The Great Applesauce Blight

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Mon, Feb 23 - 9:00 am EDT | 2 years ago by
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    “An Army marches on its stomach.”
    ~ Napoleon

    Lines of Departure - C-Rations

    As we take our own little march down memory lane, let me state up front that I can’t stomach applesauce, just can’t. I liked it as a kid but now it has less appeal than the prospect of being duct taped to a chair, face down, in prison. Yeah, I hate it.

    This may seem unreasonable, but anyone who was in at the time, at least in the Army or Marines, and some portion thereof that actually went to the field a lot, will probably remember the Great Applesauce Blight of 1977 and 1978, which was the reason I can’t stand the crap.

    The “Great Applesauce Blight?” you ask. Oh, yeah.

    The story I got, after some years and some digging, goes like this: It seems that sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, a fruit company – the Monterey Fruit Company, so it was said – was going out of business. So the Monterey Fruit Company, if that’s who it really was, called the Department of Defense and said, “Boys, have we got a deal for you. Hundreds upon hundreds of tons of Grade A applesauce, and you can have it. All of it. Cheap.”

    McNamara and his Whiz Kids – neither of them ever sufficiently to be damned, of course – were gone, but their spirits remained. Department of Defense, ever conscious of the value of a well-squeezed penny, bought that inventory of applesauce, and began to put it into the old style, canned, MCI; Meal, Combat, Individual, which is to say, “C-Rations.”

    C-Rations of the day were entirely canned and composed of a main meal, for one meal, plus either a cake (or very rarely, canned bread) or fruit of some kind, usually a small tin of peanut butter or cheese of some kind of jam or jelly, and one or another type of B Unit, which would have some variant of crackers plus either candy or cocoa. Sometimes, as with the B-2 unit, the cheese was in those.

    Now, perusing a case of 1978 C-rats,1 which would have been newer than those of the Great Applesauce Blight, but still broadly similar, one notes that there were twelve menus, twelve different main meals, and twelve different kinds of dessert, a sundry pack, plus variable candies, spreads, etc. Of that latter twelve, eight were fruit and four were cake of some kind. I seem to recall that, possibly for reasons of economy, the amount of fruit during the Great Applesauce Blight had gone up to usually ten cans out of twelve, some extra cheese or peanut butter seemed to be included with some, and the cakes went down to two, one of which was going to be Chocolate Nut Roll, essentially inedible, from the Nashville Bread Company2 and the other would be the even more thoroughly disgusting fruit cake. I don’t recall who made that, and that lack of memory may have been an automatic defense against a future charge of capital murder. None of the cakes except pound cake could be relied on to be edible, and pound cake was always rare.

    Now picture this, you’re a soldier in the Panama Canal Zone, training – training hard – to fight for the Canal, living in the jungle maybe twenty-five or more days and nights a month, eating C-rats to the tune of sixty or seventy a month, and virtually every meal contains applesauce or something more innately disgusting. “No, none of that nice fruit cocktail or those ever so delectable pear slices for you, young man; Department of Defense, to save a few bucks, has determined that applesauce is good enough, three meals a day, for weeks on end.”

    *****

    Now we were already kind of thin, because no military feeding system can ever completely keep up with the caloric requirements for a soldier either continuously fighting or realistically training to fight. Normally, this isn’t a problem because he can pack it on in the mess hall.3 These were unusual circumstances, though, with an unusually high chance of fighting – or riot control, which is worse – over the Canal. So we’re pretty much living out there, in pretty much trackless jungle, with nothing like enough helicopters for regular hot rations from the mess. Besides that, the old 193rd Infantry Brigade, in the Panama Canal Zone, was unusual in that it made a very serious effort to train even the cooks to fight, which takes time, too. C’s are pretty much it.

    Even so, thin and hungry or not, after a month or two we could not eat the applesauce. That was probably seven or eight hundred calories a days that just got tossed. We began going from thin to frigging emaciated.

    *****

    When I think upon the Great Applesauce Blight, though, I do not think about hardship or hunger. No, I think – as we old farts are wont to – about happier aspects of it.

    Now this is no shit:

    There we were, the heavy mortar platoon of 4th Battalion, 10th Infantry, stuck on top of a non-descript hill4 somewhere southwest of Gamboa, Canal Zone.

