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A Surprising Answer to the Question, “Got Milk?”

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As a kid, I hated milk. Unfortunately for me, it was a requisite part of dinner at my house. I remember sitting alone at the dinner table long after everyone else had left it, unwilling to drink my glass of milk so that I might be excused. Nowadays, I will happily gulp down a latte (which is really just a cup of hot milk with a bit of coffee), but I still remember the taste of that lukewarm dinnertime milk.

Clearly, food and drink memories are powerful stuff. Combining the emotionally-evocative senses of smell and taste, food and drink take us back: we often recall what we ate or drank during a particular moment in time, long after other details of the past are forgotten. Perhaps this is why so many servicemen and women remember, vividly, the food they ate during wartime, as I explored in my 2014 blog post about canned peaches. The other day, I started thinking about the corollary—that is, what items from a civilian diet those in the service might have missed the most.

Black and white photo of four men sitting around a small table with cups and canisters on the table.
Bernard Helling (third from left) enjoys fresh milk with his Navy comrades. Bernard Helling Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/12783.

Turns out the answer (or, one of them, at least) is… milk. Fresh, cold, real milk was something that service members sorely missed while serving overseas, likely because there was no easy or common substitute for it. Though milk was often included in military rations, it was only available in far inferior forms such as canned or powdered milk, which were no match for the rich, creamy taste of the real thing.

References to milk are scattered throughout Veterans History Project (VHP) collections, and since today is National Milk Day, I thought it would be fitting to highlight a few. Writing to his mother from the frozen battlefields of Korea, Private First Class Robert Barber lamented, “If only I could be home with a big glass of milk and just sitting listening to the radio and reading the paper, I’d give a million dollars.” Particularly for Midwestern farm boys like my grandfather, Captain David Baker, milk was likely a staple part of their diet while at home, and thus its absence was even more glaring. Baker mentioned milk in numerous letters to his family from the Pacific theater during World War II, saying, “I believe I miss cold milk more than any one thing when we are away from civilization.”

Perhaps even more surprising is the role that milk played in the homecoming of many service personnel returning from abroad after World War II. Numerous veterans recall their joy at receiving milk immediately upon debarkation from troop transport ships, whether they were arriving in Seattle, San Francisco, or New York. Francis I. King, a First Lieutenant with the Army Air Corps, explained,

“You landed and the first thing they asked you was, ‘Would you like a glass of milk?’ If you’ve not had a glass of milk for almost a year, you could not believe how good that tasted.”

Robert Springsteen, an Office of Strategic Services operative, remembered about his return from Paris, “When we got to Washington, there was a Red Cross table with lots of milk. And I must have drank two quarts of milk because we didn’t have any milk overseas.” Army Sergeant Herbert Gibson discusses how he was given a quart of milk upon returning home to Hampton Roads from service in Europe, and how after two years with no milk, “it was the best thing they could have done.”

In today’s world, in which fat-free is king and the dairy industry uses clever marketing techniques to cultivate a taste for their products, the idea of craving a glass of milk more than anything else seems quaint and simple. Perhaps, though, this simplicity was part of the appeal: for servicemen and women ravaged by years of deprivation and life at its most horrific, milk was a symbol of the uncomplicated comforts of home.

If you are a veteran, what foods or drinks did you miss while in service? Tell us in the comments below—or better yet, in a contribution to the Veterans History Project.

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