10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History

Larry Holzwarth - April 28, 2018

The history of military rations – how the troops and sailors were fed – is a complicated one. Over time it has become about more than food and drink. Today psychological factors are considered as much as nutritional values. The quality and quantity of food contributes or detracts from morale as much as it does physical health. Two hundred years ago a typical US Navy sailor could look forward to a main meal of salt beef, salt pork, or pickled tongue, a porridge made of dried peas or lentils, hard biscuit known as hardtack, possibly some portable soup, and beer or wine to wash it down.

Today his counterpart can select, on larger ships, from a speed line resembling a fast food restaurant, or a main line offering choices which resemble a buffet. Fresh vegetables and fruit abound, along with assorted breads and rolls. There is a multitude of beverages available, though the Navy long ago did away with alcoholic beverages aboard its ships. Smaller ships and submarines have fewer options but still manage to provide choices at most meals, and nutritionally balanced options are always available. How the military’s feeding of its troops and sailors evolved extraordinarily over the years, especially following the introduction of the all-volunteer service.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
A US Army men’s mess hall in 1918, attached to the US Army Base Hospital Number 45. Wikimedia

Here are some of the ways the military was fed in the past, and how it has changed to what it is today.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
Food wasn’t included in this list of needs of the Continental Army because Congress had promised to supply it. It didn’t. Library of Congress

Feeding the Continental Soldier

A continental breakfast today is usually coffee or tea, juice, and pastries or soft breads, with jam and fresh butter. A Continental soldier’s breakfast was not of that style. If he had the foresight to set aside some of the previous day’s bread for the morning that was his breakfast, usually taken with water or cider, possibly beer or spruce beer. Of course that assumes he had been issued a bread ration the day before, which all too often was not the case. If he had, it was likely hardtack, crackers baked to a hardness that it required soaking in liquid in order to bite into, even when it was not infested with maggots.

Congress had of course debated and then issued regulations for the feeding of its troops, but neglected to provide the funds to obtain the necessary rations, and to deliver them. A Continental recruit was promised generous portions of salt beef or pork daily, supplemented with vegetables, bread, milk, either rice or cornmeal, and a quart of beer per day. If beer was unavailable cider was offered. In truth the troops received far less. Often the only food they had was what they could forage or purchase, and since they were seldom paid they could purchase very little.

Jerked meat, including venison and other game, was often the only source of protein available. Regulations regarding hunting were often ignored, though game rapidly became scarce near major encampments. Pillaging food was against regulations, and punishments for stealing food included severe whippings (as much as 500 lashes), branding, riding the rail, or even death. Desertions because of hunger plagued the Continental Army throughout its existence. The records of the Continental Congress are filled with pleas from George Washington for rations for his troops.

Sailors of the Continental Navy fared better because they obtained their supplies before leaving port and were often able to resupply from captured ships. Their diet was almost exclusively salt meat and dried peas (called pease at the time and referring to all dried beans and lentils) the juice of lemons and limes, and beer and rum. Water stored in wooden casks quickly became crawling with algae and other things, and was virtually undrinkable after just a few weeks at sea. Their officers purchased chickens, sheep, and sometimes pigs, carried onboard as a supply of fresh meat and eggs, and washed down their meals with wines and brandy.

During the Revolutionary War more soldiers died of the diseases associated with malnutrition than of battle wounds. When barrels of salt meat did arrive at the Continental Camps they were often short weighted, and the meat provided rancid, but it was issued to the troops anyway in lieu of nothing better. Dysentery and diarrhea, called the bloody flux, were rampant in the encampments. Conditions did not really improve as the war went on, in the 1780 Morristown encampment more men died than had at the more well-known Valley Forge winter. Congress passed legislation to increase the rations of the men in 1780, but as before did nothing to provide the food.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
During the War of 1812 the United States had a commissary system to ensure adequate food reached the troops. It worked most of the time. US Army

Improvements in the War of 1812

By the time the Americans and the British had a second go at each other in 1812, the manner in which the troops were fed had changed somewhat. The United States had established a military commissary to purchase food for the troops and distribute it to where it was needed. Beef and pork, preserved in salt, were available from American meatpackers. The basic diet was roughly the same as that of the Continental soldier, but by 1812 it was actually available, supplemented with coffee and tea. The basic bread issue remained hardtack, as it would for another century.

