C-Rations and Alerts

No home, or “quarters” as they were called in the U.S. Army, was complete without a case of C-Rations, and periodic alerts keep us ready for what we hoped would never happen. — Vann Baker


In the 1960s, as the Cold War continued to heat up throughout Europe, our family was stationed at Mannheim, Germany, along with hundreds of other American families. I was six and it was our first time living overseas—everything was so very different from what we left behind us in the U.S.A.

I tended to compare and contrast our new life with what I had experienced in Columbus, Georgia.  Our family had lived in Columbus for several years, and the typical suburban look and feel of Columbus was nothing like the apartment buildings, castles and ornate churches we saw in Mannheim and in other German towns.

C-Rations
Like other military families living in the large housing area at Mannheim, we were required to keep a case of C-Rations in our Army-assigned quarters, as part of the evacuation procedures. At that time the fear was that the Soviets would expand the Soviet empire by invading Germany through the Fulda Gap.

Our fathers’ jobs were to prevent this from happening, and “Alerts”, or drills, were common in order to practice what we would have to do.  In the event the Soviets attacked Germany, all families were to be evacuated.

This was one of the ironies of the Cold War. While U.S. military were stationed away from their home country, their families were usually living with them, which made the three and four year assignments more bearable. The downside was if there was an actual confrontation that escalated in a full scale war, many soldiers’ families would be caught in the middle.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood all of this, and how we probably would not have survived, much like many of the families in the Philippines and other remote bases during World War II, who were killed trying to get away from the islands.

For the moment we were one happy family, living together in a wonderful new country which was waiting for us to explore it.

The rationale behind having the C-Rations was that, if a conflict began, military families and civilians attached to the military could, and would be evacuated, and families needed a couple days of food and essentials ready at all times in case an Alert turned out to be the real thing.

For the first few months the case of C-Rations simply occupied a space in our kitchen pantry, fueling our curiosity of what it might contain. It may have already been in our quarters when we moved in, I’m really not sure. And after a year or so of seeing the familiar case in the pantry, we grew even more curious about what it contained.

What’s inside the box? More boxes!
I’m not sure if the C-ration case was near or past it’s expiration date or not, but after replacing the old one with a “fresh” case one day, my Mother let my brother and I open the mysterious box to see what it contained, and to give us some instructions in case we one day had to live on the C-Rations during an emergency.

The rather plain outer case had the typical bold block lettering which was on everything military-related, and in a minute or so, gave way and revealed a number of smaller boxes, neatly packed inside the larger box, each containing a number of dark brown packages as well as a number of cans.

Most of the cans were the typical “Army” green, which we were quickly growing accustomed to, with black block lettering on each can describing what the can contained, such as “Beef Stew”, “Pears, Sliced” and so forth.  There were no fancy labels with ingredients and cooking directions, just the plain, green, no-nonsense, official-looking, green can.

By this time we kids knew that green meant it was Army property or made for the Army, and we imagined the Army running a factory somewhere where they produced hundreds of gallons of green paint first and foremost, and all the things we saw around us that were the same green color, such as jeeps, trucks, footlockers, tents, field jackets, tanks—all of it coming out of the same factory.

Inside the C-Ration case we found several P-51 folding can openers and opened a few cans to sample their contents. I found a package marked “Peanut Butter”, and another labled, “Crackers”. The package, when opened, revealed a small quantity of round crackers the same diameter as the tiny can which contained the peanut butter.

Peanut butter in a can
I had never seen Peanut Butter from a can before, especially from a green can that I had to open myself. After a few minutes of working the can opener, I was able to sample the can’s contents.

I remember the peanut butter being a little drier than the Peter Pan from the commissary, and the crackers were not the crispy saltines we were expecting, but the novelty of the experience more than made up for the blandness of the C-Rations’ contents.

My mother watched us making our mess and warned against the dangers of the can lids with the serrated edges we had just created. We were reminded once more about the dangers of Tetanus, but before we came over to Germany we had our regime of shots, and we were having fun—getting tetanus was the least of our worries.

The plastic brown packages contained a number of creature comforts including impossibly small packages of toilet tissue, cigarettes and matches. We set these aside and focused on the food items, especially anything that was sweet, such as cookies.

For a few weeks that followed, we sampled the various snacks and cans from the C-Ration box, and late at night with the window of our bedroom open, my brother and I lit up a cigarette from one of the many packages we had found in the C-ration case.

