04 April 2009

Interlude: C-RATS AND SPS (The Candy That Tastes Like Soap)

Recently, a high school student to whom I was speaking asked, “What was life like? How did you wash your clothes? What did you eat?”

She was stunned to learn that

+ We wore the same clothes for weeks at a time, washing them only if it rained or we crossed a river. (I wore the same green T-shirt for six months. And we wore no “underwear” for the simple reason that it bunched up, got filthy, and caused rashes and infection.) Socks were changed every day, and each man was required to massage his feet for twenty minutes before putting on dry socks to prevent “warm water immersion foot,” aka, trench foot.

+ Shocking as it might be to the sensibilities of a 21st Century teenager, we did not bathe or shower in the field. We did enforce grooming standards: every man shaved every day and we cut each other’s hair using the hand clippers from the company barber kit. Shaving was particularly important because it made us wash our faces. If you did not wash your face daily, you quickly got “gook sores,” i.e., infected pores that ulcerated deep into the flesh.

+ We ate the same 12 meals (using the term loosely), day-after-day.

The hygiene issues are pretty much as explained, but food is an interesting area of discussion.

In garrison, there were mess halls that prepared pretty standard fare. Supplies came through Force Logistics Command in Da Nang, which had a bakery, and all the amenities of a major food distribution center. In the field, we ate the “Meal, Combat, Individual,” a canned wet ration in use between 1958 and 1980. Although commonly referred to as “C-Rations,” the “C’s” went out of use during or shortly after the Korean War. Because we called the MCI a "C-ration" I will do so here.

The C-Ration was a boxed set of 12 individual meals, packed in rectangular cardboard cartons. Each meal contained four cans: an "M"-unit (meat item), a "B"-unit (bread) composed of the small Crackers & Candy Can and the flat Spread Can, and a "D"-unit can (dessert). There were variations in all three components which were numbered, e.g., M-1 or B-2.

The M-1, M-3, and D-2 cans were small and the M-2, and D-1 cans were large. The ration cans were packed upright, with the flat spread can over the large can on the left side and the small B-unit can over the small can on the right side; on top was the brown foil Accessory Pack and a plastic spoon wrapped in clear plastic. Most of us kept the first spoon we opened—I carried mine for 7 months, licked clean after every meal and put back in my flak jacket pocket.

The Accessory Pack included salt, pepper, sugar, instant coffee, non-dairy creamer (almost always hardened into a cake), 2 Chicklets, a packet of toilet paper, a 4-pack of cigarettes, and a book of 20 moisture-proof matches. The cigarettes were different from meal to meal, including Camel, Chesterfield, Kent, Kool, Lucky Strike, Marlboro, Pall Mall, Salem, and Winston. The only three cigarettes I smoked in my life were Winstons, all smoked on the night of 10-11 June 1969. More about that later.

Each meal provided about 1,200 calories. Each was bulky and weighed about 3 pounds, so we generally opened the meal boxes, discarded any components we did not want, and put the cans into our dry socks and hung them across the pack.

The label of the ration carton was printed across the lid of the box in three rows. The first row always read "MEAL, COMBAT, INDIVIDUAL". The second row indicated the name of the meat unit in bold capital block letters (e.g., "TURKEY LOAF") and the third row indicated the "B"-unit number (B-1 or B-2 Unit) in bold capital block letters. The ration boxes were shipped in a rectangular cardboard packing case. Each packing case contained 12 ration cartons (containing one of each meal) packed in 2 rows of 6 rations. For every 12 meals, there were 4 paper-wrapped P-38 can openers (known as “John Waynes) to open the cans. When you got a John Wayne, you hung it on your dog-tag chain. I still have mine and use it when I go camping. It is basic and effective and, in my humble opinion, cannot be improved upon.
Each packing case weighed 25 to 26 pounds and was bound with bailing wire. The early M-16 A1’s we used had a forked flash suppressor which was perfect for breaking the baling wire. The open forked end was placed over the baling wire and given a sharp twist which would cut the wire.

Etiquette required that the bottom of the case be opened so that the identity of meat unit could not be seen. This prevented people from always getting the “better” meals, “better” being a loose term.