Two innovations in military nutrition were widely exhibited during the war of 1812. Portable soup first appeared in the mid-1700s, and during the war of 1812 it was widely used by the armies and navies of the contending nations. Portable soup was made by reducing broth after degreasing it, since otherwise the fat would become rancid. Once all the liquid was gone the residue was shaped into cakes, cut into cubes, and stored in glass jars or crocks. When reconstituted with water, vegetables and meat were added to produce a soup or stew. Portable soup was easily transportable, lasted a long time, and offered a variation to the diet.

In the late 1790s a Frenchman name Nicolas Appert had developed the technique of canning meats and other foods in glass jars. The British adapted the technique using tin containers which were sealed with lead. Beef, pork, and poultry, as well as many vegetables, were capable of being preserved in tins by 1810. By 1813 Wellington’s army in Spain and the British troops in the United States and Canada were being supplied tinned foods, chiefly beef, for consumption of the troops in the field. The substitution of tinned beef for salt meat provided a far more healthful diet. Unfortunately it was also expensive.

The cost of tinned foods meant that its distribution was limited to officer’s messes for the most part, both aboard British ships and among the troops. Portable soup was available to all of the troops and became a mainstay for the American as well as the British Army and Navy. Despite the improvements in terms of variety offered, the mainstay diets of the troops remained salt beef, salt pork, and hardtack. Camps of both armies were plagued by the diseases associated with malnutrition and lack of proper sanitation. Neither army was sustained on what today would be known as a balanced diet.

In addition to the heavy salt intake from the preserved meat that was consumed daily, both the Americans and the British believed that pickled cabbage – sauerkraut – was effective in the prevention of scurvy. It also had the advantage of lasting a long time, transportable in barrels, and could be used in conjunction with portable soup or issued separately. It became a major part of the daily diet of the Army and Navy of both nations during the War of 1812.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
Soldiers look down over their encampment on the Pamunkey River. In camp Union soldiers were usually well provisioned. Wikimedia

Feeding Northern troops during the American Civil War

Although canned meat was prevalent in the United States at the time of the Civil War, including canned fish, for the troops most of the meat provided was preserved in salt. Occasionally fresh beef was available for some units in camp, arriving there on the hoof to be butchered by Army butchers and distributed to the men. While in camp most units divided themselves into “messes” comprised of several men, who would choose among them who would serve as the cook. Union troops received their daily bread in the form of hardtack, and few ate it simply as bread.

In addition to beef or salt pork, the troops were issued bacon, which with beans was a popular meal in the Union army. Hardtack was often crumbled and cooked in bacon grease, a meal which the men called skillygalee. Union troops also received fresh fruits when available, dried fruits at other times, the same with vegetables, peas and potatoes, vinegar (as a guard against scurvy), molasses, and as if they didn’t have enough in their diet already, salt. Oats in the Union army were rarely provided to the men, as so much of the grain was needed to feed the horses.

Coffee was the highlight of the Union soldier’s day, and coffee beans were provided to the troops individually, still green. Each soldier roasted his own, or the beans may be pooled with others to make a pot of coffee. With their coffee a ration of sugar was provided. Some Union soldiers found that trade with their counterparts on the other side was enhanced when coffee was offered, usually in exchange for tobacco. Officially against regulations on both sides, the exchange of food and tobacco between the pickets of the armies was commonplace, one of the few acts of civility during the American Civil War.

