You may filter posts by clicking the categories below.


by Herbert R. Rifkind

The movements of an army are necessarily subordinate to its means of subsistence; or, as Marshal Saxe expresses it, to considerations of the belly.

–Winfield Scott

The basic importance of wholesome food to armies and navies has been acknowledged by military men from the very beginnings of organized warfare.

In the history of our own armed forces this recognition goes back to the Revolutionary War. Especially interesting in the one and three-quarters centuries since then have been the developments in the use of fresh, or perishable, foods in the soldier’s diet, and in the system for supplying them.

While the most important components of the American Army ration have always been those two great staples, bread and meat, the use of such perishable foods as vegetables and milk was actually authorized at the very inception of the Continental Army. Following the organization of the Army under General Washington, the first legislation fixing the components of the army ration-a resolution passed by the Continental Congress on 4 November 1775–included provision for “3 pints of peas or beans per week, or vegetables equivalent” and “1 pint of milk per man per day,” in addition to such standard staples as “1 lb. beef, or 3/4 lb. pork, or 1 lb. salt fish per day,” and “1 lb. bread or flour per day.”

In the next month the ration was modified somewhat by a general order from Headquarters at Cambridge. Corned beef and pork were recommended for four days of the week, salt fish for one day, and “fresh beef” for the remaining two days. Because it would not be possible to secure milk during the winter, the men were to have one and one half pounds of beef or eighteen ounces of pork daily. Besides the fresh beef, six ounces of butter (or nine ounces of lard) per week were added, and onions, potatoes, and turnips were now specified as the “vegetables equivalent.”

These perishable components of the ration remained substantially unchanged during the entire war, though the known deficiencies of transport in the Continental Army make it appear that they were seldom issued in the field. After demobilization in 1783, vegetables, milk, butter, and fish disappeared from the ration.

Elimination of perishable food–a condition that was to prevail generally in the American Army for more than a century-unquestionably affected the health and morale of the American soldier. In particular, the deficiency in fresh vegetables or fruits exposed the men to scurvy, perhaps the most dreaded of military diseases until recent times.

Despite the fact that no knowledge existed of vitamins, calories, or of scientific food values as we know them today, the absence of fresh foods in the soldier’s diet did not escape medical notice. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician, and army surgeon in 1777-1778, wrote that “fatal experience has taught the people of America that a greater proportion of men have perished with sickness in our armies than have fallen by the sword… The diet of soldiers should consist chiefly of vegetables. The nature of their duty as well as their former habits of life, require it.

In 1818, John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War, also emphasized this necessity in a report to the House of Representatives on what changes, if any, ought to be made in the legal ration and in the system of substance supply. Stating that fresh meat was now being substituted twice weekly for the salted variety, Calhoun declared that “in addition, orders have been given, at all of the permanent posts where it can be done, to cultivate a sufficient supply of ordinary garden vegetables for the use of the troops.”

Nevertheless the use of perishables in the Army continued to be more apparent than real. Post gardens could supply the needs of static garrisons but troops in the field generally went without fresh foods. During the following century most improvements in this regard waited not only upon further advances in dietary and nutritional knowledge but also upon the later technological developments in refrigeration, in the processing, packing, and handling of food products, and in the increased speed and more effective methods for transporting them. Until such progress had been achieved, the food list would still have to be confined mainly to compact products capable of being transported over considerable distances and stored for long periods of time without spoilage.

Indicative of the slow headway made by perishable foods is the fact that it was not until the Civil War that the use of fresh beef was extended, and potatoes included as a regular ration component. In both cases, however, conditions of practicability or availability of supply were stipulated. Since these conditions did not always prevail in the active campaigning of the war, the men were often confined to subsisting on their hard, or “iron,” rations. As in the earlier military periods, such a diet frequently caused scurvy. By 1863, however, thirty pounds of potatoes per hundred rations were being authorized, and “desiccated,” or dried, vegetables also came into use.

