fighting army, so in 1958 the Defense Department overhauled their nutritional but bland field ration fare (called the C-ration) into something more appealing.

A spread of some things you might see in a pack. This came from this ebay listing Vietnam Era US Army C Rations Food Survival Meal Packets and Canned | eBay for a pretty exorbitant $700 price tag, but any authentic C-ration will probably cost you a couple hundred.

Technically, these new rations were called “Meal, Combat, Individual,” but soldiers went right along calling them C-rations (C-rats, for short).

These new C-rations came in 12 different menus and each meal contained the 1) M-unit, the meaty main meal, 2) the B-unit, crackers and desserts, 3) canned cake or fruit, and 4) a spoon and accessory pack with things like cigarettes, chewing gum, coffee, and salt. From what I’ve read of vet testimonials, the pound cake was immensely popular and the ham and lima beans immensely not. Sometimes soldiers would keep their can of pound cake and fruit cocktail and barter with them, since there weren’t many in each case of meals and everyone wanted them.

These meals came cold, but soldiers could heat them through a variety of ways. Some used trioxane or hexamine fuel tablets. Some used little explosives. Some even used the engine manifolds of their vehicles, but if you weren’t careful the cans might explode on you.

Occasionally, there might be a rare hot meal, usually served on paper plates. The army did try to keep their troops’ morale up, and along with the periodic hot meal there were holiday specialties. On Thanksgiving, soldiers got hearty meal packs of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and peas. In addition, soldiers had plenty of tea, coffee, and hot chocolate to take their meals with.

A guy enjoying his Thanksgiving turkey. You can watch actual footage of Thanksgiving in Vietnam here: https://youtu.be/wytMe6Bzocs. The spread doesn’t look half bad!

If you weren’t stationed too far out into the fighting, you might even get something better. Force Logistics Command, founded about a year into the Vietnam campaign, was in charge of supplying troops with food, clothing, weapons, and pretty much anything else necessary. Over a 13-month period they managed to distribute ~11 million meals to soldiers, and by the end of the war their in-house bakery had churned out over 12 million donuts and 23 million pounds of bread. They made over 2000 donuts daily!

Many Vietnamese people worked in the bakery, too. In the photos I found describing the bakery, there were usually more Vietnamese workers than American ones, which makes sense. The army was probably looking for cheap labor nearby to staff their facilities.

And of course, the soldiers sometimes took things into their own hands. They picked fresh fruits when they could, to supplement their meals.

Some fruits were less well received than others.

None of this was gourmet fare, but American soldiers were generally fed well enough.

Halfway through reading this, I got curious—what did the Vietcong, the fighters not supported by the world’s preeminent industrial power, eat? The United States also had near-infinite latitude on how and where to move their supplies, whereas the Vietcong often had to smuggle and struggle for food. You may have heard of the Ho Chi Minh trail; there was also an extensive network of tunnels northwest of Saigon, called the Cu Chu tunnels, that let the Vietcong transport supplies around. Sometimes, they managed to steal or haggle the American C-rations off of the enemy, so they could eat those. There was rice, but access was limited, and so the North Vietnamese troops often had to live off of the land. They’d dig up cassava and sweet potatoes and fish from nearby rivers and lakes. Compared to the Americans, who got a meaty main dish with every meal box, meat for the VC was a rarity.

Cassava plants with the roots exposed. These farm-raised crops probably look a lot better than the wild cassava soldiers had to forage.

American soldiers were lucky to come from a country that had the resources and riches to invest in nutritious and decent-tasting military food, as well as the reach to supply those meals to the front lines. I’d imagine that things would’ve ended even sooner if the troops had to go meatless and sugarless on top of the brutal jungle warfare and isolation.

In general, American armies seem to come pretty well-stocked with (relative) luxuries. I remember reading that in World War II, our European allies were pretty shocked by how much confectionaries American soldiers brought with them. Considering that this is the US, land of sugar and fats and all that, that shouldn’t be too surprising.

All the official black and white photos I used in this post can be found here: Divider/Subject – 206 – Food (archives.gov). There’s a lot more interesting things in there that I didn’t get around to, so I’d definitely recommend taking a look. This blog post (Remember C-Rations? – CherriesWriter – Vietnam War website) from a Vietnam veteran was a great resource and has much more detail on the average experiences with C-rations, and it was an interesting read. The comments have a lot of veterans sharing their memories of C-rats, too. What you had to eat is one of those things that just doesn’t leave you.

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