While the armies were in the field, on the march outside of camp, each soldier typically prepared his own food individually. It was common to cook meat as soon as possible after it was received, against the possibility of not being able to cook it at mealtimes. The right wing of the Union army was engaged in that activity outside of Chancellorsville, Virginia when the Confederates under Stonewall Jackson crashed into them in 1863. After routing the Union troops, the Confederates enjoyed the Yankee rations left behind. One of the simple cooking methods of the Union soldier was to cook his beef or pork and then eat it over his hardtack ration, the precursor for a meal made much later using chipped beef.

Official rations of beer or cider were discontinued in the US Army by the time of the Civil War, but beer was available for purchase from the camp followers who were constantly with the US Armies in the field and their encampments. Whiskey, women, and tobacco were also available for purchase and although drunkenness was against regulations, most officers looked the other way unless some other transgression was involved. Overall the soldiers in the Union Army were provided much the same fare as American soldiers in previous wars, but the amount and regularity of their rations was steady, and hunger was not a problem for the men in blue.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
Confederate troops in camp. At first well provisioned, by 1863 Confederate troops knew the pinch of hunger. Wikimedia

Feeding the Confederate Army during the American Civil War

In the early days of the American Civil War the troops of the Confederate states were well provided with food. This was the result of the Southern agrarian economy, which produced large numbers of hogs, fruit, and grains, particularly rice in many of the coastal areas. Hams and bacon were a large part of the Southern troop’s diet, supplemented with vegetables including okra and beans, and grains such as corn and barley. Like their Northern counterparts, the Southern troops ate in messes, usually a soldier’s squad was also his mess when in camp. On the march each fended for himself.

Southern bakeries also produced hardtack for the troops, until the lack of flour in the Confederacy forced them to produce other forms of bread. One such effort was fried or baked cakes of water and cornmeal, heavily laden with salt, which the troops would dissolve in water or a coffee substitute made largely of chicory before consuming. As the war went on the pressures of the Union blockade and the disruption of the Confederate railroads made it more difficult to deliver food to the troops. The invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863 was in part to obtain supplies which Northern Virginia could no longer provide to Lee’s army.

Confederate troops foraged freely in Pennsylvania, as did Northern Armies as they moved through Confederate territory, both sides justifying what was essentially pillaging as weakening the ability to make war on the part of the other. Looting was officially against the regulations of both sides, except for the seizure of military goods, and both sides used exceedingly broad parameters to determine what was considered to be beneficial to the military. After 1863 Northern farmers were unbothered by raids and the Army was well supplied both from the farms of the north and the foraging raids in the south.

Southern troops’ rations were steadily reduced as the war went on, and shortages of all foodstuffs in the South affected both the military and the civilian communities. Large self-sufficient plantations began to be threatened by looters deserting from the Southern armies as well as the approaching southern troops. The Union launched two scorched earth campaigns to further reduce the South’s ability to feed its Army and people, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and across Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah. In addition to confiscating or destroying crops, the means to move supplies were disrupted.

By the time of Lee’s surrender meat rations in the Southern Armies were all but unheard of, and many troops were surviving on parched corn, peanuts, and a handful or two of rice. When Lee withdrew towards Richmond he was headed toward the Confederate supply depot of Appomattox in an attempt to acquire some supplies for the remnants of his dwindling Army but Union cavalry got there first. Lee’s army was so bereft of supplies that one of the first things he asked Grant for during his surrender was rations for his men, a request which Grant agreed to, providing the surrendering Confederates the same rations given to his own men.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
US sailors enjoy a few cold ones on Ulithi Atoll in the Pacific in 1944. The sailor at right has one in each hand. US Navy

Beer for the troops in American History

In America’s early wars beer, considered a more healthful beverage than water, was included in the men’s rations. In lieu of beer, cider or spruce beer could be offered. The ration established by Congress was a liberal one, a quart per day in the Continental Army, later increased to two quarts. During the so called Great Awakening, an early religious revival in the young United States, the nation’s first temperance movements took hold, and the wisdom of providing alcoholic beverages to the troops was questioned to the point that Congress did away with the ration. Soldiers of the American Civil War were not provided government supplied beer.

