The First Battlefield Bag Lunch
By Lt. Col. Patrick J. Chaisson, USA (Ret)
American astronauts orbiting the moon in 1968 may have enjoyed modern freeze-dried meals, but back on Earth, then-Capt. Rick Butterfield and his fellow soldiers stationed in South Vietnam were stuck eating heavy canned rations introduced during World War II.
Butterfield, who retired as a colonel after 33 years of service, recalled how troops often went without rather than carry these bulky provisions on jungle reconnaissance missions.“Given a choice between ammo and food, we starved,” he told Military Officer before he passed away in 2022.
Fortunately, the U.S. military developed a lightweight, dehydrated field ration for its forces fighting in Southeast Asia. Officially named Food Packet, Long Range Patrol, it became known as the LRP (pronounced “lurp”). LRP, which first appeared in 1967, was meant for use by such elite units as the Navy’s SEAL teams and Army Special Forces.
More portable than the canned Meal, Combat, Individual (“C-rat”), this new field ration became an instant hit. “I loved LRPs,” said Bob Ochsner, a Special Forces lieutenant who served in South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region. “The beef tasted like beef, and the chicken like chicken.”
An officer stops to eat C-ration food on a search and destroy operation south of Bien Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, 7th August 1965. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images. Top: Sgt. Ed Densen, Company B, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment (Wolfhounds), 25th Infantry Division, opens a packet of C-ration cocoa during search and clear operations near Fire Support Base Kien, approximately 15 kilometers southeast of Nui Ba Den, Vietnam, on Aug. 21, 1970. Photo: PhotoQuest/GettyImages.
Given a choice between ammo and food, we starved.
Each meal weighed 11 ounces and came in a waterproof canvas envelope. Menu items included chili con carne, chicken stew, spaghetti, and beef hash. An accessory package contained toilet paper, coffee, creamer, and cardboard matches as well as fruit, chocolate, or an oatmeal bar.
One dehydrated LRP required a pint and a half of water to reconstitute. This presented a challenge, Ochsner said, in places like South Vietnam where “pure water was at a premium.” He and his troops always took several extra canteens and purification tablets with them whenever they went on patrol. There was also a Vietnamese LRP, according to Master Sgt. John Conley, USA (Ret), who served with the 407th Radio Research Detachment from 1970-71. This “Packet Indigenous Ration” (PIR), he said, included “shrimp and fish with a supplemental bag of freeze-dried rice.” Conley said he preferred the PIR, as it tasted better and had more calories than the American version.
During the Vietnam War era, each meal contained four cigarettes. This was discontinued in 1975, which is also when the outer packaging changed from canvas to thick brown plastic. The last LRPs were manufactured in 1981. As the first dehydrated field ration issued to American troops, LRP is a direct ancestor of today’s Meal, Ready-to-Eat: “Warfighter approved” (as stated on the label) for 40 years.