Not that it mattered, but the packages of cigarettes carried either Lucky Strike or Camel logos on the front, and each package had one row of cigarettes, probably only 6 or 8 cigarettes in total—and all the cigarettes were unfiltered.

We attempted to puff away on our unfiltered cigarettes as we had seen my Dad do hundreds of times, but the result was uncontrollable coughing and amazement at how my father had mastered this skill.  Later we realized he was smoking Salems—with filters.

Realizing our cigarette experiment was a dismal failure, we put out the cigarettes and got rid of all evidence of our deed, but instead of throwing out the cigarettes, my brother decided we should keep them for some reason. He had a plan for them.

Putting cigarettes to good use
While the base at Mannheim was quite large and though we had covered all the unrestricted areas many, many, times on our bikes by this time, we longed to expand our horizons and set our sights in getting into some areas not so easily accessible. There were many fences and gates all over the post, and the watchful eyes of guards who seemed to take their job seriously.

We took off on our bikes one dreary, overcast Saturday morning, to an area near the woods we sometimes played in, just outside the base.

The sign read “Firing Range” and “Authorized Personnel Only” and I was scared we would get into trouble. We had been lectured on more than one occasion by my Dad regarding where we could and could not go on base, and by this time, being about 8 and 10, we had a working knowledge of what were crimes—and consequences—for misbehavior.

I had a knot in my stomach as I know this could mean real trouble, but like most younger family members, I followed the lead of my older brother. Infractions were dealt with swiftly in our family, with either my Mother or Father giving out the appropriate punishment.

Usually it was a minimum of three whacks on our rear ends with a belt, and more depending on the severity of the infraction. Unfortunately for us, our mom and dad either hadn’t read Dr. Spock’s anti-spanking book yet, or did not agree with the baby doctor’s “hands off” policy in raising children.

Getting into a restricted area would mean at least 10 whacks with the belt and a few days having trouble sitting down comfortably, if we were caught.

“We just want to look around—honest.”
My brother had brought along a small brown paper bag and when we approached the entrance to the firing range, he said hello to the guard and produced the sack, revealing all of the packages of C-Ration cigarettes to the guard.

Much to my surprise, the guard smiled and took the cigarettes, waved us through the gate and into the firing range.

We spent the next half-hour or so collecting mostly flattened lead slugs and a number of brass shell casings, which we stuffed in our pockets. It was not a great treasure, but it passed the time.

It was a relief to finally pedal away from the firing range. I kept worrying that someone might check up on the firing range and find us there, but the road back to the housing area was quiet.

When we came back into our apartment, we were greeted with the usual, “Where have you two been all afternooon?” from our Mother. And we answered truthfully, “We were out riding our bikes.”

Later that afternoon we sorted through our “treasure” and added to our secret stash of personal “stuff” we kept in the back of the closet.

Treasure boxes
We had a box each which contained a supply of “D” sized batteries, which were green, of course, our box of souvenir salt rocks from our trip to Saltzburg, Austria and our visit down into the mine, spare P51 can openers, a couple of large 6 volt latern batteries, Army issue flashlights, scraps of wire salved from outdated radio equipment we found down in the basement storage room, coins my dad gave us from when he was in Korea, souvenir knives and patches from different places we had visited in Germany.

A few of the items survived the many trips across the U.S. and back to Germany later, but most are gone now, but I still have an old P-51 can opener on my keychain.

You never know when you might need it!

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5 Comments
  1. I thought I was the only one to save my can opener. Although mine is the smaller “P-38” it’s been on my keyring for 44 years now. I told my wife that when I’m buried to make sure it goes with me. I forgot all about the green batteries. When I tell some of my friends about some of the things that went on over there they think I’m nuts or B.S.ing them.

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    • I don’t have mine on the keyring I use today, and you have to be careful when flying as it will probably be taken by the TSA, but they still handy these days

      Glad I could help bring back some memories.

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      • The can opener comes off of the key ring when I fly, there’s not many people out there who would understand what this small sheet metal stamping means to me. I’m not willing to turn it over or try to explain it to some putz working for the TSA

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  2. Thanks for a very entertaining story.  As a cold war veteran in Germany (Gelnhausen, Grafenwohr, & Wildflecken), I remember well the alerts, c-rations (and contents).  Great story and thanks for sharing you memories. 

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  3. The Marines called the can opener a John Wayne. Out peanut butter had peanut butter oil on top of the butter. We used that to cook with when we did not have any heat tabs.

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