The K Ration was the Subsistance R&D Laboratory's answer to the demand for an individual, easy-to-carry ration that could be used in assault and combat operations. It was noted for compactness and superior packaging and was acknowledged as the ration that provided the greatest variety of nutritionally balanced components within the smallest space. The 2700 calorie K Ration, fielded in 1942, was designed for a maximum of fifteen meals.
The lightweight, easy-to-carry K Ration was designed for the assault phase of combat operations, first put to use by Army paratroopers. To the amazement of its developers, it became an overnight success and was soon adopted for all-service use.
The Quartermaster Corps purchased its first million K-Rations in May 1942. In the peak year, 1944, they procured more than 105 million. Contrary to several long-standing myths, there is no special significance attached to the letter "K." It was simply picked to make it phonetically distinguishable from C- and D-Rations.
Although other related items influenced its development, the actual prototype of the K Ration was a pocket ration for paratroopers developed by the SR&DL at the request of the Air Corps early in the war. Two original samples (one with pemmican biscuits, a peanut bar, raisins, and bouillon paste; the other with pemmican biscuits, a small D bar, a meat preparation, and beverage (powder) evolved into the one-package breakfast-dinner-supper combination used first by paratroopers.
The three-meal combination contained such common units as pemmican biscuits and gum. In addition, the breakfast unit furnished malted milk tablets, canned veal loaf, soluble coffee, and sugar; the dinner package had dextrose tablets, canned ham spread, and bouillon cubes; and for the supper unit there were the D bar chocolate, sausage, lemon powder, ant sugar. The Army quickly noted the success of the new ration with the paratroops and in 1942 the item was adopted for all-service use as Field Ration, Type K. The instantaneous success of the ration with attendant popular publicity, was a source of amazement to the developers.
Success was not a deterrent to continued research. Many change were effected in the components and packaging of the K Ration during the seven revisions of the ration before the final World War II specification was published. During that period the variety of biscuits was increased, newer and more acceptable meat products were introduced, malted milk tablets and D bars gave way to a variety of confections, additional beverage components were provided in improved packages, and cigarettes, matches, salt tablets, toilet paper and spoons were ultimately included as accessory items.
The cartons containing the individual meals also were subject to many changes. The first cartons were coated both inside and out with a thermoplastic compound. Later they were wax-coated on the outside only, wrapped in waxed paper, then coated with' a commercial product made from "unmilled crepe rubber and blended waxes," specified not to melt at 135 degrees nor "crack, chip, or otherwise become separated" from the surface of the carton at minus 20 degrees below zero. Other types of packages were tested, including a "thread opening fiber bodied can with metal ends." The wax-impregnated materials prevailed, however, and the ultimate requirements were for the familiar wax-coated inner carton placed in a second carton labeled and colored to indicate whether its content was breakfast, dinner, or supper.
As finally specified, the breakfast packet contained a canned meat product, biscuits, a compressed cereal bar, soluble coffee, a fruit bar, gum, sugar tablets, four cigarettes, water-purification tablets, a can opener, toilet paper, and a wooden spoon. The dinner carton had a canned cheese product, biscuits, a candy bar, gum, a variety of beverage powders, granulated sugar, salt tablets, cigarettes, and matches, a can opener and spoon. The supper packet included a canned meat product, biscuits, bouillon powder, confections and gum, soluble coffee, granulated sugar, cigarettes, can opener, and spoon. The biscuits, beverages, sugar, fruit bar, confections, gum, and spoon were packaged in a laminated cellophane bag while the canned meat and cheese product were put in a chipboard sleeve-type box. The two units were assembled and sealed in a waxed carton inclosed in the nonwaxed outer carton labeled with the K Ration design and color. Twelve complete rations were packed in a fiberboard box which was overpacked in a nailed wood box for oversea shipment.
Toward the end of the war, the usefulness of the K Ration was coming to an end as a result of the emergence of a superior C ration. In postwar 1946, an Army Food Conference recommended that the K Ration be discontinued and in 1948 the ration was declared obsolete by the Quartermaster Corps Technical Committee. It was then recommended that depot stocks be disposed of by utilization in the civilian feeding program overseas.
Like other unpopular items, misuse was a contributing factor to the waning popularity of the K Ration. Although designed to be used for a period of two or three days only, the ration occasionally subsisted troops for weeks on end. There were times when this application was unavoidable; there were also occasions when the K was employed because it was easiest to issue. Continued use reduced the acceptability and diminished the value of the ration.
[From: Army Operational Rations - Historical Background, Chapter 1 of "Special Rations for the Armed Forces, 1946-53", By Franz A. Koehler, QMC Historical Studies, Series II, No. 6, Historical Branch, Office of the Quartermaster General, Washington D.C. 1958]
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