    PFC McBrayer had a birthday out there in the jungle. I think it was his nineteenth birthday. None of us had been able to do any shopping, so we were all just stuck for getting him a birthday present. “I’m not giving up my pet scorpion,” said Big Al, who in fact, had a pet scorpion for the mega-ant versus scorpion gladiatorial combats we used to stage. “I’d offer to give him some of my crotch rot,” said Art, “but I think he already has some of his own.” “Howler monkey?” “Who’s going to catch it? And those suckers are mean, too.” “How about a sloth? They’re easy to catch.” “If the Lord God didn’t see fit to give B’rer Sloth an asshole, I don’t see why we should add to his troubles by catching him and wrapping him as a present.” Finally someone, I don’t think it was me, might have been Sergeant Sais, said, “Gentlemen, there can be only one proper gift under the circumstances,” and then he held up a – you guessed it – can of applesauce.

    So we stuck nineteen or twenty Canal Zone Matches5 in a Nashville Bread Company Chocolate Butt Roll, invited McBrayer over, torched off the matches, sang Happy Birthday, then presented him his can of applesauce.

    He was touched; you could see that. As he dashed tears from his eyes while making his, “Gee, you guys are just all so special…you shouldn’t have,” speech, you could see the emotion radiating from his face. And then, all choked up, he turned to go and tossed that can of applesauce off the hill with a seemingly casual but utter contempt I have never seen before or since, and which my poor words can’t do justice to. It was the sheer, distilled essence of everything we all felt about applesauce and the mind-maggots who had inflicted so much of it on us.

    PS: I’m going to be spending the next few weeks elaborating on military chow. You can think of it as an educational experience.

    __________

    1 http://www.mreinfo.com/us/older/mci-menus.html

    2 Though the Chocolate “Butt” Roll from Eunice King’s Country Kitchen was quite nice.

    3 No, I refuse to say “Dining Facility.”

    4 Might have been Cerro Urraba. Not sure.

    5 These: http://www.maksimsmuseum.com/panama-canal-matches.html. Amazing things, really.

    Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.

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      • Clifford Fargason

        You have just given me a reason to like having been working at a SATCOM site during those years. About the only thing I ever liked in the C-rats were Ham and Eggs, bread and fruit cocktail.

        • Tom Kratman

          As mentioned, the canned bread was rare. But I’ll be talking more about rarity and menu fatigue and human understanding in the next couple or three columns.

          I liked Ham and Eggs, too, well enough. You can get reproductions here – http://soldiersystems.net/2013/05/27/new-reproduction-c-rations-available/ – but the price is way too high for a walk down memory lane that doesn’t even get you laid. The only C i couldn’t eat was Beef with Spiced Sauce. Even the Spagetti with Meat Chunks was palatable after learning to eat it in Ranger School, but even starving to death I couldn’t gut BwSS. It was for men – or women – tougher and braver, both, than I.

        • KenWats

          I went to Ranger School in early ’97. I will always remember cracking open an MRE and finding M&Ms. They had the Olympic rings on them, so I thought to myself, “Wow! This is a new one, the Olympics were just last summer!”. Nope, they were from the 92 Olympics.

          MRE still tasted OK, but at that point I think I was also eating the cardboard. One of my buddies was eating tree moss with tabasco on it.

        • Chadd

          I saw guys throw away the MRE Omelet with Ham in Ranger School. Granted, this was in Darby, before the hunger really kicked in, but still, that was one nasty meal.

        • Tom Kratman

          I could eat that one, actually, but it took ALL the tabasco sauce I had to do it.

        • Pugmak

          Two necessaries for rations, either canned or freeze dried.

          Tabasco sauce for the “savories” and chocolate sauce for the sweets.

          Makes anything edible.

          - Pugmak.

        • Rick Randall

          I LOVED the omelette. Second favorite meal. Favorite was ham slice.

          The only use I ever had for the dehydrated pork or beef patties would be to bludgeon a mortal enemy to unconsciousness, and then shove the God-be-damned dehydrated potatoes down their throat so they could suffocate slowly.

        • Rick Randall

          I stand corrected – a beef or pork patty makes a good shit scrape. God knows the MRE paper wasn’t any good for that.

        • KenWats

          Hated the Omelet with Ham (smelled like cat food). Can’t recall ever throwing an MRE away in Ranger school though. I knew what was coming.

        • Tom Kratman

          Nope. Trade away what you can’t stand or eat it; it’s all fuel.

        • Clifford Fargason

          I enlisted in 72 so some of the things we got were a bit older. I am not sure but some of the cans may have had C.S.A. printed on them. The absolute worst meal, IMHO, was Beef and Potatoes in Gravy. In Germany we invariably ended up eating them cold. Eating that meal involved digging out the 1/3 of the can that was solidified grease before chowing down.