The Civil War was known for long encampments, and soldiers quickly became bored with the routine of the camps. Boredom was alleviated through gambling at cards and dice (both sinful activities according to the temperance crowd) playing at a newly popular game called baseball, and consuming beer. The beer came from the camp followers who were officially barred from selling it to enlisted men unless they were accompanied by an officer. They sold it anyway, and the officers and commanders of the Union armies turned a blind eye to the activity. Many soldiers in extended encampments brewed their own beer, another illegality ignored by authority.

During the First World War the government did not officially provide beer to the troops of the American Expeditionary Force. The soldiers soon found the outlets which sold it and other alcoholic beverages in Paris and other French cities and towns, and American dollars were readily exchanged. During the Second World War the military and civilian leadership recognized that the availability of beer at base recreational facilities may serve to keep the troops from encountering other bothersome activities which tend to congregate around military facilities, such as prostitution and grifting. In order to protect the troops and enhance morale, beer became part of the American war effort.

Breweries in the United States were directed to set aside 15% of production for distribution to the troops (they also got 30% of cigarette production). American breweries shipped cases of beer in cans and bottles to ports on both coasts to be shipped to the troops overseas. Some breweries shipped their beer in camouflaged cans in order to make it more difficult to spot from overhead by the prying eyes of enemy aircraft. Officially the beer was rationed but enterprising soldiers soon found ways to circumvent that inconvenience. In Korea and in Vietnam, beer was provided to the troops at nominal cost, although in neither of those conflicts was there a mandatory amount of supply placed on the brewers.

As recently as the Gulf War the military leadership recognized the need to provide beer and other alcoholic beverages to enhance the morale of the troops, despite their deployment in some areas where alcohol is prohibited due to religious law. In those cases, a rotation system was established to allow troops to enjoy some time off where there were no proscriptions against alcohol, and the American government ensured that there were sufficient supplies of beer and other beverages to keep the troops happy. The relationship between beer and the United States military is a long one, and shows no sign of coming to an unhappy ending.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
Salt pork, shown here being produced in Cincinnati, was a staple of the Army diet until World War 1. Library of Congress

World War 1 and the advent of rations

The United States Army introduced the individual rations intended to be carried by troops in the field, with no access to a mess kitchen, in 1907. It was called the Iron Ration because it was issued in a metal box which was actually made of tin. The box contained three boullion cakes which were mixed with cooked wheat, each weighing three ounces. Three one ounce chocolate bars provided sugar, and thus energy, and to flavor the boullion salt and pepper was included. The army continued to issue the Iron ration until 1922. It was never popular with the troops, other than the chocolate.

In 1914 the Army issued the Trench Ration. Not yet at war, the United States Army was concerned that troops at the front would be separated from mess kitchens for extended periods of time, and that food from the kitchens could not be delivered to the troops. Accordingly the Trench Ration was developed and used through 1918. The Trench Ration was commercially available canned meats or fish such as kippers or sardines, along with crackers. Each ration contained several cans of meat or fish and thus the rations were heavy and the troops never cared for them anyway. During training and later deployment, the complaints of the troops made the Trench Ration short-lived.

In 1917 the Army introduced the Reserve Ration. The reserve ration contained either bacon or canned meat, a pound of bread or hardtack, coffee, sugar, salt, and loose tobacco accompanied by rolling papers. The tobacco was eventually replaced with cigarettes. Following World War 1, in response to the comments received from the troops, the Reserve Ration was modified in several installments, and eventually became two rations, one with meat as its protein source, the other with pork and beans. Chocolate was added, usually hard, intended to be melted and consumed as a beverage, although powdered milk, which would have been useful in such a case, was not.

In 1938 the Army introduced what became famous as its C-rations. C-rations came in meat and beans, meat and potatoes, or meat and vegetables. Each C-ration was complete nutrition for one day. A daily ration comprised six twelve ounce cans, two for each meal. Since the labels were prone to fall off, sometimes the same meal might be had three times a day for several days in a row. C-rations were provided to the British and Russians under Lend-Lease, where they were an improvement over the soldier’s daily fare and were welcomed enthusiastically. With American troops they were far less popular.

