Today, an army tries to travel on its stomach. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Tuesday, 1954, Fort
Monmouth, New Jersey. Four of us set out for a
German restaurant in nearby Long Branch. We called
this our Eine Kleine Knockwurst evening.
Each Tuesday the Army served C rations in the mess
hall. Each Tuesday we went off to buy our own
supper. For who would be caught dead eating C
C rations consisted of canned meat and vegetables,
packed in preservatives, along with hard biscuits.
Your stomach soon began to seize up at the sight of
those olive drab cans. C rations provided 3800
calories a day in battle conditions when it wasn't
possible to set up a mess hall. The army had to
keep an inventory of the stuff, and its shelf-life
was limited. So at the end of that shelf life, the
troops either ate it or let it cycle into the trash
bin while they hitch-hiked into town for real food.
Barbara Moran tells how the problem of feeding
troops in the field has haunted armies. Civil War
soldiers carried a water-and-flour biscuit called
hardtack, and they constantly suffered
scurvy. The Army introduced the C ration, or combat
ration, in 1938. At first, a day's portion added
almost six pounds to soldiers' packs. They took an
immediate dislike to its taste.
Then more problems arose: the cans would rust.
Labels would fall off, leaving one to guess what
each can held. The army came out with an improved C
ration -- somewhat lighter -- in 1944, but it still
had to fight off a lingering unsavory reputation.
Meanwhile, the Army set out to create a lighter
field ration. What they got was even less
appetizing, but better in combat situations. In
1942 a physiologist named Keys pioneered the K
ration. Whether or not the K reflected Keys's name,
we don't know. But the lemonade powder in the K
ration was so acidic that it was reported to work
better as a floor cleaner than as a drink. I don't
recall ever having eaten a K ration myself.
Today's combat ration is the MRE. That stands for
Meal, Ready-to-Eat. MREs are highly
processed, well-packaged food. Tin cans have given
way to light-weight plastic. MREs offer 24 choices
of menu including Chinese, Mexican, and Jamaican.
They even have chemical heaters. Add water, and a
reaction takes place in an outer sleeve making a
warm meal of it. By all reports MREs are lighter,
tastier, healthier, and far better all around than
the old C ration. Still, when Desert Storm troops
found themselves eating MREs for days on end, they
renamed them Meals Rejected by Everyone.
Feeding an Army is a terrible challenge. Problems
of weight and packaging are vastly magnified on a
battlefield. Grocery stores supply food to
kitchens: combat rations have to be ready for use
in an open field. Cafeterias feed hundreds: armies
feed thousands. It's no wonder that, when I was a
soldier, we would sing the song,
Oh the coffee in the Army,
They say it's simply fine.
It's good for cuts and bruises,
And it tastes like iodine.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds