The "Can, Water, Military" has been made in steel, aluminum, and plastic since its beginnings in World War II. The can in this photo is dated 1981 but is very little different from cans issued in World War II. The military water cans are basically the same design as the steel gasoline can, but with a few specific changes.
The Jerry Can for water has a capacity of five gallons (20 litres) and shares the size and shape of the gasoline can so it can be transported or stored using the same brackets or shipping methods. However, the water can has a flat lever-operated lid that covers the opening instead of screwing into the opening like the gas can lid. The wide flat lid, with its lever handle, makes the water can easy to pick out. Inside, the water can has a coating that makes it suitable not only for water but for hot food like soup or coffee. Despite the coating, it is common to find rust inside water cans that have been sitting for a long time.
Military water cans are marked at the factory similar to military gas cans but in a different place. The word Water or a W is usually painted on. Some cans have "WATER" stamped into the metal above the opening. The Olive-Drab page on Jerry Can Markings has more about who made the cans and how they were marked.
The special cans for water were not always used. In this photo, you can clearly see that a gasoline can has been marked for water, probably starting when it was new since it is dangerous to use a can for water once it has been used for gas.
A Marine pours water into a canteen cup during Operation Urgent Fury, Grenada, 25 October 1983.
Water Cans Used As Food Containers
Early in World War II, perhaps only in 1942, a variation of the water can was produced by Nesco. It was similar in most respects to the water can, but had a brass pressure relief valve between the handles near the crown of the can and had a concave, not flat, lid with a knock-out plug. It was lined, like other water cans. A tap could be installed by removing the plug, making it possible to serve water or coffee by turning the can on its side. The vent would allow air to replace liquid as it was drained out. The short life of this variation indicates that it was not found to be practical in the field.
All "water cans" could be and were used for food service as well as to carry potable water. In addition to soup and coffee other liquid or semi-liquid foods were prepared and stored or transported to feeding sites with this container when other containers specifically made for food transport (e.g. the Mermite insulated food containers) were not available. The difficulty of cleaning the can, even with its wide mouth, limited this practice.
A note from Vietnam:
A couple of the drivers had 5 gallon water cans on their trucks which they had put ice into prior to leaving CRB, and then filled up with beer and soda. During these breaks they would sell it to the drivers or other folks that wanted a cold drink. I don't believe they ever had to worry about returning to CRB with unsold cans.
The aluminum military water can is identical to the steel can, except for weight and its resistence to corrosion (NSN 7240-242-3767). It was made for a limited period of time around the 1970s (before being replaced by the plastic water can) and it is relatively rare. Plastic water cans are discussed on the Olive-Drab page on Plastic Military Jerry Cans.
Insulated Case for the Five Gallon Military Water Can
When used for hot food or liquids, there is a fibre-pile jacket available to insulate the can and help keep its contents hot. The jacket is also used in areas of below freezing temperatures to keep water liquid for a longer time.
The nomenclature for this item is "Case, Military Water Can" and is assigned NSN 7210-01-119-4956 or 7240-00-125-9061. It has been made in olive drab color material and is still issued in desert tan color.
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