Saturday, April 23, 2011

How They Lived And What They Lived On

Fresh water had to be rationed on Ascension Island, until the engineers got their sea water distillation plant up and running. There was virtually no fresh water on the island.  US Air Force photo.

Researching the letters my father wrote home during World War II, I've stumbled across a report in the Air Force files about living conditions on Ascension Island, where he was stationed for the first two years of the war. It begins in an ordinary military-like way:

Ascension Island, 1943.  US Air Force Photo.

"[At first], the troops were rationed at the rate of one quart of drinking water per man per day.  No fresh vegetables were available, then or for some time to come," notes the unknown report writer, who continues:

"The bulk of their food was the type of Army rations called C-rations.  Although these canned foods are nutritious and wholesome, they are not as palatable as one might desire.  The following quotation taken from one of the unit histories describes very fully the distaste some of the C-rations produce:

'There are certain items of the Army's canned field rations which are not subject to change or disguise, for which there is no culinary catalyst that will transform or even modify their original repulsive character.  

There is, for instance, dehydrated cabbage, which is innocent appearing and inoffensive enough until it reaches the cooking pot.  Once the heat reaches the stuff, all its evil nature becomes nauseatingly apparent.  The fact is, if you cook dehydrated cabbage in the same kitchen with 16 other foods in other pots, when you serve the 16 foods they will all taste--and smell--like dehydrated cabbage.

When cabbage is dehydrated what happens is that the fouler elements of the stuff are rendered down into an essence or synthesis of odium that has no counterpart, unless it is in the overpowering reek that arises from the bottom of an old and neglected kraut barrel or from a bar rag that has seen a couple years service.' "

With that quote ringing in the ears of the reader, the report moves directly on, without further comment, to the heading "Unloading Operation."

By the time my father landed on Ie Shima during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the rations seem to have improved.  From his foxhole he wrote my mother:

"We are eating individual rations and they are surprisingly good. We build little fires to heat our cans of food and to heat water for coffee, cocoa, and bullion. This sort of ration used to be pretty lousy, but now I enjoy it, except for the fuss and bother of preparing it."

Later he adds: "I just ate noon chow.  I had crackers, a small can of cheese, a small can of ground meat and spaghetti, a box of about six caramels, and a cup of synthetic lemon juice.  Quite a feed, eh?"

The enemy, at that point, was conducting sporadic bonsai attacks on island outposts and bombing the Americans all night every night.  The mud, he wrote, was ankle deep.

But, looking on the bright side, he was, at least, spared one horror of the war.  He was no longer required to face the Army's dehydrated cabbage.

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Anonymous said...

Florida Today article on Ascension Island today:

Robin Chapman said...

A friend sent me the link and it is a terrific piece, isn't it. The author missed only mentioning the 38th Engineers!