Jerry Cans were produced by the millions, in many countries, for a period of 50 years or so. Therefore you may find cans with odd markings that do not conform to what you have heard here or from anyone. It will be very difficult to ever have "the whole story" on Jerry Can markings, but this page will give you the most common patterns and a lot of other information you can use to evaluate cans you may see on eBay or elsewhere.
Jerry Cans for gasoline are marked on the bottom like this typical example.
Today in WW II: 27 Nov 1942 Operation Lila: German Army units reach Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast, to capture the Vichy French fleet based there. More↓
Origins of Jerry Can Markings -- British and German Cans in WW II
Markings on British 5 gallon gas can.
Jerry Cans have always been marked. The German cans, the original design, were called "Wehrmachtskanisteren", and were stamped with a date, starting in the late 1930s. The word "Wehrmacht" was stamped on the side. Additional markings were painted on to indicate contents, unit owning the can or other requirements. Later in the war, German cans were stamped with embossed letters reading "Kraftstoff 20L" (Fuel 20 liters) or "Wasser 20L" (Water 20 liters). The gas cans were also marked "Feuergefährlich" (flammable).
World War II British Jerry Cans dated in the 1940s were almost identical to the German Wehrmachtskanisteren, no coincidence since the British copied the design. These cans had the same small diameter spout with lever cap that set it apart from the US Jerry Cans. Typical stamped markings included the British government "arrow mark" representing a sword, WD (War Department), initials of manufacturer and the date. British cans of WW II vintage will be painted with the khaki or tan sand color of British equipment while the German cans will be dark green or sand color. Water cans were sometimes painted with a white cross as an additional precaution against mixing. To the left is a British can, typical of more recent production, marked with the arrow and "1985" above the center, then "BSC" over "CPW" in the center of the cross.
Steel US Gasoline Cans of World War II through the 1980s
Starting with the original World War II production, US gasoline cans were made of steel, were painted olive drab, and were marked on the bottom with a pattern similar to the one in the top photo above or to the right. In addition, there will be a large "G" stamped on both sides near the top. For World War II Army cans, at the bottom of one side will be "US" or "USA" and on the other side will be "QMC". The "QMC" was dropped sometime in the 1950s. (See photo on this page of Olive-Drab: Military Steel Jerry Cans for Gasoline). If the can was procured by the Marines, "USMC" will be one of the side stamped symbols, near the bottom edge.
The information on the bottom will usually be three lines, something like the above photos. The first line is the standard the can conforms to, the second is the name or initials of the manufacturer, and the third is a date line, usually of the form "20-5-42". This means 20 liters-5 gallons, made in 1942 and not "May 20, 1942".
Markings on US 5 gallon gas can.
What Does USMC Mean?
The manufacturer will be one of many who made cans in the war years or afterward. You will see names like "BENNETT", "CONCO", "RHEEM", "MONARCH", "NESCO", "MCC", "RADIOSTEEL" (makers of the Radio Flyer in peacetime) and "USMC". It is USMC that causes the most confusion. When USMC appears in the manufacturer line, it is not the Marines. Rather the initials stand for U.S. Metal Container Company, of Miami, Oklahoma. The company is still around, owned by the Elmburg family since 1966. They continue to make the cans for the commercial market under the name Blitz USA, Inc.
If the can actually was procured for the US Marine Corps during World War II, for gas or water, they used a different design. The basic can was the same size and shape, but the pouring spout was similar to the British can with a cam-lock lid. These cans will have "USMC" stamped on one side at the bottom, replacing the "US" or "USA" found on the Army cans.
Most of the USMC cans were manufactured by CONCO. One reported can has markings similar, but not identical, to the usual pattern:
ICC-5L CONCO 20-5 1/4-44
In addition to the Marine Corps cans, there are examples of "USN" marked Jerry Cans made by ICC Co. and dated in the 1940s.
Not all US style cans with the cam-lock cap were original USMC production. After the war, when thousands of US jerry cans came on the surplus market, many were modified with a German/English type spout for use in delivering heating oil. This commercial modification was made so they would be more leakproof than the US-style screw on lids.
Searching the Internet and examining ads on eBay or militaria dealers, will turn up many other examples such as these:
ICC-5 Wheeling 20 5 1/4 41
ICC-5L CONCO 20-5-52
ICC-5L RUSSAKOV 20-5-52
DOT-5L USMC 20-5-82
External Markings on Jerry Cans
You will find many styles and types of markings painted onto Jerry Cans. THe most common will be a stencil in black, white, or yellow with an indication of the contents: "MOGAS", "DIESEL", "JP-5" and so forth. In many units, there was a practice of painting MOGAS can tops red and diesel can tops yellow.
Water cans will have "WATER" or just "W" on them, at least until the late 1970s when the plastic water cans were phased in. In some zones of World War II a white cross was painted on water cans, in come cases following the lines of the X molded into the can body. (See USMC photo above). Some metal cans have "WATER" stamped into the metal above the opening, near the handles.
Other stencils might include the unit designation, a personal name, a symbol for the unit or other purpose -- in short, almost anything. The marking might be on the flat side of the can or up the back spine like one seen that says "MAINT SECTION".
Steel US Water Cans of World War II through the 1970s
Unlike the gasoline cans that are marked on the bottom, the water cans were almost always marked on top, under the handles. This photo has been modified to bring out the markings of a steel water can from the 1980s. The 3/4 inch letters say:
USMC DLA-400-81-C-0250 1981
USMC is the manufacturer, the DLA number is probably the contract, and 1981 is the year of manufacture.
The stock tag, wrapped around the handle and stapled, reads:
7240-00-242-6153 CAN, WATER 1 EA
The 7240-number is the NSN (National Stock Number), followed by the name of the item, and the unit of issue. On the other side, the tag says 1-83, probably the date received into stock.
Manufacturers included "NESCO" and "CAVALIER". Searching the Internet and examining ads on eBay or militaria dealers, will turn up many other examples such as these:
W DSA 40780?5 1965
Monarch 1957 GM-19722
ARVIN NOBLITT-SPARKS IND. INC. 1942
W NESCO 1942
Plastic US Water and Fuel Containers
The US military began to use the plastic water containers in the later 1970s, followed by plastic fuel containers about 15 years later. The "X" shape is pressed into both sides, just like the steel cans and for the same reason -- to provide for strength and expansion. The center of the X is a square used to mark the type of contents,"FUEL 5 GAL" or "WATER". Markings are molded into the sides, reading "MIL-C-53109" and "PROPERTY OF U.S. GOVERNMENT". The fuel containers may be marked "FOR STORAGE OF FUELS ONLY" and "DO NOT USE FOR DRINKING WATER".
The date and manufacturer will found on the bottom of the plastic container. "Scepter" or "Bronson" are usually the manufacturer. On the Bronson units, the date is indicated by a 2-digit year stamped on a clock-like symbol indicating the month. This photo indicates May 1988
By design, water cans have a single-bar handle while the fuel cans have a three-bar handle, like the steel cans they replaced. This was done as a safety factor to make sure water and other liquids were not intermixed. (See the Olive-Drab page on Plastic Military Jerry Cans for Gasoline and Water for more safety information.)
Find More Information on the Internet
There are many fine websites that have additional information on this
topic, too many to list here and too many to keep up with as they come and go.
Use this Google web search form to get an up to date report of what's out there.
For good results, try entering this: can gerry or jerry. Then click the Search button.