In the decades after the Civil War, studies of the food and energy value of Army subsistence resulted in the ration of 1892, providing for fresh beef and fresh fish, in addition to pork, bacon, salt beef, and dried and pickled fish. The fresh vegetable components included, beside the basic item of potatoes, a limited amount of onions, canned tomatoes, cabbage, beets, carrots, turnips, and squash. The inclusion of fresh vegetables (first authorized in 1890 to the extent of a total of one pound, the proportions of which were to be fixed by the Secretary of War) was considered by some experts of the period as one of the greatest ration advances made up to that time.

Although the 1892 ration represented an improvement, the problem of perishable foods was still with the Army at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. At this time, scientific progress that had already been made and applied commercially in the processing, handling, and shipping of refrigerated meats made it possible to procure fresh carcass beef, pork, and mutton in addition to the large quantities of canned meats that were ordered.

Insufficiency of trained subsistence officers and personnel to insure proper procurement and inspection, however, as well as the imperfection and inadequacy of the storage, refrigeration, and transport facilities, resulted in much spoilage of meat, especially in the intense mid-summer heat encountered in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. There can be no doubt that the troops frequently were issued half-decomposed meat, some of which, it was claimed, had been adulterated originally by the packers through the addition of chemical preservatives, such as the so-called “preservatine.” This situation produced the famous “embalmed beef” scandal, investigated by a court of inquiry after the war as a result of charges brought by Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles and other officers.

Trouble was also encountered in the securing of fresh vegetables. In a severe postwar criticism of the war ration, Major Louis L. Seaman declared that vegetables “brought by the regiment rotted on the ship before they could be landed, and those issued by the Commissary were for the most part so decayed as to be unfit for use.”

It was not long before the effects of such unsatisfactory foodstuffs evidenced themselves in disabling illnesses. Fully 75 per cent of the men of certain units, according to Seaman, were ill with diarrhea at one time or another, and suffered from “a form of intestinal catarrh,” which was attributed to forced subsisting upon the emergency or “travel ration,” composed mostly of fatty bacon, salt beef, hardtack, tinned beans, and tinned tomatoes often in a state of fermentation.

Today it is known, of course, that neither the quality nor kind of food in the ration was responsible for the typhoid and malaria fevers that were also rampant at the time. But it was undoubtedly true, as Seaman contended, that the resistance of the troops to disease in general was lowered in consequence of poor health, to which a diet deficient in the protective values of perishable foods contributed.

Growing out of the food experiences of the war with Spain were improved garrison, field, and travel rations provided in 1901, which were again modified slightly in 1908. While these rations were somewhat better than the previous war diet, it was not until World War I that the first large-scale military usage of perishable commodities occurred.

By this time the accelerated technological advances in the perishable food fields made in the first two decades of the twentieth century permitted marked progress in supplying the training camps with fresh meats of many kinds, including carcass beef, and with poultry, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, vegetables, and fish. Contributing to this general trend were the current civilian eating habits and concepts of proper diet in relation to health that had arisen, which made it virtually mandatory for the Army to procure quantities of perishable foods for an army of civilians largely accustomed to having them.

Although perishable foods in World War I were employed widely in training camps and domestic installations, by 1918 their provision was largely a problem in overseas supply. The most significant advances here were the development of wholesome refrigerated meats, especially carcass and boneless beef; the enormous production of dehydrated vegetables in order to save weight and shipping space; and the creation, in France, by the American Expeditionary Forces, of a Garden Service organization to supplement the troop diets as much as possible through the growing of truck-garden produce. Of these developments, boneless beef, which originated in 1913 when a form of boned beef was served for the first time at the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, was potentially the most important.

While the use of boneless beef in World War II was to extend throughout the armed forces, the development of this product in World War I came far too late to be an appreciable factor in the supply of troops overseas. The significance of even the late development of boneless beef in the first world war, however, lay in the fact that by the end of hostilities the advantages of the product had been clearly demonstrated.

On the whole, the American soldier overseas in 1918 was well provisioned. Breakdown of the Pershing garrison ration showed 137 grams of protein, 129 grams of fat, and 539 grams of carbohydrate, with a total caloric value of 4,000, or somewhat more than that required by a normal man except under conditions of strenuous activity. Despite the general excellence of the Pershing ration, it did not contain enough dairy products for maximum nutrition. Due to the partial inadequacy of the fresh vegetable supply, it was also somewhat lacking in desirable vitamins.