        • Tom Kratman

          I didn’t like Beef and Rocks, either, but I could eat it. In Ranger School you would look at that inch and a half or so of soldified grease, realize that it was approximately digestible, hence would serve as fuel, and choke it down without demur.

        • Clifford Fargason

          I suppose at a certain point insects and road kill would have looked edible. But in the field in Germany you could usually count on some enterprising German civilian coming by with enough pogey bait for sale that you could afford to ditch the grease.

        • Pugmak

          I loved Beef and Rocks. It was my fav o’ the Rats.

          Give the can a good knuckle dent on two sides, a single snick of the P38(?) “John Wayne can opener at the lid, set on a heat tab and let cook until the sides popped back out.

          Pressure cooked, the beef and taters were moist, soft and juicy. The grease was no longer visually apparent. It was the only thing that filled the gut enough to feel like I’d eaten a meal.

          Cold, yeah, sure. It wasn’t as good. But, it was still beef and taters. That’s man food.

          ****
          Spaghetti and beef chunks. Beans and meatballs. Who was in charge of that decision?

          Least fav was Beans and Baby Dicks. Still not a fan of Vienna Sausage.

          - Pugmak

          PS. The various nut rolls were rights of passage. We’d always save up an Orange Nutroll, open it up just before mounting up to go train and dig our fingers in to scoop out some of that nasty and shove it in our mouths to “get our minds right” for the days in the field.

        • Tom Kratman

          You had to bathe in the Eurotas to appreciate the Spaghetti or Beans and Balls.

        • Tom Kratman

          You could feel pretty full on a normal rat, but you had to eat _everything_, to include the disgusting cakes, to do so.

        • Jack Withrow

          I guess I was one of the weird ones, I actually liked Beef with Spiced Sauce. I despised the Chicken and Ham Loaf. And I know no one who had tried the Ham and Lima Beans who could stomach them. Most C-rats were IMO pretty good. MRE’s on the other hand, I thought were a major step down in quality and taste.

        • Tom Kratman

          Ham and motherfuckers I could take or leave. I think I had them only a couple or three times. Max, maybe four times. I can’t even recall what the Ham and Chicken loaf was like (taste-wise, though I can picture it dimly).

        • Duffy

          Ham and Chicken, so good, they carried it over into MRE, purely sucked in the middle of winter in Germany. With its Bastard child Turkey loaf.

        • Anonymous

          “Loaf, Ham & Chicken,” a.k.a. Monkey Meat, was salty, if I recall correctly. Really, really salty.

          I have oddly fond memories of “chocolate brownies” the approximate size, shape, and texture of a bar of bath soap, as well as dehydrated fruit cocktail that looked exactly like the multicolored recycled foam rubber they used to use to upholster really cheap furniture.

      • Ray

        The pound cake and the peaches were pretty damned good together. But you had to soak the pound cake in peach juice to make it edible. Unfortunately acquiring both usually required you to duct tape yourself to a chair, backwards…

      • Lawrence F. Greenwood

        My old man still swears by C-Rats. Then again he was a airplane mechanic so I don’t think he ever ate more than one a year!

      • Geoff Withnell

        Gee, you got c-rats that were younger than you? In Chu Lai, in 1969-70, we were getting c-rats with carton packing dates in 1944. You have not lived until you are hungry enough to eat ham and m***er-f***ers (aka lima beans) 25 years in the can.

        • Pugmak

          Heh.

          I recall once, while at NTA in Okinawa, on the first snick of the can opener into a can of something or other, the can spewed a mist of former contents.

          My plt sgt saw what happened and he reached over and grabbed the can and tossed it into the bush. “You can’t cook out botulism” was what he said.

          - Pugmak.

        • Tom Kratman

          Actually the toxin is easy to destroy – I don’t recall the exact heat and time required, but it’s not that much – and the critters themselves don’t do any harm until they produce some more toxin, which they won’t after you eat them.

        • Pugmak

          How was I supposed to know that?

          I was a young Marine, not long out of boot camp and infantry school.
          As military personnel, as you well know, the only knowledge and/or understanding we can possibly have in our heads is whatever we happened to be taught or trained in by the military.

          Heh.

          But seriously. I had zero clue. All I knew was my C-Rat can spit at me.

      • Mark Andrew Edwards

        Dear God, I’m glad I missed out on C-rats. I actually liked MREs, making me strange, I know. The spaghetti and dried pears were delicious.

        I’m looking forward to more food fighting stories.

        • Tom Kratman

          The menus actually weren’t the problem. I’ll cover that later.

      • gaige

        Being born in 1989, I obviously missed out on C-Rations.

