Why the US Navy Operated a Fleet of Ice Cream Ships During World War II

A National Dairy Council ad supporting ice cream for the troops (and war bonds) from World War II.

It's May 8, 1942. The U.S. Navy is fighting a critical battle against a Japanese invasion fleet bound for Port Moresby, a steppingstone to the Australian mainland. The Battle of the Coral Sea would be the first time two naval forces engaged in combat outside of visual range. Although Japan would be forced to abandon its invasion, it won a tactical victory against the Allies. The fleet carrier USS Lexington was 25% of the Navy's carrier strength in the Pacific Theater at the time, and it had been rendered completely inoperable.

As the skipper of the Lexington realized his situation, he gave the order to abandon ship. Some 2,735 of its sailors were evacuated, but a handful of them were late making their way to the lifeboats. They were busy raiding the carrier's ice cream fridge, making sure to take every last delicious bite. Such was the power ice cream had over American sailors.

If an army marches on its stomach, as Napoleon Bonaparte once purportedly said, then a fighting force as large and powerful as the one the United States fielded in World War II is also going to need dessert. That was the thinking behind a surprising number of decisions made at the highest levels of American military power during the war, anyway. The U.S. War Department, the Navy and the American dairy industry all teamed up to make sure the country's fighting men and women had ready access to the frozen sweet treat at all times.

This is not to say ice cream was the single-most decisive factor for an Allied victory in the Pacific Theater of World War II, but there's a reason the U.S. built a flotilla of ice cream delivery ships and a floating ice cream barge.

Technically, it was called a BRL: "Barge, Refrigerated, Large." Each was capable of making 500 gallons of ice cream and storing 1,500 more.

A few things happened before World War II that not only made ice cream more accessible, but also more in-demand among Americans than ever before. The first was a series of technological advancements that made ice cream both easier to make and easier to store. Freezers were suddenly capable of making continuous streams of ice cream in just about five minutes, according to author Anne Cooper Funderburg's fantastic history of the treat, "Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream.".

"At the beginning of World War II, the American ice cream factory was far removed from the labor-intensive, salt-and-ice operations of the 19th century," Funderburg wrote. "The consumer could buy ice cream at more outlets and in a greater variety of flavors and packages than ever before."

Though Prohibition, which outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States, ended before the start of World War II, American industry needed to make products to fill the gaps booze left behind. More than one beer brewery converted its machinery to make ice cream, and soda fountains replaced saloons as gathering spots. Between 1916 and 1925, ice cream consumption grew by 55% among hungry Americans.

Neither the end of Prohibition nor the Great Depression could stop the American ice-cream craze. So when the country entered World War II, it naturally became what we call today a "force multiplier."

Imagine a fighting force fueled by coffee, cigarettes and ice cream: It's the United States Navy. (U.S. Navy)

A national tragedy such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the country's subsequent entry into the largest conflict of all time wasn't about to stop the trend, either. Americans still loved ice cream, and enlisting in the military did nothing to stop that. In fact, the popularity of ice cream (combined with a little lobbying from the U.S. dairy industry) made sure it would be readily available to any U.S. service member who wanted it.

And boy, did they want it. The U.S. Navy had (in)famously outlawed alcohol aboard ships in 1914, six years before Prohibition, but it still needed to fill the gap in morale boosting power a sailors daily drink left behind. As any noncommissioned officer who has overseen junior enlisted Americans will tell you: if you don't give them something to boost their morale, they can get into anything ... and you might not like what they find.

Luckily, they found ice cream. Airmen in the Army Air Forces were using open seats on B-17 Flying Fortresses as ice-cream freezers during bombing missions (where temperatures could be as low as -25°F). Navy and Marine Corps aviators would mix canned milk and cocoa powder in fuel drop tanks, then fly missions, returning to their otherwise tropical or desert climates with tanks full of sweet treats.

After an assistant to then-Under Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wrote that "ice cream, in my opinion, has been the most neglected of all the important morale factors," the secretary made getting ice cream to those troops his highest priority. Thereafter, any ship large enough would be fitted with a so-called "gedunk bar" (gedunk being the World War II sailor's word for ice cream, but now just means any junk food). The ice cream had the triple benefit of providing calories, helping beat the heat and boosting morale.

Four out of five World War II sailors agree. (U.S. Navy)

Here's where a little interservice rivalry (whether real or imagined) came into play for the benefit of everyone. The Army also realized the benefits of providing ice cream to its soldiers. It not only created a dehydrated ice cream mix that could be flavored with any fruit or candy on hand (some 135 million pounds of the stuff by 1943). The Quartermaster Corps also provided the machines and ingredients to make another 80 million gallons of fresh-made ice cream to soldiers and airmen around the world.

Funderburg writes that by February 1945, at the same time the Allies were preparing to invade Germany in earnest, the Army began building ice-cream factories to bring half-pint cartons "right into the foxholes."

Not to be outdone, the Navy borrowed a concrete barge from the Army and then spent a million dollars (around $17.2 million in today's dollars) turning it into a floating ice-cream factory, parlor and storage facility. It could turn out 10 gallons every seven minutes and hand off gallons to smaller concrete barges, pulled by tugs, which would distribute ice cream to anywhere and everywhere it was needed in the Pacific.

Not everyone was thrilled with ice cream's rampant popularity. At the end of the war, then-Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller allegedly decried ice cream as "sissy food" and lobbied for beer and whiskey instead. The newly formed Department of Defense opted to stick with ice cream instead.

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