There were 12 "M" units, i.e., 12 basic meals:
1. Beefsteak
2. Boned Chicken or Turkey
3. Ham Slices
4. Turkey Loaf
5. Beans with Meatballs in Tomato Sauce (“beans ‘n’ balls”)
6. Beef Slices with Potatoes in Gravy (“beef ‘n’ rocks”)
7. Beans with Frankfurter Chunks in Tomato Sauce (“beanie weenies”)
8. Chopped Ham & Eggs
9. Beef in Spiced Sauce
10. Tuna Fish
11. Pork Slices
12. Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce

The spaghetti was a replacement for Ham & Lima Beans, (“ham ‘n’ muthas” or “ham and mother f------s), which we were still getting in TBS, but, thankfully, not in Vietnam. It was detested and to add insult to injury, it came with a can of “white bread” the consistency and shape of a hockey puck. You could usually trade meals, but no one in recorded history is known to have given up one of the other meals for ham and muthas. In TBS, I once picked it four times in a row! You just don’t forget that.

There were three different "B" units. (The nomenclature for the Corpsman’s field medical kit was “Unit 1.” Doc corrected me every time I told him to “grab your B-1 unit and take a look at [whatever injury had just occurred].”)

The first had 7 round crackers, called “John Wayne crackers” and 2 chocolate discs, either chocolate creme, or coconut. There was also a small can of peanut butter. Often, the peanut butter had so settled that there was peanut oil covering the particulate. (Years later, during a training exercise in Korea, we had lots of C’s, but no heat tablets. We found that you could set the peanut oil afire and three cans of peanut butter was the equivalent of a single heat tablet.)

The second had 4 crackers, a small can of “cheese spread” in plain, pimento, and caraway flavors, and a cookie. The third had Cookies, a packet of cocoa powder, and a small can of grape or strawberry jam.

The "D" unit was usually the favorite part of the meal. D-1 units were fruit, either apricots, sliced peaches, pears, fruit cocktail, applesauce, or pineapple bits. The D-2 unit was pound cake, pecan nut roll, fruitcake, or date pudding.

The biggest problem with C’s was monotony. Even when we were eating only two meals a day, you got tired of them quickly. If you had to eat them cold, as we usually did, they tended to be greasy. The beef, was chewy—like boot leather!. The problem was that when the MCI was designed in the late 1950’s, it was designed only for "infrequent use." The designers assumed that, as in WWII and Korea, future users would be rotated “off the line” every three to four days into an area where they would have access to a field mess. (I remember reading a monograph about the WWII battle of Saipan. One photo showed a company of Marines lined up in a field mess to receive “their first hot meal in four days.” I laughed out loud—we ate cold C’s for 30 to 60 days at a stretch.)

In my last month in the bush, I was so disgusted with C's that I stopped eating. I went to Vietnam weighing 171 pounds--six months later, I weighed 118. In that last month, I had a can of pineapple bits and a pecan nut roll for breakfast with a cup of coffee. That was it. Every other day or so, my Platoon Guide, Lance Corporal Bob Henson, would act like my Mom and make me eat something--usually a "stew" he had prepared from several different meat cans. He probably kept me alive. He was 19.

Cs were also bulky and heavy, adding about 6 pounds per day’s ration to the individual load. As I mentioned earlier, troops frequently carried their stacked ration cans in empty socks to save bulk and reduce noise—very important to Charlie Company as we moved almost exclusively at night. To save weight, we usually carried the minimum amount on operations. If resupply was delayed, we went hungry. (I specifically remember two occasions, once when we were not resupplied in five days and another, during the monsoon season, when the delay was eight days and we were completely out of chow by the middle of the fourth day.)

As the Vietnam war began, McNamara and his bean counters resisted expanding the variety or adopting lightweight rations out of cost concerns. One simple addition that would have helped was to add a vitamin pill. I asked my Mom to send me several large bottles of vitamins every couple of weeks. I then gave them to Doc, who made sure each Marine in my platoon took a vitamin pill every day. About mid-1969, we began to hear that the Army was getting something called ‘lurps” (Long Range Patrol Ration). It was a de-hydrated meal that came in a pouch. Add hot water and you had a meal such as chili with rice. We scrounged a few, but they never came to us in normal supply while I was in Vietnam.

We mostly ate the C’s cold. We were supplied with a tin-foil coated chemical tablet (trioxane) that was kind of like solid sterno. It burned hot and gave off eye-watering fumes. It was not very efficient, taking a couple of tablets to heat one can, but it was great for clearing bunkers and burning Vietnamese hooches in villages if we found ammo or other ordnance hidden in the thatch. A better heat source for cooking was C-4 plastic explosive. Nearly everyone carried a quarter-pound stick for demolishing bunkers. If you twisted off a pinch of C-4 and touched a match to it, it burned very hot—it could bring a canteen cup to a boil in about 30 to 45 seconds.