The production of C-rations continued after World War 2, despite the Army finding them not suitable to their purpose any longer in 1945. C-rations were used during the Korean War and after that remaining stocks sat in Army supply depots. During the Vietnam War the remaining supplies of C-rations, which had not been manufactured since 1958, were destroyed by serving them to the troops in Southeast Asia. Evidently that had not aged as well as some wines and fine cheeses. They were even less popular than they had been twenty years earlier. As late as 1968 C-rations prepared a decade earlier were being distributed to combat troops.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
General Joseph Stilwell breakfasts on C-rations, Christmas morning, 1943. US Army

K-Rations for specialized troops

K-Rations came into existence because C-rations were inadequate for the needs of specialized troops. They were too heavy for airborne troops, too bulky for the crews of tanks and other armored vehicles, and both limitations applied for couriers and messengers. K-rations were based on emergency rations and initially provided less than 3,000 calories per day. A single K-ration consisted of three meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and included four cigarettes with each meal, thoughtfully accompanied with matches. Initially there were three, the standard K-ration and specialized Mountain and Jungle versions. The specialized versions were soon discontinued.

Many of the food items found in the K-rations were treated with repugnance by the troops who were supposed to sustain themselves on them, and simply thrown away. Pork loaf was especially despised. The refusal to eat certain items reduced their designed efficiency in providing sufficient caloric intake. Beside the entrée each K-ration meal included saltine crackers, chewing gum, and cigarettes. The remainder of the contents was dependent upon whether it was to be eaten as breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The entrée was contained in a can opened with a twist key attached to its bottom, the rest of the meal was packed in cellophane.

A breakfast pack would include the canned entrée, which was always eggs and chopped ham, a dried fruit bar similar to a granola bar, instant coffee, water purification tablets, and cigarettes to enjoy after the hearty meal. Lunch entrees were pork cold cuts, cheeses, malted milk tablets (to increase caloric intake), more purification tablets, candy and gum, and a powdered drink similar to Kool-Aid. For dinner, which the Army called supper, the entrée was one of three varieties of meat, which changed as the war went on, toilet paper, chewing gum, more purification tablets, bouillion, and an energy bar of chocolate or fruit.

The K-ration was designed to be consumed for no more than fifteen consecutive meals, since its caloric intake and lack of variation in its content limited its use for healthy diet as well as its appeal to the consumer. They were universally disliked by the troops who were forced to consume them wearing American uniforms. Once again, to the Allies who received them as part of Lend-Lease, they were an improvement over their standard army fare. The Army attempted to provide everything the troops involved in an action which prevented them from receiving normal daily rations would need. This included the chewing gum being Dentyne in at least one meal per day, as an alternative to brushing the teeth.

The standard US Army combat fatigue uniform was equipped with pockets designed to carry K-rations, and paratroopers jumped accompanied by supply boxes which delivered K-rations to the drop zones, at least in theory. The rations themselves were produced by commercial food preparation companies in the United States to Army specifications. These included Heinz, Pillsbury, and the Cracker Jack Company. K-rations produced by Cracker Jack did not include a surprise in every box, but they did include five caramels in the lunch meal. After the war the millions of K-rations in stock were used to feed the starving civilians of Europe and across the Pacific.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
US Marines unload MCIs, which were stilled called C-rations by the troops, near Da Nang in April 1969. USMC

Using lessons learned to improve the individual rations

Following the declaration of the World War 2 era C-rations as obsolete, the Army in 1958 introduced the Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI) ration. The troops, noting the similarity to the appearance of the withdrawn C-ration, continued to refer to the MCIs as C-rations. The MCI was designed to be an improvement over the C-ration, offering a respite to the monotony of the similar meals by adding some additional items and varying the available entrées. It remained in use until 1980. In its twelve years of use it gained about the same level of popularity as its predecessor, which is to say, it was not beloved by the troops forced to consume it.