Correction of both of these deficiencies was finally achieved in 1933 by the adoption of what had come to be called the “New Army Ration.” Fresh beef, chicken, pork, and eggs were now included in the meat components; canned string beans, corn, and peas were added to the potatoes, onions, and canned tomatoes of the former vegetable list; allowances for butter and cheese were increased; and fresh milk, to the extent of eight ounces daily, finally entered the ration for the first time since the American Revolution.

With some minor changes after its promulgation, the New Army Ration represented the high-water mark of ration development between the two world wars. It had been arrived at as the result of continuous research, especially in the depression decade before World War II, in spite of the lack of funds which greatly limited the scope of investigation. By relying heavily upon the cooperation of Industry, particularly in the matter of boneless beef and other developments by the Subsistence Research Laboratory, from 1936 on, the Subsistence Branch of the Office of The Quartermaster General was able to achieve notable results in improving storage and keeping quality and in increasing caloric value, vitamin and mineral content, availability, and, last but not least, palatability and general acceptance of the ration by the troops. Not until World War II, with its much greater emphasis upon the procurement and distribution of perishable foods as an activity separate and distinct from the supply of non-perishable subsistence, were the quality and health-giving properties of this diet to be surpassed.

Until World War II, provision for fresh foods had been part of the Army’s regular and varying procedures for supplying all subsistence, perishable and non-perishable. Generally these can be grouped into two basic and consecutive methods: supply by private contractors in the early days of the Republic, and by direct purchasing and distributing under Army administration from 1818 on.

Thirty years of post-Revolutionary experimentation with private contracting established conclusively that the method was wrong in principle. The civilian suppliers were neither under direct line authority of officers nor subject to Army regulations and discipline. Since deliveries were normally direct to troops, proper inspection was almost impossible. With financial gain the primary motive of the contractors, any unexpected military action or sudden troop movement which might adversely affect their profits inevitably caused many of them to hedge on contracts and fail to deliver.

Since the Army’s movements were dependent upon its means of subsistence, the fate of military campaigns was thus often at the mercy of these civilian purveyors. Consequences of supply failures were impotence and frustration on the part of the commanders in the maneuvering of their forces, and hunger and low morale among the men. As a result, commanding generals in the field or military districts frequently had to resort to the expedient of authorizing their officers and Quartermasters to purchase locally and directly.

Spurred by protests from such generals as Winfield Scott, Edmund P. Gaines, and Andrew Jackson against the contracting failures of the War of 1812 and the Seminole Indian uprising in 1817, and by the very able advocacy of Secretary of War Calhoun for a change in the system, Congress finally acceded to demands for a completely separate military organization for subsisting the Army. On 11 April 1818, President Monroe signed “An act to regulate the Staff of the Army,” the subsistence provisions of which were to constitute the most important legislation on subsistence supply until the formation of the Quartermaster Corps in 1912.

The act of 1818 laid the foundation for a separate Subsistence Department by creating the post of a Presidentially-appointed Commissary-General, who, along with his assistants, was subject to military law. Elimination of most of the evils of the previous system was attained by providing that all purchases were to be contracted for “on public notice” with delivery “on inspection,” under such regulations as the Secretary of War might direct.

Between 1818 and 1912 the history of the Commissary or Subsistence Department was primarily one of organizational expansion and strengthening during the Mexican, Civil, and Spanish-American wars, and contraction to a peacetime basis in the intervening periods. Contributing to the bad food situation and Unsanitary conditions in the last-named conflict were the inadequate staffing and training of the administrative and operational supply elements, which, swamped by the heavy demands unexpectedly made upon them, became overloaded and more or less broke down.

Ninety-four years after the establishment of the Commissariat, the natural affinity that had existed from the beginning between the functions of the Quartermaster and Subsistence Departments was at last recognized when the Army Appropriation Act of 1912 merged the two, along with the Pay Department, to form the present Quartermaster Corps. Even by 1917, however, the Office of The Quartermaster General was hardly organized to deal effectively in a major war with the multitude of duties that had been imposed upon the Corps.

