One of the standard questions that we suggest Veterans History Project interviewers ask veterans is, “How was the food?” This simple question can yield surprising answers, and uncover fascinating elements of the military experience. After seeing my blog post about holiday menus in the military, VHP director Bob Patrick mentioned a specific food memory to me: eating canned peaches while in the military. A retired Army Colonel, Bob explained that the humble canned peach was a much-loved staple of Army rations: “There is something remarkable about eating canned peaches when you are in the field.” Following this conversation, an interesting thing happened: I kept noticing references to canned peaches everywhere in VHP collections!
Apparently, many veterans share Bob’s fondness for the canned peaches they ate during service, so much so that they mention it their VHP interviews years later. In honor of peach season and National Peach Month, I wanted to highlight a few of the references to canned peaches that I’ve come across, and talk a little bit about how they achieved such status among military rations. Food is a critical part of the military experience for veterans, and it can provide a small moment of comfort in the midst of otherwise uncomfortable and lonely conditions.
Canned food has a bit of a military background: the process of canning was invented after the French government, in search of cheap, non-perishable food to serve to troops during the Napoleonic wars, offered a prize to whoever invented a new method of preserving food. By World War I, canned goods were a staple of military rations in the United States and Europe. Canned goods were cheap, relatively nutritious, shelf-stable, and easy to transport, all of which made them ideal for soldiers to eat in mess halls or on the battlefield. Despite these advantages, canned food left much to be desired in the taste department: canned meats and vegetables were often bland and boring, and did not compare to fresh in terms of taste and satisfaction.
Canned peaches, however, presented something of an exception to this rule. Peaches adapted well to canning, to the extent that homemade (and store-bought) canned peaches were part of a civilian diet, and thus presented a familiar taste. As a side dish, peaches were flexible: they could be eaten as part of breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert. The sweet, fruity taste of peaches helped to cut the saltiness of high-sodium canned meats and vegetables, and gave the sense of “fresh” food—something that servicemembers craved while in the field.
For all of these reasons, canned peaches were a prized part of military rations. In his VHP oral history, Marine Corps PFC Alfred Jennings relates a memorable experience of devouring a gallon can of peaches with his brother following combat during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Army Captain Dean Galles was bayoneted four times during the Battle of Attu in the Aleutian Islands in May, 1943. Recovering in a field hospital after the battle, he didn’t let his injuries prevent him from chasing down some peaches:
Word came in that one of the Navy ships was out in the harbor, and they would take anybody out to the ship, and they had some canned peaches. So man, I said, I got to go for this. And I had this arm in a cast trying to hold that thing together, and I climbed up the cargo net with that, with the cast on that arm and got over the rail and sat down to my peaches, and it was glorious.
A Marine Corps infantryman in charge of manning a Browning automatic rifle, Theodore Cummings got his first taste of combat during the Battle of Tulagi in August 1942. In his oral history interview, he describes arriving on Tulagi, and hearing “the firing of the machine guns.. the whacks of the rifle, the whump of the mortars. And the cordite and the woodsmoke and the burning smoke from oil stung your nostrils.” He departed Tulagi directly for more combat on Guadalcanal. En route, aboard ship, he received some much needed supplies and rations–including a can of peaches, which he describes in glowing terms:
A sailor gave me a can of peaches. He opened it up for me. And he gave me a toothbrush and a comb and I think some toothpaste. And a can of peaches. Because we had lived on Tulagi on — we had — only had a day’s rations when we went ashore there. So we lived on coconuts and stolen Japanese rice — I mean recovered Japanese rice. Gave me those peaches. Big can of peaches. And that syrup. It was champagne. Beautiful, that guy was.
Fighting in the Kumwha Valley with the 25th Infantry Division during the Korean War, James Day Merle Holmes recounts the bitter cold and the monotonous food during the winter of 1951:
The guys were miserable, they were cold, and the rain was running off from their helmets right down into their C-ration cans. And we normally used canned heat to heat ’em up, but by the time you’d finish eating, it’d be cold again. So, there was lima beans and ham and beans with meat and beans with franks and corned beef hash. I got to where I couldn’t even eat it any more. I lived for about 30 days on bread I could beg, borrow, or steal and canned peaches and things like that.
During the Vietnam War, canned peaches were one element of the “D” (dessert) unit of the combat rations issued to troops in the field. Canned peaches were frequently combined with pound cake, another element of the dessert unit ration. A Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman with the Navy, Roger Bright Hedges describes the twelve different meals that were part of the “C-rats” (C-rations) given to him in Vietnam: “One of them had pound cake, and it was just a little tin of pound cake. And everybody would try to get the peaches and pound cake at the same time, and you’d put them together, kind of like strawberry shortcake, just not with strawberries. And that was a treat.” Darwin Edwards, serving with the Army, echoes Hedge’s description: “Some of the C-Rations had–oh, the best for dessert was peaches and pound cake. And the pound cake was made in 1950 or ’60s. Probably the ’50s. But you could mix the two together.”
For me, fresh, juicy peaches represent the essence of summer. For men and women serving in the military, far away from home-cooking and fresh fruit, canned peaches offered a taste of this in the field. Harsh conditions, deprivation, and monotonous rations meant that the simple canned peach could taste “like champagne.”
If you served in the military, do you remember eating canned peaches? What other food memories do you have?