Back when I was in the Army, we didn’t have MREs available to us; we were still eating C-Rations, the combat ration that was developed for use in World War II and kept which stayed in production on through the Vietnam War.
Towards the end of my time in the Army, they were just starting to issue the new MREs, which we were all convinced was three lies for the price of one: they weren’t meals, they weren’t ready and they weren’t edible.
Getting to the point of liking C-Rations was probably a bit of an acquired taste, much like I’ve heard soldiers tell me that getting to the point of liking MREs is today. As with anything, there were favorites and then there were the ones that everyone tried to avoid getting. The guys who ended up getting those particular selections would always try to trade them away, usually unsuccessfully for something else.
If C-Rations were more widely available today, they would be an ideal addition to anyone’s survival stockpile, much like people add both military and the civilian equivalents of MREs to their stockpile. However, I suspect that like the MREs, it would be more expensive than just buying canned goods.
Related: Making Your Own MREs at Home
Nevertheless, I decided to embark on an experiment and buy some C-Rations to check out, if I could find them. I thought that it would be interesting to see what they looked like after all this time and how well they weathered the years.
Considering that it is canned food, which will keep virtually forever, as long as the cans aren’t damaged, I thought the rations would have fared well. After some searching, I did find one sliced pork B-1 unit, which I bought.
I’ll have to say that the packaging didn’t look all that good when it arrived. But stains on a box don’t mean all that much.
The photos of the contents, which the seller provided, were just enough out of focus, so that I couldn’t really ascertain the condition of the contents. Some of the cans showed some rust, but not bad enough to think that the cans had rusted through. I actually thought the staining on the box had come from another package, not this one. I was unpleasantly surprised with what I got.
Keep in mind that canned goods in general are supposed to withstand a lot, while still keeping the food inside safe.
The MILSPEC written for C-Rations requires a thicker can and for the can to be painted; both measures which were taken to help ensure that the rations lasted, even in the tropical climate of the Pacific, during World War II.
Opening the box, I quickly noticed that there was a problem, as I saw some sort of black or dark brown goo that was on the accessory pack and the jelly can. I think this was jelly that had somehow escaped the can.
Removing everything from the box, it seemed clear that I wasn’t going to find much edible in this box, which was a bit disappointing, considering what I had paid for it.
C-Rations varied considerably through their 20 plus year service. During World War II, C-Rations included a cigarette packet of nine cigarettes. That part didn’t last long after the war, as the dangers of smoking cigarettes became more widely known.
Additional choices of entrees, as well as different B units were developed and added through the years, offering soldiers much needed variety.
A typical C-ration consisted of four cans and an accessory pack. The cans included:
- M Unit – the main or meat course
- B Unit – bread and dessert
- Canned fruit
- Canned jam
- In addition, there was an accessory pack and a plastic spoon
Fortunately, I still have a P-38 can opener on my key ring, so I was well equipped to open the cans. I received this particular can opener back when I was in basic training, in 1978. I’ve had it on my key ring ever since then. It still works fine and has proven to be a useful part of my EDC.
The M Unit in the C-Ration I bought was supposed to contain sliced pork. However, the bottom of the can had rusted through and the liquid had escaped.
The remaining meat had hardened into a round rust-colored block which was indistinguishable as being anything in particular.
Sorry, I didn’t try eating it. While there is a lot I’ll do for my readers, getting food poisoning is not high on that list.
I had much higher hopes for the canned fruit, than I did for the pork. Canned fruit was always a favorite part of the C-Ration. Many soldiers would save their canned fruit to eat as a snack later.
The can of pears in this package looked intact and the lid had not bulged out; the typical sign for a bad can of food. Nevertheless, when I opened it, it didn’t appear to be edible. I don’t think pears are supposed to be that color.
The liquid had somehow evaporated from this can. I’m not sure how, as the can seemed to be intact. The fruit inside had turned black, all the way through. While it was still soft enough that I could cut it with a spoon, it was considerably harder than canned pears normally are.