        Do any companies still make canned field rations? I’d like to buy a case and give them a try. For the sake of historical experience, if nothing else. :)

        • Tom Kratman

          If you nose around you can find some plausible reproductions.

        • gaige

          Thank you, sir. :)

        • Tom Kratman

          De nada. Note, I haven’t eaten any of these, so cannot vouch for their authenticity.

        • Daniel Neely

          at 72 Euros for 4 cans not cheap is a bit of an understatement…

        • Tom Kratman

          If you look around at the site, you’ll find that’s not what they mean. It’s something like 4.50 Euro per can.

        • Daniel Neely

          sorry, €72 was the shipping cost for four cans when I changed the location to the USA (within Germany itself shipping was reasonable). That was on top of €18 for the 4 cans, and ~€7 for tax.

        • Andrew E.

          I’m way late to this party, but there are companies in the US doing repops of older ration types–though they tend toward the WW2 K-ration. I’ve done the odd WW2 “interpretive history” gig, and actually eaten them on a couple occasions…I bet they’re better quality than the originals were, but who knows! Got a couple comments from WW2 vets of “oh, God, those things” and the like when they saw the cartons. Sadly, I don’t remember which source we bought from, it’s been around 10 years since the last time.

          Hogan’s is one such shop, though their website isn’t great: http://www.angelfire.com/nc/stug/

          Another is this shop, and they have both the WW2-style C and K components (though not a complete set of either, annoyingly enough): https://reprorations.com/USA%20WW2/WW2-US.htm

        • gaige

          Thank you for the links!

      • Justin$Man

        this is really cool

      • Jack Withrow

        Col, IIRC there was also a period of three or four years, that all the fruit packed in C-Rats were peaches. ISTR that happened in either the late 60′s or early 70′s. Seemed like you could always tell what the bumper fruit crop was the year the C’s were packed. Very little variation in what kind of fruit.

        • Tom Kratman

          I have a vague recollection of more peaches than normal, for a while, but nothing as disgusting as the continuous applesauce.

          Something else bizarre, which makes me wonder if the Corps didn’t somehow get its own rations packed. Think here: canned meatloaf. I can never recall even hearing of it, let alone seeing it, yet it apparently existed. And I ate thousands upon thousand of c-rats, 1974-1985 or so.

        • James

          Why do i just think of spam covered in ketchup.

        • Jack Withrow

          Can’t say I have ever seen C-Rat Meatloaf. But like you I have heard of it. I had never seen the canned bread in C-Rats until I enlisted in the Army. Never got any of it in the Marines. So you could be right that the USMC had some variation of C-Rats different than what the Army got.

        • Tom Kratman

          I think the bread was just rare. I only saw it a few times – really, just a few; it was so rare that anyone who got it always commented on it, and you never forget the smell – out of eating or witnessing the opening of something over 120000 C Rats (180 days a year, minimum, in the field x 2 meals a day Cs (minimum) x 40 men (typical platoon strength) x 9 years active between 74 and 85).

      • Matthew House

        Eh, I regularly got yelled at for ‘foraging’ on field exercises. I grew up in the woods, so anywhere there’s forest, there’s food, if you know where to look. And you know, a slingshot and a pocket full of ball bearings doesn’t weigh much. I remember one Field exercise vividly. I’m part of the forward party, we’re supposed march to the site before everyone else, and set up a perimeter. Why, I do not know. I get the spot closest to the road, which means I’m the ‘front gate’ for lack of a better term. Oh, and it’s about 40F out, and raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock. Now, the wilds of Ft Riley are just -full- of military trash, so I went foraging. Within two hours, I had found two pallets, a stainless steel mess pot, slightly bent,w/broken handle, and a nice fat rodent. Woodchuck, maybe groundhog, hard to say. So, when the column show up, I’m in a nice little shelter/fighting position, with two walls, and a spare poncho roof. I’ve got a pot of hot coffee, I’m dry, and I have roasted wood-rodent for dinner. Top looked at me for a long time…. and kept on going…

      • Harry_the_Horrible

        I used to like the spaghetti and meat sauce in C-rats.
        The worst C-rat was the scrambled eggs.
        The pound cake was great, everything else was dreadful.
        And the sliced pears were wonderful!
        My other favorite thing was to save the chocolate bars and spread peanut butter between ‘me.

        • Tom Kratman

          Once again: “De gustibus non disputandum.” (Ai yai yai yai….)

        • blogengeezer

          Was a USAF fighter wing baker and gotta admit, we did make some great cobblers. ‘Fly a ways’ liked ‘em. Spaghetti? not as good as home, lacked the spicy Italian sausage… :>)

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