An MCI came in a cardboard box and contained several cans in which most of the rations were packed. It also contained a foil pack which held accessories and a plastic spoon to enable elegant dining. The entrée content was clearly identified on the box, eliminating one of the complaints over the C-ration, where the contents of the meal were often unknown until the cans were opened. Can openers were also included. The can containing the entrée was referred to as the M unit and being the Army, there were several variations of the M unit, M 1, M 2, or M 3, depending on what the can contained. Most consumers didn’t care.

The meat unit could contain items varying from boned chicken to beans and franks, and meatloaf, beefsteak, and spaghetti and meat balls in tomato sauce were just some of the selections. Breakfast MCIs offered eggs and chopped ham, which could also be had for other meals. A meal’s bread (called the B unit by the Army and varying by number B 1, B 2, etc, depending on content) might be crackers, hardtack, cookies, and a spread can, identified by its being long and flat, offered jam, peanut butter, or cheese spreads, dependent on the contents of the B unit. A can called the D unit, with appropriate numeric modifiers as above, offered dessert.

The accessory pack, which was of foil, provided the diner with salt and pepper, sugar and non-dairy creamer to be used with the instant coffee it also contained, chewing gum in candy coated rectangles a la Chiclets, four cigarettes and waterproof matches, and toilet paper. The cigarettes were the same as those available commercially and were identified as to their brand, leading to trading between menthol and non-menthol cigarette smokers. In 1975 the cigarettes were removed from all future MCIs, as the government continued to urge Americans to quit smoking due to health concerns. Existing stocks of MCIs were left alone.

MCIs were used in Vietnam with some of the foods providing uses not intended by the nutritionists. The peanut butter spread was found to make a fine fuel source with which to heat water for coffee, rendering it useful despite the troops finding it unpalatable. MCIs came with a trioxene fuel tablet for heating the entrée and water for coffee, but the peanut butter offered an alternative fuel. MCIs were bulky, heavy, and thus inconvenient for use in the field where troops also found the rattling cans made too much noise on patrol. Supposed to be an improvement on the C-ration, they were actually little improvement at all.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
The contents of an MRE, which stands for Meal Ready to Eat. It isn’t, it’s ready to prepare to eat. Wikimedia

The current version of the individual field ration

The Meal, Read to Eat (MRE) drew attention at the time of the first Gulf War and again during its issuance during natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. The replacement of the MCI, the MRE eliminated the bulky cans of the former and consists of dehydrated foods stored in plastic pouches, to be rehydrated and in some cases heated using a water activated flameless heater designed for the purpose. Development of the MRE began during the Vietnam War and has continued ever since as the Army has worked to improve nutritional content and caloric intake in accordance with established guidelines.

Despite the Army’s efforts, many troops in the field forced to rely on MREs for their total caloric intake fail to do so as a result of discarding rather than consuming all of the content of the MRE. Army efforts to make all portions of a prepackaged meal appetizing to all troops is an impossibility, since tastes vary, but the effort remains ongoing. MREs are designed to be consumed for up to three weeks before garrison rations (a mess hall or field kitchen) supplants them. Each meal contains roughly 1,200 calories, and the MRE weighs between one and one and a half pounds, depending upon its content.

An MRE contains a main course, a side dish, bread or crackers, dessert, an appropriate spread for the type of bread and the nature of the meal, a powdered beverage, a plastic spoon or spork, the heater, and an accessory pack. Seasonings, sugar, non-dairy creamer, instant coffee, chewing gum, napkins, and toilet paper are included in the accessory pack. Some of the items are purchased from manufacturers as off the shelf products and are so labeled such as Maxwell House coffee or Domino Sugar. Others are marked with typical government labeling such as Fruit Flavored Beverage Powder.