The pears weren’t just oxidized either, something I considered for a minute. There was a clear odor of spoiled food, quickly ending any ideas I had of tasting it to see if it was still edible.
I’d have to say, after opening this can, that the idea that canned food is good, just as long as the can is intact, may not always be true. I’ve seen canned food older than this, which survived just fine.
But in this case, I had a can which appeared to be good, but the contents clearly wasn’t. All I can say from this is if it’s old; there’s no guarantee that it is still good, even though most old canned food will last for decades.
The small can of jam intended to be eaten with the crackers in the B Unit seemed to be intact, with the exception that there was what looked like chocolate syrup on the outside of the can.
After cleaning it off however, the can looked just fine. But when I opened it, it was clear that only about a third of the original contents was still there and that had changed considerably. It was black, much like the pears and didn’t smell good at all.
What’s especially surprising about this grape jam going bad is that it had a high sugar content. Sugar, much like salt, is a natural preservative. That’s why jams and jellies are also called by the name “preserves”. Yet the sugar didn’t seem to protect this jam from going bad.
The one edible portion of this particular C-Ration was the B Unit.
There are four different varieties of B Units that were produced, with three of them containing crackers and some sort of chocolate. That could be fudge, as this can had, two chocolate bars, or hot chocolate mix.
The fourth type of B Unit contained breakfast cereal. I never saw one of those during my service though.
The crackers tasted just like they always had. But then, those always tasted kind of old and hard anyway. They were more like hard tack than normal crackers, even though the manufacturer took some pains to make them look more like cookies.
Of the whole pack, the chocolate was always everyone’s favorite. The fudge and chocolate that the Army used for C-Rations is not the same as you might find in your local supermarket or convenience store.
I don’t know what they did to it, but it wouldn’t melt. This one, which was labeled “Vanilla Fudge” was a bit hard, but still quite edible.
The other thing that survived the ravages of the years intact was the accessory pack. My accessory pack consisted of:
- Plastic spoon
- Instant coffee
- Powdered coffee creamer
- Sugar – 6 grams
- Salt – 4 grams (good for combating heat)
- A book of matches – not waterproof, but specially designed for damp environments
- Two pieces of peppermint gum
- Specially designed toothpicks, which are supposed to be a toothbrush substitute
- Packet of toilet paper containing 22.5 “sheets” (think squares from your roll at home)
Earlier version of the accessory pack had cigarettes, as previously noted, as well as halzone fuel tablets, which would allow soldiers to heat their meat dish, without having to resort to starting a fire. But the surgeon general ordered the removal of the halzone tablets back in 1945.
When I was in, the most common way of heating C-Ration meat dishes was placing them on the exhaust manifold of a vehicle.
A Couple of Final Notes
As much as I’d like to have some C-Rations for my personal survival stash, this experiment was obviously unsuccessful. There are probably perfectly good C-Rations out there; but if this box was any indication, there are some bad ones too. At an average cost of $100 each (yes, that was $100), I’d avoid them.
A large part of the reason why the Army replaced the C-Ration with the MRE was because of portability. C-Rations are actually rather hard to carry around with you. They don’t fit well in a cargo pocket on uniform pants, whereas the MREs will. Rather, C-Rations have to be carried in a pack.
Back in World War II, the soldiers of the US Army petitioned the quartermaster’s corps to change the cans used for making C-Rations, replacing the typical round cans with flat, oblong cans, much like sardines come in. The idea was to make it possible to stuff the cans in their pockets. However, there wasn’t enough of the right kind of machinery available to make the cans, so the idea was scrapped.
While this was a fun experiment, as are all experiments looking to see how preserved foods fared through the years, tests of this nature need to be undertaken with care. There is a very real risk of serious illness from eating spoiled food. That’s not the kind of risk any of us want to take, especially during a time when we’re trying to survive.
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