"Chocolate is a Fighting Food!" – Chocolate bars in the Second World War

"Do you like chocolate?" That's one of the first questions I ask museum visitors during a chocolate program I lead in the museum's Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza. Nearly every time, the response is unanimous: "Of course!" Most of us don't see chocolate as more than a delicious (and often addictive) candy we love to eat, especially around Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Many people are surprised, then, when I show them how chocolate has had many other uses besides being a confection.

Our interactive program on chocolate history, The Business of Chocolate: From Bean to Drink, helps visitors understand how people made chocolate in the 18th century as well as chocolate's historical roles in American business and society. In particular, I love talking with visitors about chocolate's use in military rations, both because it's a story I first heard from my grandfather and because it's a topic I was able to research during my internship.

My grandfather, Harlan Thomas Kennedy, a veteran of World War II, used to share memories of eating chocolate on the battlefront. Growing up in a poor mining family in western Kentucky during the Great Depression, my grandfather hardly had much chocolate until his time in the army. While in the 82nd Airborne Division fighting in Belgium and the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden, he received field rations, a most spartan variant being the K-ration. These rations each included a chocolate bar!

K-ration; original outer green color cardboard box contains: waxed cardboard box shell with “CHESTERFIELD” cigarette pack, toilet paper packet, one stick of gum, and eight biscuits, confectionery chocolate D bar, bouillon powder packet, can of pork loaf; manufactured by the Kellogg Company; World War II era.

Black-and-white pocket-sized portrait photo of Harlan Thomas Kennedy (1924-2013), of Ohio County, Kentucky, in army uniform, around 1943.

My grandfather's fondness for the rationed chocolate bars was so great that he would even trade cigarettes for more chocolate. These chocolate bars certainly served as a morale boost when on the front, where resources had to be limited.

Of all foods, why chocolate? Because of its caffeine and high calorie content, it was a reliable source of energy for soldiers on the front. Chocolate consumption among Americans dates back to colonial times—George Washington and the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War would have consumed chocolate as a hot beverage, for example. By World War II chocolate had become a staple of military rations.

In fact, the U.S. War Department collaborated with chocolate manufacturers to produce Ration D bars, especially suitable for extreme temperatures sometimes encountered on the front. A mixture of chocolate, sugar, powdered milk, oat flour, and vitamins provided 600 calories per serving and made a very effective survival food.

Box for U.S. Army Field Ration D ("with Thiamine Hydrochloride, Twelve 4 Ounce Cakes, Prepared by Hershey Chocolate Corporation, Hershey, PA, January 1942").

Brown, yellow, and blue wrapped “Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate” bar. Small print on the top reads, “REG. U.S. PAT. OFF”. Small print on the side of bar reads, “MANUFACTURED BY HERSHEY CHOCOLATE CORPORATION, HERSHEY, PA.” The top left corner of the wrapper is torn, revealing the inner foil wrapping.

It surprises me that my grandpa enjoyed the bars so much, as they were designed more for sustenance than for taste. They were to be eaten slowly to supply maximum energy. The Ration D bars were intended to "taste a little better than a boiled potato," according to U.S. Army Quartermaster Paul Logan in a 1937 correspondence with Hershey's, and many other soldiers apparently disliked the bar since it was mostly bitter and extremely dense. I suppose if the bars were too tasty, they would've been eaten too quickly!

Due to the amount of chocolate the War Department and the Red Cross sent to soldiers abroad, chocolate on the home front was very limited. Many magazine advertisements asked civilians for wartime cooperation and understanding, as chocolate became an integral part in the war effort. Could you imagine if chocolate were rationed today?

This October 9, 1944, advertisement for Whitman’s chocolate boxes shows a woman embracing a soldier in uniform kissing her cheek. On the bottom right is a box of Whitman’s Chocolate Sampler. The bold font reads, “A WOMAN NEVER FORGETS THE MAN WHO REMEMBERS,” and, “BUY MORE WAR BONDS.” In fine print below the box of chocolates reads, “If you can’t always get your favorite Sampler, remember it’s because millions of pounds of Whitman’s Chocolates are going to all our fighting fronts.”

As with many other products, chocolate's wartime production helped it develop into a mass consumer food in the decades after the war. If you are interested in learning more about chocolate's military legacy, you should check out the M&M's story, currently on display in the American Enterprise exhibition. M&M's were first introduced to World War II soldiers as a sugar-coated chocolate candy that didn't melt in your hands.

1940s cellophane wrapper for M&M’s candy. The wrapper is shaped in a cylinder and flattened. White font on a red circular background says “Greetings from the American Red Cross,” flanked by two candles. The wrapper also says “Candy Coated Chocolate, mmm Delicious mmm.”

Listening to my grandfather's wartime memories of chocolate helped me realize how small things in our lives connect to bigger movements, ideas, and events. Have you talked with your family members or friends about the role of special foods like chocolate in their lives?

Sean Jacobson completed an internship in the Department of Visitor Services. He is a recent graduate of Western Kentucky University, where he majored in History and Broadcasting. The Business of Chocolate: From Bean to Drink is a free daytime program. Check our calendar for upcoming dates.