Friday, May 10, 2019

Appreciation for the P-38 (Can Opener)

The ubiquitous P-38 can opener was arguably the most important tool used by ground soldiers in Korea.
When PVT Philip Hughes deployed to Korea in July 1950, his dietary intake was limited almost totally to C-rations.  Like the weapons, uniforms, and vehicles employed by the U.S. Army in 1950, "C-rats" were all war surplus, shipped to the western pacific in 1945 in anticipation of an allied invasion of Japan. C-rats and other materiel were accumulated in post-war Japan; much of it was put to use during the early stages of the Korean War.

Each C-rat carton included six cans of food (sufficient for one day's meals), some rudimentary toiletry items, and a pack of cigarettes and matches.  Also included was a P-38 can opener: a 1.5-inch device fabricated from two pieces of hardened, stamped steel.  It was hinged together so that the tool folded flat for sotrage. It turns out that P-38 could handle a multitude of tasks.

This simple yet brilliant design had a hole in its face that allowed the bearer to thread it on the same chain with his dog tags, thus precluding its loss:

The War Department had its unique bureaucratic nomenclature for this device: "Opener, Can, Hand, Folding, Type I." Aside from opening cans of ham and eggs or franks and beans, the P-38 could  substitute for a standard-head screwdriver when field-stripping a weapon.  One could use it to scrape a mess kit (plate), strip wires, or strike a flint.  If need be, the P-38 could cut the fabric of a wounded soldier's uniform. Or deflate a tire, adjust a carburetor, or pick shrapnel out of a wound.  Need decorations for a combat Chrismas tree? Simply collect a handful of P-38s from your squad.    

Originated by the Army's Quartermaster command just prior to World War II, the P-38 emerged from the Subsistence Research and Develoment Laboratory on Pershing Road in Chicago. Leading its development was COL Rohland A. Isaker, a veteran of Army field deployments dating back to the veracruz Expedition of 1916. His first-hand experience from these operations inspired his development of modern methods for food preparation and packaging. Manufacture of the P-38 was alloted to Washburn Company of Rockford, Illinois and the Speaker Corporation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  While the total count of P-38 units manufactured is not available, we can be confident that many millions were made.  

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