Best of the bad: What was the best C-ration during the Vietnam War?

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Vietnam War C-rations
Joshua Skovlund Avatar
Marines unloading C-rats from a Chinook helicopter during the Vietnam War, two Vietnam war veterans composite image.
American GIs couldn't live without C-rations in the bush despite the terrible taste, but they found ways to make it taste better. Photos courtesy of US Marine Corps Archives, Randy Barnes, and Red Wilk.. Composite image by Joshua Skovlund/Task & Purpose.

C-rations were the infamous canned meals that fueled many American troops during the Vietnam War. The proper name for the meals is ‘Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI),’ but C-rat’ is how most guys referred to them. 

The old-upon-arrival meals were taken on patrol, up rivers, and to remote combat outposts in the middle of nowhere, Vietnam. The C-rats menu had 12 options, but unlike a restaurant, service members didn’t have a choice in what they ate. 

Each C-rat contained a canned meat course, canned fruit or cake, a can of crackers, canned spread, and a small packet containing instant coffee, cream substitute, sugar, salt, chewing gum, matches, toilet paper, and cigarettes. An essential item with every C-rat was the P38 can opener, arguably one of the most versatile tools issued to troops during the war. 

American GIs used the P38 for all sorts of things outside of its can opening function: screwdriver, fabric cutter, and scraping mess pans are just a few ways troops utilized the multipurpose tool outside of its intended purpose. Despite containing a rad multi-tool, the C-rats weren’t exactly a five-star meal. 

We asked three Vietnam War veterans what they remember most about their C-rats. 

Randy Barnes

U.S. Navy

Barnes deployed to the coast of Vietnam aboard the USS Richard E. Kraus (DD 849) in 1972. He said the chow they had while onboard was pretty good, so they didn’t use C-rats very often. 

But, while in Saigon picking up mail for the ship, Barnes and a fellow sailor, George Hutman, were stranded after the Vietcong launched a mortar attack. Their ship pulled out of range but, in doing so, left the two behind. 

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Barnes and Hutman were assigned as temporary interservice transfers to the U.S. Army’s post office unit in Saigon. While there, they made several runs up the Mekong River to deliver JP5. Without their ship’s galley, they were stuck with C-rats. 

“I can tell you, in my experience, I like the spaghetti the best,” Barnes said. “I didn’t like the John Wayne crackers — them son of a bitches will break your teeth. I didn’t mind the minced meat either; it was like spam and was pretty good.”

Barnes liked the spaghetti C-rat cold but said the meat and gravy one wasn’t too bad when it was warmed up. The problem is that you generally didn’t have much time to heat up your meals. But, true to the need-to-adapt nature of life in the military, veterans found ways to mix ingredients to make better meals. 

Barnes would mix up the peanut butter and the grape jelly because they were generally runny due to the ingredients separating over time. He then put it on the spice cake to make it more edible. He’d also sandwich the combo between two crackers and let it sit like that for a couple of days, which would slowly turn into a soft and sweet cracker snack.

Otherwise, they used the crackers as throwing cards or frisbees. 

Barnes said the candy bars were nice, but, like the rest of the C-rat, they were typically old, lacking in flavor, and stale. 

“The candy bars, boy, they got old fast. The chocolate turned white, and of course, they were old C-rats,” Barnes said. “Jesus, some of them were made in the late ’60s, and by the time we got to ’em, hell, they were — fuck — six or seven years already.”

David “Dave” Dumdey

U.S. Army

Dumdey was deployed to Vietnam as an Army forward observer with B Battery, 6th Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery in 1968. He spent most of his time at the Dong Tre Fire Base, but his base camp was in Tuy Hoa, where he routinely accompanied Special Forces and the 173rd Airborne Brigade on their missions. 

He never used C-rations while deployed, instead opting for what the locals brought with them. 

“I mostly took rice like the Montagnards that went with us. It was lightweight, enabling fast movement when needed,” Dumdey said. “They always had a mixture that smelled terrible but was tasty when poured over the rice.”

Since he was “saving their ass when the shit hit the fan” by directing the “big guns” to rain down artillery rounds from the fire support base, the ARVN Rangers took good care of him while they worked together. Back in the U.S., Dumdey tried to avoid C-rations as often as possible and would stop by the PX and “load up on candy bars” before entering the field. 

Dumdey isn’t a fan of the compact meals, but if all else failed, he would trade the bulk of his C-ration for cans of peaches from his fellow soldiers. 

Red Wilk

U.S. Marine Corps

Wilk completed two deployments to Vietnam in 1971 and 1972 while assigned to the Marine Corps’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Wilk would often stick to any food sent to him in the mail, regardless of what condition it arrived. But he was always hungry because they were constantly working hard, so he’d eat whatever was available to keep himself fueled up.  

He would grab meals from local restaurants whenever the opportunity presented but was often stuck with C-rations while they were on patrols. Though he said it was terrible, the brownie is the best thing he can recall. Wilk said you had to mix water with it, and it would turn out more like chocolate milk — terrible-tasting chocolate milk. But, it was the best of the bad. 

He said they would scarf down the food as quickly as they could and make sure to bury the remnants of the cans or stow them on their person because the enemy could shred the materials up and use them as shrapnel for IEDs. 

Wilk said they would use the leftover cans they didn’t bury to boil water to sterilize it. He said he’d trade the C-ration cigarettes for Olympia beers whenever he could because smoking out on patrol could get you killed. 

“Guys that didn’t smoke never got killed. Because you sit and light one of them suckers up someplace else, and a sniper would shoot ya in the head,” Wilk said. “That happened a couple of times. You’re dead because of that light in the middle of the night.”

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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