Handy can opener a cherished memento

Anybody who served in the U.S. military between 1942 and 1980, especially in the Army or Marine Corps, will have “fond” memories of the “Ration, Combat, Individual,” or the “new and improved” “Meal, Combat, Individual,” as they were dubbed from 1958 onward. To the troops, they were simply known as C-Rations or by their more commonly used term of endearment, C-RATS.

They were designed to provide troops in the field with a concentrated caloric intake to sustain them in situations where mess/cooking facilities weren’t available. They had to have a long shelf life and be light weight, easily carried in a backpack or pocket, impervious to the elements and not easily spoiled. They also had to be easy to consume under the harshest of conditions, with little or no preparation required. Hard as it may be to believe, Army nutritionists did endeavor to make them flavorful and enjoyable to eat.

They developed a series of canned meals usually consisting of a main course, fruit or a pound cake, crackers and some type of cheese or peanut butter spread, along with instant coffee, sugar, salt, pepper, gum, matches, toilet paper and cigarettes. But how do you open the cans in the middle of the jungle or on some far-flung battlefield? Here’s where the U.S. military hit a home run.

In 1942, a small, versatile, folding steel can opener was designed by the Subsistence Research Lab in Chicago. Known as the P-38, it became standard issue with C-Rations for the next 40 years! It also became an iconic memento of military service for generations of U.S. troops. Not only did it easily open C-Ration cans, but it was a near indestructible tool that performed all sorts of tasks far beyond its intended purpose. One Army report listed 38 separate tasks it could perform ranging from screwdriver, to wire stripper, to a measuring device.

So handy was this rugged little tool that it became a prized possession, which often made its way back home with the discharged Soldier or Marine. The P-38 was affectionally known to generations of Marines as the “John Wayne.” After Wayne’s death, it became known as the “Dead Duke.” Although it hasn’t been used in the U.S. Military in some 40 years, to this day, P-38s can be found on the key chains of Veterans as a practical and useful vestige of their military service.

To view a video about the P-38, click here.

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Steve Corbo

A founding member and corporate secretary of the Italian American Veterans Museum, Steve Corbo is the museum’s curator and a military consultant for Fra Noi. He has served for 25 years as president of S.A. Corbo & Associates Inc., providing professional liability insurance to health care providers. The son and nephew of World War II veterans and a passionate military historian for over 50 years, he has written and published articles on a variety of topics, including military history, and serves as the military consultant for Fra Noi, the Chicago-area Italian-American magazine.

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