Chow / Grub / Hot Puppies

"An army marches on its stomach" ---Napoleon Bonaparte

Soldier 1: "What's for chow?"
Soldier 2: "I don't know, I've never eaten this before . . . I think I've stepped in it a few times though."

For as long as there have been organized military formations, there have been "army" rations that soldiers have complained about.  This section will address army field rations in the Eaglehorse during the 70s and 80s.

When in garrison, units had the ubiquitous "messhall" - officially called a "dining facility" - basically a cafeteria.  It served three hot meals a day, and the quality of the food varied from unit to unit depending on the abilities of the "Mess" Sergeant in charge.  As a general rule, the food was basic but of good quality.  Generally, you had a short order line, a prepared meal line, and (for lunch and dinner) a basic salad bar.  For breakfast you could get eggs to order, bread, sausage, bacon, grits, SOS (sh*t on a shingle, in soldier lingo; chipped beef / sausage gravy over toast for you civilian types), etc, etc.  At special times (Thanksgiving / Christmas), the messhall would go "all out" and prepare a truly grand meal with all the trimmings.  I can honestly say I never had anything other than an excellent holiday meal in any messhall in any unit I was in.  Our messhall on Daley Barracks was a repeat winner of awards at the Corps and USAREUR level.  The unit also had a complete messhall at Camp Lee to service the Troop / Battery / Company that was in residence for the border mission.  Fully staffed, this facility only had to serve a relatively small group (150 soldiers +/- on a given day) and was able to focus on quality over quantity.  They did a very good job.

But the true test was rations in the field.  Since the first Army went on campaign, the logistics of feeding a large force in the field has presented more than it's share of logistics headaches.  Overall, 2/11 Cav did an excellent job of this.  When on field problems or exercises, the general ration cycle was A-C-A / A-C-B / B-C-B.

  • A-ration: Garrison Ration. Fresh, refrigerated, or frozen food prepared in dining halls or field kitchens. The most valued of all rations.

  • B-ration: Field Ration. Canned, packaged, or preserved foods normally prepared in field kitchens without refrigeration.

  • C-ration: Individual Ration. A complete pre-cooked, ready-to-eat canned individual meal (later MREs in plastic packets).

Meals in the field were prepared in MKTs (mobile kitchen trailers) located in the field trains well back from the maneuver units.  These trailers were a complete kitchen on wheels with gas fired ovens and burners. 

An MKT set up for operation
An MKT in traveling configuration
The inside of an MKT.  In the foreground are spaces for the gas fed burners, mid-picture are the field ovens and prep area, towards the back is the area for  the "chow line" if feeding cafeteria style.
  They had an 'in and out' stairway for soldiers to move through a "mini" cafeteria line.  But in the Cav the cafeteria feeding style was virtually never used.  Instead, the co-located MKTs in the field trains  (usually you had one MKT per company / battery / troop) would prepare meals and then send them forward in mermites (metal and insulated containers with three "sleeves" for food).  
A mermite, sealed.
Mermite, open with sleeves.

The mermite sleeves would be filled with the meal and the area around the sleeves would be filled with hot water (to help keep the food warm) and then loaded on trucks or jeeps from the unit, and  "pushed" forward to the units.  With the mermites would go coffee, bread, little boxes of ultra pasteurized white and chocolate milk, plastic flatware, paper plates, condiments, etc.  Once arriving at the unit, soldiers would cycle back a few at a time to the truck and pick up their meal.  A typical breakfast would be:

  • bacon or sausage patties (with bacon, the cooks would place a couple of pieces of toast in the bottom of the mermite sleeve to absorb the grease - you'd always have one guy in the unit that would actually want this "delicacy")

  • french toast

  • scrambled eggs


  • spaghetti or chili mac

  • green beans

  • salad

An interesting occurrence would take place when it took too long for the breakfast ration to get forward.  After a certain amount of time the scrambled eggs would react with the aluminum sleeves causing them to turn  greenish in color.  So, you could literally have "green eggs and ham".

The "chow truck" would also bring forward cases of MCIs (Meal, Combat, Individual) - the successor to the "C" Ration.  You would draw your lunch MCI when you got your breakfast.  More on the MCI below.  The unit supply rooms also kept a three day supply of MCIs on hand as "war rations" to be used to feed the unit in the event of conflict.

When possible, they would try to get mermites of hot coffee and hot soup forward late during the night.  During 24 hour operations in a German winter, this was really nice.

