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Survival Food: A Morale-Booster Lesson From World War II

Posted on 29 December 2011 by Leon

One reader wondered why hot, tasty food is categorized as a survival item on, and why I claim recipes are a survival tool. Well – that’s a really good question! So here is a story from World War II about food and its affect on morale.

American tank at Bastogne. (US Army photo)

by Leon Pantenburg

I am a history nerd, particularly fascinated by World War II. That historical aspect is embedded in my psyche: When I was growing up, it seemed as if every adult male I knew was a WWII veteran.

In my immediate family, my Dad was an infantry captain in both the European and Pacific theaters; my Uncle John Lynch, US Coast Guard, drove landing craft on Iwo Jima and Okinawa; Uncle Harold Lindeman was an MP in the European theater; and Uncle Fredrick Wirth served in the Aleutions.

To my frustration, none of these men ever talked about their service!

In 2003, I wrote “Vanishing Heroes,” a special edition tribute to World War II veterans that published in the
Bend, OR, “Bulletin” on Veterans Day. I was privileged to interview a variety of service members from all branches and who served in every theater.

For me, the Battle of the Bulge has always been particularly fascinating. (To read more about that battle, click here.) On Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans launched a surprise winter offensive through the Ardennes Forest that caught the Allies completely by surprise. One of the keys to the battle was in the town of Bastogne, Belgium. Whoever controlled Bastogne controlled the roads needed for further penetration of Allied lines.

My uncle Fred was in Bastogne during the entire siege, which lasted from Dec. 20 through Dec. 27. The besieged American forces were relieved by elements of General George Patton’s Third Army, which included my dad. Despite my pestering, neither ever talked about that battle.

The World War II memorial at Bastogne today.

So interviewing Corporal Francis C. Buck, (Headquarters Company, First Battalion, 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division), was an incredible privilege!

Buck made four combat jumps with the 82nd, which included drops at Sicily, Salerno, D Day and Operation Market Garden.

He had been wounded at the La Fiere Bridge on D-Day (To read more about the La Fiere battle, click here). After he recovered, Buck ended up being one of the reinforcements rushed to Bastogne to prop up the disintegrating American lines. When it came to survival gear, the troops were not prepared at all.

What food they had was cold, canned rations, with no way to heat them. They didn’t dare make a fire, and the soldiers had to tough out the long, frigid nights.

To quote from “Vanishing Heroes”:

“The only jump we made during the Battle of the Bulge was from the back of a truck,” Buck said. “We didn’t have any equipment and very little ammunition. No gloves and no winter clothes, just jump boots. We put up a tent and each of us had a blanket.”

Buck and his comrades set up a defensive line, and Buck periodically would take off his boots and massage his feet to keep them from freezing.

“I used my boots for a pillow,” Buck said. “I woke up to two inches of new snow.”

The Germans attacked at dawn, and Buck went on to describe the intensity of the fighting that day.

“So what was the worst part?” I asked. (Before the words were out, I regretted them. Talk about insensitive!)

Buck thought a few moments.

“It’s tough – really tough – to fight in snow and cold. We didn’t stay warm, and my feet froze. One man shot himself in the foot to get off the line,” Buck said. “But the hardest part is the cold, frozen chow.”

Buck saw my raised eyebrows and elaborated.

Reinforcements enter Bastogne on Dec. 27, 1944 (US Army photo)

Sometimes, the only thing you have to look forward to is a hot meal,” he said. “The day may have gone to hell, but if you think there’s a hot meal coming, that may be the high point. It gives you something familiar in a really bad situation.”

In one instance, during a brutal artillery barrage, Buck said he was crouched in the bottom of his foxhole, “scared to death and shaking from more than the cold.”

“It was funny, what comes to mind,” he said, chuckling. “I remember thinking how good a cup of hot coffee would taste.”

“Vanishing Heroes” went on to win the 2004 National Journalism Award from the American Legion and numerous other local and regional awards.

Napoleon said an army “marches on its stomach.” And the interview with Buck re-enforced what I had learned from several other “Vanishing Hero” participants: Hot, tasty food is vital to helping maintain a survival mindset, be it in a battle or a wilderness emergency!


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