The small "B"-unit can could be made into an improvised field stove by making a series of diagonal cuts around the top and bottom edges of the can with your John Wayne opener. You could also make a really neat coffee cup out of a fruit can by winding baling wire from the C-ration carton around the top and bottom of the can and then twisting the wire, inserting a stick into the twist at each end, and finishing it off. A short D unit can could also become a cup by hooking the hinged edge of a grenade safety spoon around the bottom lip of the can and putting baling wire through the pin hole and then twisting it around the top edge of the can.

Warning: Never, ever open a can of apricots in, or even near, an amphibious tractor. It will make the tractor blow up. Don’t ask why—it just will. I have seen many a Marine knocked out cold for simply looking like he was going to open apricots in a tractor. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’. Ask any amphibious tractor crewman.

The Sundries Pack

Life in the bush was harsh. Obviously, the little amenities associated with even the 1960’s were not going to be available. Our families used to send us “CARE packages” of Koolaid and tobasco sauce. The tobasco sauce helped almost any meal. The Koolaid was a blessing because our water was less than tasty.

Our usual water sources were creeks and streams, village wells, and flooded bomb craters. To disinfect our drinking water, we were issued small bottles of Halizone tablets. It was recommended that two pills be used for each quart canteen, but our water was so funky that we usually just put the entire eight pills per bottle into the canteen. The water then tasted like a mixture of Clorox and iodine, but it killed the bugs. (One of my classmates later lost most of his intestines as a result of a parasite he picked up from lousy water. The bugs of the orient are just plain mean.)

In the bush, there were no grocery stores, 7-11’s or PX’s. To make up for that, there was an item in the supply system called the “Sundries Pack” or “SP.” Intended to be the "front line post exchange," it provided many of the simple articles that helped make life a little easier. One SP was intended to meet the requirements of 100 men for one day, but we usually saw one SP per platoon (30 men) every two to three weeks.

Jammed into one box that was about 15 inches square were the following: a couple of cartons of cigarettes, a couple of pouches of chewing tobacco, a couple of pouches of pipe tobacco, a pipe, matches, lighter flints, a couple of bars of shaving soap, a Gillette safety razor and several packs of razor blades, several cans of tooth powder, several tooth brushes, 6 bars of soap (usually Lux soap), some Hershey chocolate bars, Peter Paul Mounds and Almond Joy bars, Three Musketeers and Snickers bars, and Wrigley’s and Beechnut chewing gum in various flavors, a couple of pads of writing paper, and a pack of envelopes. It was the Platoon Guide’s responsibility to parse out the contents to the squads. They were always welcome.

Packed together as they were, the flavors tended to merge. When I was in Embarkation School, we were planning to load a cargo ship. One of the Navy officers in the class saw that there were several pallets of “SPs” to be loaded.

“What are SPs,” he asked.

Before anyone could respond, Tom Kerrigan, one of my Basic School classmates piped up, “Ah, SPs. The candy that tastes like soap.”

Every Marine in the class howled. And that still remains the best answer I can think of.


Quotidian Grace said...

Once again, I'm astounded at the details you remember.

Did you keep a detailed journal during that time?

Reformed Catholic said...

I did some 'desert' training in the early 80's when I served in one of the AF Civil Engineering squadrons.

At the base, we had C-Rats, they saved the MREs for the real trip to the desert.

I picked up two John Waynes during one training exercise. Had one on my dogtags, and one on my keychain. Unfortunately, I can't find the dogtags, and lost the keychain (sigh).

Mac said...

QG: Can't remember where I left the keys sometimes, but that year is with me every day--especially this year (the 40th anniversary).

And when you eat the same thing over and over for seven months, it is sort of like a culinary "Groundhog Day." 8>)

No "journaling" (we called them diaries in those ancient days) was allowed, lest the enemy capture you or find it on your remains.

RC: I had an Aussie field ration opener which was like a P-38, but also included a metal spoon. Lost it and have looked for a replacement for years to no avail. They do now make and sell "replica" John Waynes, although they are larger and not as durable. My RVN copy is firmly attached to the bag that holds my "spork" in my back pack. (I'd use the old plastic spoon, but it, too, was lost over the years.

The MRE's are such a great improvement over Cs--especially the vast number of meals.

Reformed Catholic said...

Sure were ... although the early ones were kinda funky. The only way to eat the beef patty was to put it between two crackers and use the cheese spread. Wasn't a Big Mac but was a step up from cardboard ;)

The latest ones, I hear, are a quantum leap from the originals.

Put said...


I too am amazed at your memory. I was with 3/3 in Vietnam in 68, but can only recall a few things clearly.

I spent 26 years in the Corps and my son has been in for almost 17 - time flies. Your name rings a bell for some reason. Did you stay in the Corps after Vietnam?

Wife and I fled the PCUSA for the PCA four or five years ago. Have followed you work with New Wineskins with admiration.