Beer And The Military In The World Wars

During WWI, the U.S. struggled to supply “the comforts of home” to the Doughboys. The Red Cross and various other groups helped, but it wasn’t enough. During WWII, the U.S. government was determined to do a better job and reserved a certain percentage of comfort items, such as beer and cigarettes, for the servicemen.

Service members could buy such items, along with gum, pop, candy, books, etc. at a PX. When feasible, small mobile PXs were set up, sometimes in the back of jeeps, to supply such items to those on or near the front.

Breweries were required to set aside a 15% of their production for military use. The prohibitionists were still around and active and tried to convince the military to ban alcoholic beverages totally. Instead the military supplied only 3.2% beer to servicemen instead of the 4-7% alcohol content. Theoretically, servicemen could not get drunk on 3.2 beer, but obviously the person who said that never saw the PX after a long desert march. Not every brewer made the 3.2 being as it had to made separately.

WWII beer cans

During the war, the military used both bottles and cans to send beer overseas. Cans were lighter, more compact and didn’t break as easily as the bottles, but while both glass and metal were rationed, bottles were somewhat easier to replace than cans, so both were used.

At first, the breweries used cans with the same labels as the pre-war cans. All they did was change the tax statement on the label to indicate that the relevant taxes were not applicable. The new statement read, “Withdrawn Free of Internal Revenue Tax for Exportation.” In 1944, the military switched to olive drab cans, apparently in an effort to make the cans more uniform in appearance.

The U.S. began to ease rationing restrictions in late 1945, although it took several years to eliminate all rationing and price controls. Beer cans became available for civilian use again in early 1947, Cab companies began advertising that “the cans are back!”

WWII beer

Beer had long been more popular in the U.S. than ale. Schaefer had been the first brewery to introduce lager beer to the U.S. in the mid 19th Century. By the early 20th Century, only New England drinkers still preferred ale to beer. After WWII, New England tastes switched to match the rest of the country. It is supposed that the returning servicemen developed a taste for beer during the war. The government did not supply much ale as the alcohol content is usually higher in ale than in beer.

Article first appeared in “The Voice of the Angels”, the 11th A/B Division Association newspaper.

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