Chocolate! The Wars Secret Weapon

Our GIs went to war well supplied with weapons and clothing—and chocolate!

by Terry W. Burger

Chocolate soap is supposed to be good for the skin. It’s not so good for the tongue. Unfortunately for the US soldiers of World War II, the chocolate bars the army gave them tasted like they were intended for use in the bath.

The K ration was the standard ration for a WWII soldier in the field. Chocolate (far right, middle) was part of it. (National Archives)

In the army’s defense, it wasn’t trying to win any culinary awards. In fact, it specifically ordered that its chocolate bars not be too appetizing, so soldiers wouldn’t eat them too quickly. These bars were created for survival, not dessert. “They were awful,” John Otto, a platoon leader in Company A of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 505th Parachute Regiment. “They were big, thick things, and they weren’t any good. I tried ’em, but I had to be awful hungry after I tried them once…. Whatever they put in didn’t make them taste any better.”

What they put in them was chocolate, oat flour, cocoa fat, skim milk and artificial coloring. But despite the many tepid reviews on the flavor, people continued to eat them. The Hershey Company in Hershey, Pennsylvania, made more than 40 million special chocolate bars for the military during the war.

It all began with a visit to Hershey by Captain Paul P. Logan of the US Army Quartermaster Corps in 1937, as America drifted closer to war. Samuel Hinkle, Hershey’s chief chemist at the time and a future company president, said Logan asked Hershey to develop “a kind of survival ration.” The resulting chocolate bar, with greater nutritional value and a higher melting point than usual, was the beginning of what came to be called a D Ration. “Captain Logan said that he wanted it to taste not too good, because, if so, the soldier would eat it before he faced an emergency and have nothing to eat when the emergency came,” Hinkle said. “So he said, ‘Make it taste about like a boiled potato.’”

Making chocolate that tastes bad was not part of the typical job description at Hershey, but Hinkle and his fellow chemists followed the order. “The bar was pretty tough to take because we didn’t use too much sugar—pretty strong in chocolate,” he said, “but we made millions and millions of them.”

For the factory workers, making the bars was no fun. “That was a terrible job, because it seemed that the bars would never come out of the molds right, and you had to keep hammering and hammering,” said Rose Gasper, a worker in the Hershey factory for 50 years. “It was long and narrow and deep, and it couldn’t get cool enough.”

After the bars came out of the molds, they had to be wrapped and packed. Julia Wise, who started working at Hershey during the war, said there was trouble with the glue on some of the wrappers, and the shape of the bars made them hard to pack into boxes.

Despite the production headaches, Hershey managed. Orders for the bars soared quickly, and on January 2, 1942, the army ordered 300,000 four-ounce D Ration bars. For the first time in its history, the factory began to run three shifts a day, seven days a week. It filled the order in 13 days.

By war’s end, Hershey had won five awards for production and quality while making 40.2 million 2-ounce and 4-ounce D Ration bars, and 380 million Tropical Chocolate Bars specially designed to withstand the intense heat of the tropics and the desert. Hinkle reported that sales jumped from $34.7 in 1938 to $55.5 million in 1941.

Hershey dominated the production of ration bars, but it was not the only maker, said Gerald Peterson, owner of World War Two Ration Technologies in Portland, Oregon. Among the WWII-related items Peterson’s company sells are instruction kits with preprinted labels for making WWII edible K Rations, C Rations, and D Rations from ingredients consumers can purchase at the store. Peterson mentions the gum-maker Wrigley and snackmaker Cracker Jack as two companies that also made chocolate bars for the military. Other makers included the Shellmar Products Company, the Cuneo Press, Charles A. Brewer and Sons, the Blommer Chocolate Company, and Peter Cailler Swiss Chocolates Company.

Peterson said he did not think the D Ration tasted that bad, though the ingredients added to raise the melting point from 92 to 120 degrees gave the bars a somewhat waxy or greasy taste. “I have eaten modern, freshly made bars made from the original formula, and they tasted OK to me,” he said. “I think the problem comes from stale bars eaten too quickly. It is meant to be eaten in small segments over time.” Indeed, instructions on the early boxes of the D Ration stated that the bars were to be eaten over a halfhour period. The message went on to say the chocolate “can be dissolved by crumbling into a cup of boiling water if desired.”

The formula for a large batch of the chocolate ration bars, Peterson said, was 160 parts chocolate, not less than 54 percent cocoa fat, 160 parts added cocoa fat, 30 parts oat flour, 20 parts dry powdered skim milk, 70 parts vanillin crystals, and enough sugar to make it palatable. There also was one-sixth part vitamin B1, which may account for some flavor complaints, Peterson said.

As unappealing as the rations bars were to some, others liked them. Hinkle pointed out that the number of bars made far exceeded what 10 million military personnel could have consumed. “It soon became obvious that the generous American soldiers were sharing their valued possessions with their foreign allies, whether of military or civilian status.”

The bars turned many hungry Europeans into friends of the United States. “People wanted them,” said 82nd Airborne veteran Otto. “You’d give them to kids. In some places they were very hungry. And they sure helped relax people about American soldiers.”

Otto said he never saw a European turn his or her nose up at the chocolate. “It was food,” he said. “That was pretty hard to find. In Germany, particularly after the war, I saw German kids standing around near the end of the mess line, where you would dump what was left in your mess kit into a 30-gallon can. These kids weren’t begging, just standing there very politely. When we were done, the kids would eat the food out of the garbage. They were that hungry.”

Michele Herzog was five years old and living with her parents and older brother in Vincennes, five miles east of Paris, when Americans liberated Paris from the Nazis. “My parents just loved the Americans,” she said. “My brother was already very much into modern music. Tenor sax was his favorite instrument, still today. He got to know several soldiers, GIs, and they played music together. So Sydney, Freddie, and others whose names I forget came to our place for dinner, and all of them, and every time they came, brought goodies for the little sister: chocolate, chewing gum, pickles, corned beef, and some kind of hard biscuits. I especially remember the chocolate because I liked it very much, and it had been rationed during the war.”

Other Europeans did not see chocolate until well after the war ended. “We didn’t see any Americans where I was,” said Elizabeth Radsma, who was 25 years old when the Germans occupied her country, the Netherlands. “Even after the war, we saw only English. Maybe the Americans gave out some chocolate in the big cities, but we were only in a small town. Before the British, we saw only German soldiers. But chocolate? Don’t make me laugh! Maybe in my dreams!”

A soldier in the field might have responded “Be careful what you wish for”—and then gratefully bit down on a D Ration bar, the only food available for miles.

T.W. Burger, a Gettysburg-based reporter for central Pennsylvania’s Patriot-News, contributes regularly to America in WWII. This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of the magazine.