View Full Version : Military Rations: P38 Can Opener

02-14-05, 07:05 AM
Military Rations: P38 Can Opener


The Army's Best Invention

Story by Maj. Renita Foster

It was developed in just 30 days in the summer of 1942 by the Subsistence Research Laboratory in Chicago. And never in its 52-year history has it been known to break, rust, need sharpening or polishing. Perhaps that is why many soldiers, past and present, regard the P-38 C-ration can opener as the Army's best invention.

C-rations have long since been replaced with the more convenient Meals, Ready to Eat, but the fame of the P-38 persists, thanks to the many uses stemming from the unique blend of ingenuity and creativity all soldiers seem to have.

"The P-38 is one of those tools you keep and never want to get rid of," said Sgt. Scott Kiraly, a military policeman. "I've had my P-38 since joining the Army 11 years ago and kept it because I can use it as a screwdriver, knife, anything."

The most vital use of the P-38, however, is the very mission it was designed for, said Fort Monmouth, N.J., garrison commander Col. Paul Baerman.

"When we had C-rations, the P-38 was your access to food; that made it the hierarchy of needs," Baerman said. "Then soldiers discovered it was an extremely simple, lightweight, multipurpose 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 had all of those things going for it."

The tool acquired its name from the 38 punctures required to open a C-ration can, and from the boast that it performed with the speed of the World War II P-38 fighter plane.

"Soldiers just took to the P-38 naturally," said World War II veteran John Bandola. "It was our means for eating 90 percent of the time, but we also used it for cleaning boots and fingernails, as a screwdriver, you name it. We all carried it on our dog tags or key rings."

When Bandola attached his first and only P-38 to his key ring a half century ago, it accompanied him to Anzio, Salerno and through 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 then," said Bandola. "The Army, the training, my fellow soldiers, all the times we shared during a world war."

Sgt. Ted Paquet, swing shift supervisor in the Fort Monmouth Provost Marshal's Office, was a 17-year-old seaman serving aboard the amphibious assault ship USS New Orleans during the Vietnam war when he got his first P-38. The ship's mission was to transport Marines off the coast of Da Nang.


On occasional evenings, Marines gathered near Paquet's duty position on the fantail for simple pleasures like "Cokes, cigarettes, conversation and C-rations." It was during one of these nightly sessions that Paquet came in contact with the P-38, or "John Wayne" as it's referred to in the Navy.

Paquet still carries his P-38, and he still finds it useful. While driving with his older brother, Paul, their car's carburetor began to have problems.

"There were no tools in the car and, almost simultaneously, both of us reached for P-38s attached to our key rings," Paquet said with a grin. "We used my P-38 to adjust the flow valve, the car worked perfectly, and we went on our merry way."

Paquet"s P-38 is in a special box with his dog tags, a .50-caliber round from the ship he served on, his Vietnam Service Medal, South Vietnamese money and a surrender leaflet from Operation Desert Storm provided by a nephew.

"It will probably be on my dresser until the day I die," Paquet said.

The feelings veterans have for the P-38 aren't hard to understand, according to 1st Sgt. Steve Wilson of the Chaplain Center and School at Fort Monmouth.



02-14-05, 07:07 AM
"When you hang on to something for 26 years," he said, "it's very hard to give it up. That's why people keep their P-38 just like they do their dog tags. ... It means a lot. It's become part of you. You remember field problems, jumping at 3 a.m. and moving out. 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 much more. Any soldier will tell you that."

Thanks Sam for the idea, I know you love your P-38!





"John Wayne"

The P-38 can opener has been called on of the greatest military inventions of all time.

The P-38 can opener is still in the military inventory and is currently assigned NSN 7330-00-242-3506.

The tiny, lightweight, P-38 collapsible can opener was developed in 1942. The origin of the name is not clear, like the jeep. Some claim it required exactly 38 punctures around a can to open it. Others say it performed with the speed of a P-38 fighter plane. Whatever the case, it is clear this little device has to be considered one of the most perfect inventions ever designed for use in combat.

Most troops carried it on their dog tags. More than just a can opener, in time the P-38 acquired 1001 uses: all-purpose toothpick, fingernail cleaner, screwdriver, bottle opener, box cutter, letter opener, chisel, scraper, stirrer, etc.

For World War II veterans, and then Korean War and Vietnam vets as well, the P-38 is a souvenir, a bonafide historical artifact worthy of retention. Countless old soldiers still carry a P-38 on their key chain a half century after the fact, or preserve it along with other cherished items from the war.

The P-38 was finally phased out when the C-Rations, last of the canned meals, were replaced by MREs.

The little can opener is often called "the Army's best invention".

Instruction Sheet for the P-38 Can Opener

Open blade. Place opener
as shown in diagram.
Twist down to puncture
slot in can top inside rim.
Cut top by advancing
opener with rocking mo-
tion. Take small bites.

