‘Combat Ration’ exhibit offers civilians food for thought

The Pennsylvania Military Museum has a new temporary exhibit on display, showing how armies were fed during wartime. “The Combat Ration” is part of the Historical Museum Commission’s annual theme, “The Land of Penn and Plenty:Bringing History to the Table.” The exhibit mainly focuses on what our U.S. military personnel consumed during combat in the 20th century.

Military veterans and active duty personnel will easily identify with the many rations on display. Various rations in the exhibit include Meal(s)-Ready-to-Eat, real “tin” cans, cellophane wrappings and waxed cardboard boxes. The exhibit also includes food from Pennsylvania companies such as the Hershey Corporation’s Emergency Field Ration D Bar, designed for use when a soldier was on the verge of starvation.

Early in the 20th century, three special-purpose food rations were developed for front line personnel during the First World War. One of these, the “Reserve Ration,” consisted of individually packaged cans of meat, bread, coffee, sugar and salt and provided soldiers with a single meal of 3,300 calories. Also included in the exhibit are the C and K rations of World War II, which were designed as complete food-for-a-day packaged rations to be utilized by an individual soldier.

Museum educator Joseph Horvath said he expects the exhibit to educate visitors as they learn about the different types of rations that were used.

“The Commonwealth’s theme for 2012 encourages the public to visit state historic sites and museums to discover what the past tells us about our food and how we eat it,” Horvath said. “A number of other sites are participating with events, programs and exhibits. Our exhibit is focused on what military personnel in the 20th century consumed during combat.”

Many of the rations on display for this exhibit were produced by a company with a familiar name here in Pennsylvania. The Hershey Chocolate Co. became involved with the military in 1937, when company officials met with the Army Quartermasters to discuss the development of rations designed to meet the needs of soldiers involved in a global war.

The Emergency D bar of World War II, mass produced by Hershey, was designed to sustain life when all other sources of food supplies failed. Originally called “Logan bars,” the D bar provided the highest caloric content possible within a small package. Partly made out of chocolate, the D bar was designed to withstand temperature extremes and be capable of long-term storage. During World War II, its sole purpose was to be consumed as a last resort, but after the war, production of the D bar was discontinued.

By the end of that war, more than 380 million 2 ounce Tropical bars, introduced in 1943 to resist high temperatures, and more than three billion D bars had been supplied by Hershey. The company also produced C-rations, K-rations, Life Boat rations, and other types of military rations for the Army, Navy and Marines well into the 20th century.

In 1958, the Field C ration evolved into the “Meal, Combat, Individual” of the Vietnam era. It later emerged as the preeminent “Combat Ration” up through the mid-1980’s. With late 20th-century advancements in food science came the MRE (Meals-Ready-to-Eat), which replaced the C ration as the standard emergency food item. The MRE has become a mainstay of today’s individual military ration and is the preeminent military and disaster preparedness ration throughout the world.

Horvath said that everyone coming through the museum will have an opportunity to view the various rations on display.

“Visitors are usually split evenly between military and civilian,” Horvath said. “But we do not distinguish between combat and non-combat veterans.”

He added that occasionally on guided tours through the museum, one might have the opportunity to hear some interesting stories from war veterans who have experienced the food rations in combat firsthand.