Menus have changed over the years the MREs have been used, with the changes intended to reflect not only nutritional demands but the popularity of the foods offered. The Army recognized from experience with earlier types of individual rations that unless the food offered is eaten by the troops the nutritional value of the food is non-existent. From the beginning the Army has considered both Kosher and Halal dietary restrictions and prepared MREs accordingly. It has also responded to concerns over low fiber content (and the resultant constipation) by increasing the fiber content of the crackers and other breads included in the meals.

MREs are an improvement over the canned individual rations which preceded them, and many of the same foods they contain can be purchased by civilian consumers in the form of dehydrated food for campers and in survival packs. Being primarily served to the Army, where complaining about the food is a tradition as old as the Army itself, they will never be considered to be fit for a gourmet. Specialized MREs for extreme weather conditions have been created, as have others for customization by region, where different conditions require different nutritional intake. MREs are not and never will be popular with the troops, but they are a far cry from the salt pork and hardtack eaten by their predecessors.

10 Interesting Ways American Soldiers Were Fed Throughout History
Thanksgiving Day 2011 dinner on the mess decks of USS George H. W. Bush, a bit more appetizing than salt pork and hardtack. US Navy

Feeding the troops over the years.

Beginning about the time of the American Civil War, the United States Army and Navy have been the best fed military in the world. During World War Two no other army had a choice of meals while deployed in the field, even if it was only C-rations or K-rations, unless those meals were provided to it by the United States. America’s allies were more than satisfied with the rations provided them by the Americans, recognizing that they were much better than the rations provided by their own military. This led to many Allies referring to “pampered” Americans being overfed as well as overpaid.

The US Navy was one of the first to install metal tanks within the hulls of its ships to store drinking water, which stopped the growth of aquatic life and left the water potable for longer periods. This was in some ways bittersweet since it removed the need to carry alternative beverages which did not spoil, and by 1842 the US was no longer serving grog to its sailors. Sailors were allowed to keep personal stocks of beer and wine until 1899, when that too was outlawed. Today the US Navy is dry on all of its ships, except for medicinal purposes.

Mess halls on bases and mess decks on ships provide a wide variety of nutritious foods, and choices at nearly every meal. It has always been the sailor’s and soldier’s right to complain, and military food has always been and always will be the target of much grousing. But today’s military is fed, even in the field, better than any other, with an eye on physical fitness, morale, and above all the ability to complete the military’s mission. All the services have annual competitions between their messing facilities to determine which excels above all others in the quality of their service and their food.

Some of the larger US aircraft carriers serve over 14,000 meals each day. The “galley” at Naval Submarine Base New London, known as the Cross Hall Galley, has a staff of about eighty and serves 600,000 meals per year. At Fort Bragg, the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School operates a dining facility which is focused on the nutritional needs of special operations soldiers, designing menus and creating meals customized to produce maximum physical and mental performance. Other Army facilities include drive-thru windows for troops and dependents in a hurry.

Feeding the military has long been a thankless task, whether it was Continental troops huddled over a strip of venison cooked by the campfire, Union troops complaining about the size of their bacon ration, GIs opening their C-rations in December snows, or troops in the desert facing an MRE of spaghetti and meat sauce. The Continental soldier was lucky to get any food at all. Today’s soldier is lucky to have all that food.


Where do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Food That Fueled The American Revolution”, by Lisa Bramen, Smithsonian.com, July 5, 2011

“Feeding a Hungry Army”, National Museum of the United States Army, online

“Hardtack and Coffee or the Unwritten Story of Army Life”, by John D. Billings, 1887

“The Close Connection Between Beer and War”, by Mike Tysarczyk, The Museum of Beer, November 10, 2017, online

“Pershing’s Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I”, by Richard S. Faulkner, 2017

“Dinner Goes to War: The long battle for edible combat rations is finally being won”, by Barbara Moran, Invention & Tech, Summer, 1998

“Army Operational Rations – Historical Background”, US Quartermaster School, online

“History of the Navy Ration”, reprinted from the US Navy Commissaryman Rate Training Manual, 1971 edition, online

“Grub, Chow, and Mystery Meat”, by Peggy Milhelich, CNN, September 13, 2007