Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cooking in frozen Korea without a can opener

Phil Street, a US Marine Corps sergeant in the Korean War, recently shared his story with me. Phil served as a cook in the Corps from 1951 to 1954. The photograph shows Phil during warmer months in Korea.

Click to view a series of pictures of a M-1937 field range in action. Even though the blog hasn't been updated since July 2009, it gives you an accurate picture of how the stove was deployed in the Army and Marines.

I arrived in Korea in February 1952, where I was assigned to the 7th Motor Transport Battalion. On my first day there I noticed we had no can opener. We fed 850 Marines at each meal since we had a company of amphibious DUKWs TAD from the Second Marine Division assigned to the First Marine Division.

We also rode shotgun on the trucks and loaded large dump trucks with sand, using entrenching tools that were made to dig foxholes. Maybe we could have used those entrenching tools to open cans of food.

Much of our food came in 16-ounce cans, and we had to use a meat cleaver to open them. Bacon came in 16-ounce cans also. We had to cut both ends out and then split them down the sides so we could try and get the bacon out of them. Many of us had a lot of bad cuts from trying to get the bacon out of those small cans.

When I left at the end of my tour 13 months later we still had no can opener.

Everything froze

Most of out 2-1/2-ton trucks in Korea never even had doors on them. In subzero weather, the trucks had to be started every 30 minutes to make sure they would start when needed 24 hours per day. Then several did not want to start so the drivers would pull them with a chain trying to get them to start.

Our canteens would freeze and burst on our sides of they were filled more than half full.

The Navy corpsmen put small glass vials of morphine in their mouths to keep them from freezing so to give shots to the wounded. Blood plasma would freeze before they could get all of it into the wounded who needed the blood.

Lighting field stoves in freezing weather

Then there were the ranges. Our M-1937 cook ranges had to have 40 pounds of air pressure pumped into them to get them to burn properly. But, we did not have an air compressor, so we used a bicycle pump, which took forever. The cold affected out cook ranges as it did everything else.

The cook ranges had a generator (piece of pipe) running down the center that had to reach a certain temperature before they would burn properly with a blue flame. Otherwise, the flame was yellow and would flood. The gas would run out on your feet and catch your shoes on fire.

This happened many times. I think that was how the dance The Twist was started and you danced trying to get the fire out. Sometimes the gas lines would spring a leak and shoot flame out line a flame small thrower. You hoped the fire was not towards you.

With temperatures as low as 40 below zero, the leather seal inside the bicycle pumps froze and when it was zero weather the leather was so stiff it could take 20 minutes or more, taking turns pumping to get the 40 pounds of air in one range.

We had many ranges to pump up, so it took forever to get ready to light the burners. To make matters worse, when it was below zero the generator was too cold to generate. So we used a blow torch to heat the generator. But it was often so cold the blow torch would not generate either.

So we had to burn gasoline in the little cup below the blow torch nozzle in order to thaw the torch. Many times it was still to cold for the blow torch to generate so you had to keep repeating the process until the torch thawed out enough to work properly.

We had one cook badly burned trying this as he took a funnel with gas in it with his finger over the end and just dripped the gas into the cup a little at a time. When he repeated this the second time the cup on the blow torch was too hot and ignited as soon as the gas hit it. He threw the funnel in the air and the gasoline came down on his arm and set his clothes on fire.

To be continued ...

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