The C-Ration was a creation of the U.S. Military. During World War I, the U.S. Army came up with the 'Reserve Ration.' which was intended to provide nutrition to troops who were away from their garrison or any form of field kitchen. It wasn't terribly scientific, but it was one of the first attempts to provide a man-portable food supply which could be toted around by the average soldier in a standardized manner. In the 1930s, the Army established the Quartermaster's Subsistence Research Laboratory for the purpose of improving the means and results of feeding its troops. In 1938, the first test versions of the C-Ration ('C' for canned) were issued. The C-Ration (also known as a C-rat, or Charlie Ration using the Able Baker Charlie phonetic alphabet) were cans which contained several sub-component cans. Each ration held three meals, intended for a day's food; three pairs of 'M-unit' cans (Meat) and 'B-unit' cans (Bread-and-Dessert). The main day package also included an accessory pack which contained sundries such as cigarettes, toilet paper, water purification tablets and chewing gum.

The C-Ration was intended to be used no longer than a few days, but as happens in war, reality had other plans. Many troops on combat operations ended up subsisting on C-Rations for long periods of time, and complaints arose about the blandness and lack of options. Originally, the M-units came in only three varieties: Meat Hash, Meat Stew with Vegetables, and Meat Stew with Beans. ('Meat' here meant a mix of beef and pork with chopped onions, salt and various spices). As World War II continued, improvements and refinements were made, resulting in new menu items (Chopped Ham, Egg and Potato, Meat and Noodles, Pork and Beans, Chicken, Ham and Lima beans, Franks and Beans). B-unit cans contained varieties of canned bread, crackers, sugar tablets, energy pills and drink mix and/or powdered soup. The energy pills came to be brand-name candies of various types for a while before being standardized as military 'fudge disks' and the like. In order to allow you to open the cans, the C-Ration came packed with the P-38 can opener - possibly one of the best pieces of equipment ever issued by the U.S. Army (at least, they think so and I tend to agree).

Eventually, production ceased in 1958, but the C-Ration was issued to troops all the way through Korea and the early part of the Vietnam war. The C-Ration was replaced in 1958 by the 'Meal, Combat, Individual Ration' which, of course, immediately assumed the name of 'C-ration' (here for 'Combat ration). It, too, was a canned ration system and saw U.S. troops through Vietnam.

Due to the bulky packaging of the C-Ration cans, there were several other types of rations used along the way. The 'paratrooper ration' was invented (also at the Quartermaster's Subsistence Research Lab) as a paper-packed lightweight ration which could be toted by parachutists. In Vietnam, the noisy bulk of C-ration cans lead to the development of the LRRP Ration (LRRP standing for 'Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol') which were lighter and could be carried quietly in greater numbers.

Eventually, the U.S. military switched to the MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) system, and continues to use variants of this today. I've eaten a bunch of MREs, and I've eaten Combat rations, and I have to say the MRE is a massive improvement. Although, to be sure, I wasn't forced to live on them - I could see getting really sick of them in that case. If you're curious, get yourself a tour of the U.S. Army's Soldier Systems Command in Natick, Massachusetts. They love getting visitors to eat MREs and other goodies and fill out surveys. If you'd like to spend some time in the Arctic without leaving Massachusetts, they can do that too!

Sources:

The Great Starvation Experiment, by Todd Tucker. New York; Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Supplying War, by Martin van Creveld. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Not Eating Enough: Overcoming Underconsumption of Military Operational Rations, by the Committee on Military Nutrition Research. Washington, DC; National Academies Press, 1995.

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