When World War I broke out, the oversight of Congress in failing to fix definitely the status of other supply services at the time it established the Quartermaster Corps soon evidenced itself in fratricidal competition within the War Department for available supplies, including subsistence. To make matters worse, the same kind of cut-throat competition occurred between the Army and Navy. The net result of this glaring weakness of subsistence procurement in World War I was excessive and inflated prices, dislocation of supply, and disruption of the civilian economy.

While a separate branch of the Office of The Quartermaster General was created in October 1917 for the handling of all food supplies and rationing, and though a newly-established Subsistence Division over supervision of all food supply matters from Supply Division in the following January, subsistence procurement in.this country was mainly accomplished on a decentralized or “zone” basis, with each Quartermaster depot exercising the purchasing authority for its own district. The method employed was the now traditional and orthodox one of competitive bidding after advertising, except in instances of emergency or inadequate supplies when contracts were made by the depots through allocation procedures.

The competitive bidding principle continued to prevail through the two decades between the two world wars, except that with the Army now reduced to less than 200,000 men, widely dispersed through-out the country, a system of local procurement was instituted for perishables, non-perishables being furnished through the depot system. Virtually all perishable foods came to be purchased individually by each post, camp, and station, under a monetary ration allowance granted per day for each man of the installation.

In a sense these direct buyer-vendor relationships were analogous to the private contracting system of the early eighteen hundreds, in that distribution was in the hands of the separate vendors and not under Army control. While such arrangements were acceptable for small scattered units in peacetime, they clearly were not suitable for war procurement, which would require national coordination and control of transportation and delivery in order to overcome the problem of maldistribution between the widely separated growing or production areas and the training or combat zones. By the time of the inauguration of Selective Service, in 1940, it was obvious that local procurement would prove totally inadequate for the kind of perishable food program needed for the war that was now impending.

It was realized that, regardless of the type chosen or devised, the supply system to be employed would have to be one which would not fail to fill the logistical requirements of millions of men for all kinds of perishable foods in terms of the right quantity, time, and place. In view of the enormous expenditures potentially involved, such a system would have to be much more efficient and economical of operation than that of local procurement. Of equal importance, a program of such dimensions would have to be conducted with the least possible disruption of the civilian supply and economy, and with as little as possible of the agency competition and strife that characterized the procurement of subsistence in World War I.

Concentration upon the problem by both military and civilian planners resulted in the creation of an integrated, nation-wide system of procurement and distribution of perishable foods completely separated from the supply of canned or other non-perishable foodstuffs. On 19 March 1941, OQMG Circular Letter No.42 heralded the birth of a Quartermaster Market Center Program, or System, as it later came to be called, which was radically different from anything ever attempted before in the field of military procurement. Uniqueness of the QMMCS lay in its three-point plan founded upon centralized national control, decentralized field operations, and the adaptation to military procurement of the speedy, chain-store methods of purchasing by negotiation, frequently by telephone or telegraph, that placed maximum reliance upon experienced civilian marketing specialists to do the actual buying. At the same time it adhered to the Army’s long-standing principle of maintaining line authority and final control in the hands of the military.

Developments in this joint military-civilian program during the war were unprecedented. Predicated originally upon the supply of a complete list of vitamin and mineral-laden fresh fruits and vegetables, the program quickly expanded to take in practically all other perishable foods. Added were dairy products of all kinds, including milk, butter, cheese and ice cream; poultry and eggs, with turkeys for holidays; a variety of meat and meat products, especially the basic three-way boneless beef supplied in the ratio of 40 per cent for roasting and frying, 30 per cent for stewing and boiling, and 30 per cent chopped or ground meat; fish and sea food; and even frozen fruits and vegetables.

Matching the expansion in the kinds of commodities procured was the rapid extension of the system from Army supply alone to procurement for the Navy, Marine Corps, Army Air Corps, small military installations, and other Government agencies. By demonstrating the workability of service integration in supply, the Army-Navy market center alliance during World War II undoubtedly constituted one of the first real milestones towards the postwar national goal of unification of the armed forces.

