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The greatest Army invention ever

A human interest perspective
By Major Renita Foster
© 1986

     It was developed in just 30 days in the summer of 1942 by the Subsistence Research Laboratory in Chicago.  And never in its 55-year-old history has it ever been known to break, rust, need sharpening or polishing; which is why many soldiers past and present, have come to regard the P-38 C-Ration can opener as one of the greatest Army Inventions ever.

     C-Rations have long been replaced with the more convenient Meals Ready to Eat, but the phenomenon of the P-38 continues to rise due to the 1,000 and other uses stemming from the unique blend of ingenuity and creativity all soldiers seem to have.

     “The P-38 is on of those tools you keep and never want to get rid of,” said Sgt. Scott Kiraly of Fort Manmouth, N.J.  “I’ve had my P-38 since joining the Army 11 years ago and kept it because I can use it for a screwdriver, knife anything!”

     Master Sgt. Steve Wilson, proponent NCOIC, Army Chief of Chaplains Office in the Pentagon, believes it’s the size of the P-38 that counts.

     “It’s a perfect inch and a half, making it a great marking tool, said Wilson,  “Because it’s small, it doesn’t take up a lot of space, and that’s essential in Army life.  The conveniently drilled hole in the top half means the P-38 can be put on a key ring or dog tags and go anywhere.”

     The P-38 became a strategic learning tool for West Point Cadets Rob and Ryan Kay while growing up in Gilroy, Calif.. Generously supplied with military gear by their father, the brothers spend many of the adolescent years decked out in fatigues, camouflage makeup, combat gear, and P-38s attached to dog tags to play “Army.”

     “I think the P-38 is as natural to me as my desire to be in the service,” Rob Kay said.

The most vital use of the P-38, however, is the very mission it was designed for, explains retired Army Col. Paul Baerman, now living in Colorado Springs, Colo.

     “When we had C-Rations it was your access to food, making it the hierarchy of needs,” Baerman said.  “Then soldiers discovered it was an extremely simple, lightweight, multi-purpose tool.  I think in warfare, the simpler something is and the easier access it has, the more you’re going to use it.”

     The P-38 acquired its infamous nomenclature from the 38 punctures around the C-Ration can required for the opening, and the boast it performed with the speed of the World War II P-38 fighter.

     “Soldiers just took to the P-38 naturally,” said John Bandola, a World War II veteran from Fanwood, N.J.  As a master sergeant serving in the 30th Signal Construction Battalion in North Africa, Bandola began his acquaintance with the P-38 in 1943.

     “The P-38 was our means of eating 90 per cent of the time, but the next thing I knew we were using it for cleaning boots, finger nails, screwdrivers, you name it, said Bandola.  “And we all carried it on our dog tags or key rings.”

     When Pfc. Martin Kuehl, of Tomah, Wis., stormed Omaha Beach with the Third Army’s 457th Anti-Aircraft Battalion, he not only carried several pounds of equipment, but a P-38 as well.

     “I used it to open cans for dinner on that longest day,” Kuehl said.  Seven years later millions of these miniature can openers were distributed by the Army during the Korean War.

     “You weren’t going to eat any other way,” Korean Veteran Jay Welsh recalled.  And while fighting in Korea on what GIs called “Papauan Mountain” with the 24th Infantry Division, Welsh discovered another vital use of the P-38.

     “A clean weapon is your immediate priority, because a dirty one is not going to work,” said Welsh.  “The P-38 was the ideal tool to field strip and clean the finer components of the M-1 rifle.  So in a way, I believe that two-piece hinged device saved my life.  It provided me with a rifle I knew would fire.”

     DoD police supervisor Ted Paquet was a 17-year-old seaman serving aboard the USS New Orleans amphibious assault ship during the Vietnam War.  Its mission was to retrieve and transport Marines off the coast of Da Nang.  Evenings, soldiers gathered near Paquet’s duty position in the fantail for simple pleasures like “cokes, cigarettes, conversation and C-rations.”  It was during one of these nightly sessions, Paquet came in contact with the P-38, or “John Wayne” as it’s affectionately referred to in the Navy.

     “I think the reason I remember this incident so well is because one of the Marines and I got to talking about where we were from, and it turned out we’d gone to high school together and I’d even dated his sister,” reminisced Paquet.

     Paquet came home to Pennsylvania surviving 12 months of war, but not future encounters with the P-38.  While driving down Route 60, also known as the Old Studenville Pike with older brother Paul, another Vietnam veteran who served with the 7th Air Calvary, car problems suddenly developed.

     “There were no tools in the car, and almost simultaneously, both of us reached for P-38s attached to our key rings,” Paquet chuckled.  “We used it to adjust the flow valve.  The car worked perfectly, and we went on our merry way.”

     Christmas of 1969 brought a truce in Vietnam.  Bearman was then a wounded first lieutenant whose only desire was to be reunited with his platoon in time for this highly coveted holiday.  His wish was granted, and it remains one of the most memorable times in his military career.

     “One of my soldiers received one of those tacky, evergreen foil trees,” recalled Bauerman.  “It didn’t come with anything so we mounted it on top of a .50-caliber machine gun on a armored vehicle, and decorated it with brass shells from ammunition, C-ration cans, and of course P-38s.  They were a little dull, but that hole made it a perfect hanging ornament.

     “So whenever I see that little can opener, I think of being with them in 70 to 80 degree weather, and singing carols around a P-38-decorated Christmas tree.”

     It’s nostalgic memories like Bearman’s that best depict the sentimental attachment many soldiers care to feel for the P-38.  When John Bandola attached his first and only P-38 to his key ring that particular day half a century ago, it accompanied him to Anzlo, Salerno, and Northern Italy.  It was with him when World War II ended, and it’s with him now.

     “This P-38 is a symbol of my life back then,” Bandola said.  “The Army, the training, my fellow soldiers, and all those incredible adventures we shared during a world war.”  He plans to leave it to his son and grandson.  It’s a desire his wife, Dorthy, understands perfectly.

     “Every time they look at that P-38, they’ll see and remember him,” she explained simply.

Vietnam Veteran Jon Koehler grins broadly when he proclaims the P-38 “ranks with your first girl and your first car.”  Koehler proudly admits he put his first P-38 on his dog tags 25 years ago, and it’s still there.

     “The P-38 was part of my youth when I was learning all about discipline, accomplishment and self worth as a soldier with the 101st Airborne Division,” said Koehler.  “And if someone wanted it, well, they’d have a better chance of seeing God.”

     These attitudes of former veterans aren’t hard to understand said Wilson.

     “When you see a P-38 you’ve carried since the day you enlisted, it means a whole lot,” explained Wilson.  “It became a part of you.  You remember field problems, German REFORGERs, jumping at 3 a.m. in the morning, and moving out in a convoy.  A P-38 has you reliving all the adventures that came with soldiering in the Armed Forces.  Yes, the P-38 opened cans, but it did so much more.  Any soldier will tell you that.”

     Information about the actual inventor of the P-38 has faded with the passing of years.  So perhaps it’s best to fantasize about a “Patron Saint of Army Inventions” who’s been responsible for creating devices empowering a soldier to survive in war and peacetime.

     There were steel helmets designed for head protection, but proved ideal for washing, shaving, and cooking; the faithful, trustworthy jeep, guaranteed to go anywhere and in any kind of weather; and the TA-50 ammunition pouch for storing those personal items soldiers just couldn’t leave behind.  The P-38, however, remains the Saint’s finest work.

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