Nothing could be farther from my wish or my intention than to publish an evaluation, let alone a criticism, of the Quartermaster Corps of the United States Army. It has warmed my belly and my heart at odd hours and in odd places, and if as a whole it sometimes seemed a little lacking in imagination, it was also capable on occasion of strokes of unexpected originality and brilliance.
It was thus that the QMC, last winter in the Vosges, scored an extraordinary triumph in the field of counter-intelligence, and this while employing one of its least appreciated weapons—C rations, in cans. The story was told me at Sixth Army Group Headquarters, and I have every reason to believe that it is true.
It appears that a German officer who had lived in America before the war somehow secured, for purposes of espionage, the uniform of an American lieutenant colonel and (which was a good deal more difficult) a jeep, which he hid in a wood behind the American lines. From time to time he would slip through the lines after nightfall and emerge from the wood at dawn, with jeep, uniform, and forged papers all in proper order. He would then proceed to visit all of the near-by enclosures in which German prisoners were kept, asking in each case to interview, for reasons of highly secret intelligence, the German officers who had been taken prisoner during the preceding three or four days.
He had apparently been carrying on this work successfully for some time when he ran into nemesis in the form of a QMC lieutenant. Arriving at a prisoner-of-war cage at noon, he found the American officers just sitting down to lunch, and was so cordially and insistently invited to join them that he found it impossible to refuse. C rations were served, and the German, who had gone along swimmingly until then, tasted them and remarked, casually but appreciatively, “Isn't this delicious?”
At which point the QMC lieutenant who was present got to his feet and pushed a .45 under the German's nose.
A quick investigation followed and within ten minutes the German was behind bars. The lieutenant was asked how he had been so certain that the impeccable colonel was a fraud.
“Well,” he said, “I've had a hell of a lot of people tell me that C rations were delicious, but that s.o.b. really meant it.”
Perhaps, in reality, it is not much of a compliment to army food to say that the Germans liked the little of it that they saw. The Germans have never gone overboard for much in the way of cooking except Säuerbraten and dumplings, but their soldiers would always take extraordinary risks in order to capture even small quantities of American rations. Many of those of us who landed in southern France were delighted to reciprocate, and I can recall more than one agreeable luncheon made up of captured Zwiebach and captured Emmenthaler cheese, washed down with one of the heady little vins rosés that they make on the Riviera, at Taradeau neat. Draguignan, for example.
The French impression of American army food was, on the other hand, a rather mixed one, and when a French WAC (or AFAT) lieutenant once assured me that we had a ravitaillement fou she was speaking, I am sure, in admiration tinged just a bit with sarcasm. A good many French units were under American command and therefore drew their supplies from American ration points or QMC depots. In general, they were amazed by the quantities they received of sugar and white flour, astonished by such novelties as dehydrated eggs (which they soon learned to use with surpassing skill), surprised by the excellence of refrigerated meat, disappointed to receive almost no salad oil. Tomato juice they took to be a wretched substitute for red wine, but they had nothing but praise for the canned fruit, especially the canned pineapple which they were issued. They put their cereal breakfast food in consommé (a little bewildered by the amounts of it they were given); they found the canned vegetables almost inedible, and canned corn altogether useless, until they learned they could trade it to peasants as chicken feed in exchange for a certain number of live chickens. Canned sweet potatoes, and the dehydrated cranberry sauce which they, like everyone else, received at Thanksgiving and Christmas, they attempted to use as pastry filler, with no great measure of success; they felt about peanut butter as a good many Americans feel about snails and sea urchins—that it was to be treated as an experience, not a food.
In addition, a fair amount of hilarious confusion was created by the fact that army canned goods are generally not labeled. Mess sergeants eventually learn to decipher the odd hieroglyphics stamped into the ends of cans (GPFJU means grapefruit juice, for example), but for all the good these did the French they might as well have been written in ancient Hebrew. I have seen a French army cook give up his search for confiture in despair and rage, after opening, in succession, cans of catsup, peanut butter, mixed relish, and pickled beets.