*Note:  I am actually the proud owner of two fully functional mermites that I inherited from my dad.  One day I plan to get some old army comrades together and have an "old soldiers" dinner.  We will serve it outside, on a cold day, in the rain.  The chow will arrive on the back of a pickup, in the dark.  We'll serve "tactically" (five meters between each person in line, in case we take incoming) using flashlights with red filters.  It'll SUCK but it'll be GREAT!  I'm thinking the chili mac meal above.

The most dreaded ration cycle was C-C-C . . . . an MCI for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  MREs had not come out during the time I was in 2/11. A detailed breakdown of MCIs is located hereWhen you could heat them, they were ok - cold, they could really wear you down.  I will always remember "Spaghetti with Meat Chunks".  When you opened it cold there would be about a half inch of congealed grease on the top you could pry off.

I was lucky - My M577 had a very good diesel fired "pot-belly" stove that we operated when the tent extension was set up.  This allowed my crew to heat rations on the top as well as hot water for coffee, shaving, etc.  This made all the difference in the world during extended field problems.

MCIs came 12 to a case.  You'd turn the box over so the meal name was not visible to the soldier picking a box.  This made it "fair" for everybody when getting your box.
Early versions of the MCI actually came with a little 3 pack of cigarettes along with the meal.  Also included were toilet paper, matches, salt, sugar, instant coffee, gum, etc.

Update:  A friend from Facebook (with no military experience) read this page and said," Those don't look like "pop-top" cans - what did you do for a can opener?"  A very good point and something I completely overlooked.  The MCI cans were opened with an ingenious device developed during World War 2 .  The tool in question is the P38 - a small can opener that was provided in each case of MCIs.  For the complete story of the P38, go here.  Over time and with use, the color of the P38 would go from silver to steel grey or black. 

The P38 can opener - the small hole at the upper left was to allow you to attach a string / wire to sterilize the opener after each use (I don't recall ever doing this - being in the FDC I would sometimes rub it down with the alcohol used to clean the map sheets.

In practice you would use the hole to fit the P38 onto your dog tags.

P38 in the paper wrapper it was shipped in.  A handful of these would be thrown in the bottom of the MCI packing box.
The P38 in use.  This is probably one of the best and most cost-efficient tools ever developed by the Army.
The P38 on a set of dog tags.  

During the time I was in 2/11 we were still issued the old GI "mess-kit". I don't recall having ever used mine while in the unit.  The basic problem was making sure that they were sterilized after each use.  NOTHING takes a soldier out of action faster than a case of food poisoning from an improperly cleaned kit.  The cleaning process in the field for mess-kits consisted of a series of four metal trash cans.  The first one was where leftover food was dumped and the kit scraped out.  The next three trash cans had gas-fired heaters in them.  the first one had detergent in it.  You dipped your kit in and brushed it out.  The second one was a "first rinse" and the third one was a "final rinse".  This process was time consuming to set up for mobile units.  This system was used back in the field trains locations  to clean utensils from the MKTs.  We always used paper plates and plastic utensils that were simply thrown away after use - thus eliminating the cleaning problem.

The mess kit - note the oval holes in the flatware.  This allowed them to be attached to the handle of the "pan" portion of the kit for cleaning.
Mess kit cleaning heaters
Mess kit being cleaned - this appears to be the 3d can which just had hot water for the final rinse.  Notice the cutlery around the hand of the "big" pan.  The top, divided, portion of the kit had a metal ring that allowed it to be placed over the handle as well.

Of course, there was always "pogey bait", slang for non-army issue foodstuffs taken to the field (even though this practice was generally frowned on by the chain of command).  This was everything from cans of soda to ramen noodles . . . anything to add a little variety to field rations.

During extended field problems (REFORGER, etc) we would sometimes be able to go to a local German town and buy some from the local stores, bakeries, and butcher shops.  I remember REFORGER 81 during a break on the weekend we got most of the battery rotated to the local town.  We descended like a swarm of locusts . .  leaving the shelves at the bakery and "metzgerei" virtually bare.  The owners were very happy but the local customers, not so much . . .

Lastly - the universal Army condiment in the field - TABASCO.  There was always a bottle (or bottles) to be found in every vehicle.  My NCO (when I was the fire direction officer in the howitzer battery) actually had it as part of the vehicle load plan that was posted in the SOP.  He had a small box to secure the bottle that was in the space between two FM radios on the upper shelf of the vehicle.

The Army sanctified this practice with the advent of MREs into the system.  The MRE accessory packet would come with a miniature bottle of actual Tabasco provided by the McIlhenny company - this was probably the best addition ever made to the "C" ration.  I actually came back from Desert Storm with over 1000 small bottles of Tabasco that I collected while there.  I don't know why . . . . .

Tabasco - HOOAH!