Tie string through hole in
opener to wash and ster-
ilize with mess-gear if
possible. When boiling
water is unavailable,
clean opener as thorough-
ly as possible and hold
cutting blade over a
match flame a few sec-
onds immediately before

Among many other details, this specification states in Section 3.3.5 that "Marking for Identification" shall include: "The letters U.S. and the manufacturer's name or trade name..." Packaging is specified as an individual envelope which are then put in boxes of 1000 envelopes (for general use -- special purposes can differ). So if you pick up a P38 that is supposedly "genuine surplus" from the 1950s or so, look for the US and an individual envelope package.

For excellent pictures of P-38's and P-51's from 1942 to the advent of MRE's go here

Educational Sources;




02-14-05, 07:20 AM
Although I no longer keep mine on my dog tag chain I do still have my P-38 on my key ring with a dog tag. I still use it from time to time, usually when I'm in a jam or out camping and fishing. I used it all through Nam and it still works perfectly to this day. And yeah we called them John Waynes back in the day. It is indeed a wonderfull invention.

03-26-10, 11:30 AM
The name changed after John Wayne died. We refered to it as 'the dead duke'

03-26-10, 10:58 PM
:D....HA! HA! HA!.....you can buy P-38's-"John Wayne's" from Sgt. Grit...I got 10 last month, think it cost me $4.00!!

Phil 03
03-27-10, 02:52 PM
I keep one on my keychain, I`v used it from time to time. It always reminds me if my time in the Corps and VietNam

03-27-10, 03:14 PM
I had a Gunny give me one. I still use it often

03-27-10, 03:18 PM
Mine from the '70's is still attached to my dog tag chain.

Rocky C
03-27-10, 03:19 PM
Still got mine on my Key Ring, 1977 :)

Semper Fi,

Eric Hood
03-27-10, 06:18 PM
We always called them "John Waynes"- P- 38 is an Army term. I had to buy one from Sgt. Grit. Best can opener in the world.
Semper Fi,

03-27-10, 09:13 PM
Still have mine since '62..........:thumbup::beer:

04-27-10, 01:52 PM
:evilgrin:.....YEAH....try to open a C-RAT can in the dark, rain, and being on "duty" calling for sit-reps from LP's, and OP's.......20 to 30 days, at a time. Try taking a "sloppy-dump" in those conditions.
"WELCOME HOME, AZZHOLE"! Great to sit on a REAL toilet....use SH*T paper, and FLUSH that B*TCH!!!!!.....:evilgrin:

04-27-10, 07:43 PM
I think I got mine in 59 or 60. One thing though I would put a piece
of tape around it if you were going to hang it off your dog tags, or
your chest would look like you just had heart surgery. CORPSMAN UP!!

04-28-10, 07:24 PM
We called them John Waynes. Came with C-Rats up until 83-84. We had MRE's and LRP's after that. Last time I remember using one was on Green Beach in the Zimbales in 83. I remember because you could trade them and C-Rat Boxes for Pineapples and soda, and some other things. I didn't put one on with my Dog Tags because they had some sharp ass corners even when folded, guess that's why I never hung onto one for too long.

1/7, 82-86

Stanley Brother
05-13-10, 11:33 PM
Thanks for the memories have had mine since 1950

Semper Fi

Danny C Smith
05-20-10, 05:48 PM
This is great!
I have my Grand Pop's John Wayne on my key ring.
WW11 and Korea.
He gave it to me when I graduated Boot in 86.
Old and knarly as it should be and I use it all the time
for anything you can imagine.
Sharp as a needle.
I'll never let it go:evilgrin:


Danny C Smith
05-20-10, 06:14 PM
I have to adjust my position on
Grand Pop's John Wayne.
Not from WW11 or Korea.
I looked, with magnification at the stamped markings.

It is well worn but reads:

U.S. May 1962.
Gramps never implied that it was from WW11 or Korea.
I just took that for granted.
My mistake.
Still bad a$$ though:evilgrin:
4 years befor I graced the Earth with my presents;)

05-20-10, 09:58 PM
I smell pound cake mmmmmmmmmmmm,..................................... ......usmc

05-20-10, 10:55 PM
on my key ring...still use it in hunting camp and on pack trips...hasnt faile in 41 years
some of the younger ones that have never seen one are amazed at how well it works

05-21-10, 02:30 AM
...never in its 52-year history has it been known to, rust ...


05-21-10, 09:43 AM
Got mine back in "76" ... still on my key ring with my identification tag.

06-02-10, 04:50 AM
semper fi, i still have mine from boot camp . even after leaving the corps my wife used my john wayne at home to open her cans. a tool of many purposes.

06-06-10, 02:32 PM
I smell pound cake mmmmmmmmmmmm,..................................... ......usmc
Funny you mention that ? As it definately was my Fav ! And I still have my last P-38 from Camp Pendleton Ca. and a book of 40 matches that I had when I got out in aug,1970 shows the mainside of Pendleton. Moz P.S. The Marines was the first time I ever had Pound cake, And Bread Pudding in Boot. And my boys both love pound cake. Must be in the DNA LOL !