The size and scope of the QMMCS during World War II is best revealed by the fact that, before the conflict was over, the system had purchased more than three and a half billion dollars worth of perishable subsistence, totaling almost eleven million tons of merchandise. This was accomplished, under the over-all direction of the Office of The Quartermaster General at Washington and the operational control and coordination of a Field Headquarters at Chicago, through as many as thirty-five market centers advantageously located for procurement and distribution throughout the country, plus one at Edmonton, Canada.

Operational features of the QMMCS included the maintenance of assembly and distribution points in conjunction with key market centers for the break-down and redistribution of straight carloads of produce into mixed shipments to the installations. In order to insure a continuous belt-line of supply to the armed forces, with the least possible impact upon civilian supply, seasonal storage programs were also developed whereby huge quantities of perishables were procured during flush production periods and placed in cold storage for off-season use. Floating or temporary field buying offices were set up as needed to facilitate procurement during the harvest or production seasons.

At the height of the war, approximately 2,200 military and civilian personnel of the QMMCS toiled at the task of serving close to 600 posts, camps, and stations, other domestic installations, and the fighting forces overseas, with a diet of perishable foods hither-to unequalled in the military history of this or any other nation. The daring innovation that was the QMMCS, with its remarkable wartime operational record, was unquestionably one of the prime contributions of the Quartermaster Corps to the winning of the war.

Following demobilization, the question of the postwar destiny of the QMMCS came up for decision. Besides some moves within the Army for reversion to local procurement, there were other proposals for the consolidation or integration of the market center activity within the Quartermaster depot system, which continued to be responsible for the procurement of non-perishables. As the postwar scene unfolded, however, three factors brought about the defeat of both of these proposals.

Necessity for the maintenance of perishable subsistence supply to seemingly permanent occupation forces in both Europe and the Pacific, as a result of “cold war” that had arisen between the West and the East, was one factor. Equally compelling was the continued demonstration of the economy and effectiveness of market center procurement for peacetime, especially where large contingents of troops still had to be supplied. Finally, adoption of the national policy of unification of the armed forces set forth in the National Security Act of 1947-a decision more easily implemented in the supply than in the military aspects of the problem – made the continuation of a single, nation-wide organization inevitable.

Two other executive and legislative measures placed the capstone on the whole matter in favor of continuation of a market center system organizationally and functionally independent of non-perishable supply. On 22 December 1947, the Munitions Board assigned responsibility for single-department purchase of subsistence to the Army, and the Quartermaster Corps was designated as the purchasing agency. In the Armed Services Procurement Act of 1947, Congress put its stamp of approval upon the market center procurement method of quick negotiation by exempting perishable subsistence from conforming to the standard, formal advertising procedures to which the entire system of military procurement in general, including non-perishable subsistence, had by now reverted.

Perpetuation of the QMMCS, unchanged in any of its wartime fundamentals, now threw wide open again the question of integration of procurement of perishable and non-perishable subsistence–this time under the aegis of the market center system. Advocates of this proposal today hold it to be desirable not only because of the obvious functional overlapping of the two procurement areas, as clearly revealed during the war, but also because of the national market coverage and faster commercial-type methods of procurement exemplified in the market center system. In the light of World War II experience, holders of this opinion feel that such a union would be unavoidable in the event of another emergency, anyway; therefore why not do it now?

If integration ever is decided upon, some difficult political, administrative, and legislative hurdles undoubtedly would have to be surmounted in the process. Especially would legal provision have to be made for reconciliation of the two opposed purchasing methods. This might take the form either of straight-out negotiation or of a combination of both negotiation and formal advertising, the system to be employed in any particular case to be determined by considerations of the method most advantageous to the Government. Future developments on this question will be interesting to watch.

Regardless of the outcome of the integration question, however, one prediction can be made with certainty. There will be no retreat from the peaks of health, morale, and fighting effectiveness reached by the troops in World War II, which the fullest possible use of fresh foods helped make possible. On the contrary, study and experimentation in the supply of an even greater range of fresh foodstuffs of superior quality are constantly being engaged in by the military and civilian personnel of the present Quartermaster perishable subsistence organization. The American Army guarantees to the American soldier of tomorrow, as well as of today, a balanced, protected, and varied diet unequalled by any other army in the world.

Return to General History Page