The P-38: Army's 'all purpose tool' years ago
If you soldiered during World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, it's a good bet that somewhere — maybe back in the corner of your dresser drawer, at the bottom of your foot locker or tool box, or attached on your keychain — you still have your "good ol' -38."
You remember — that "lightweight, folding, hand-operated can opener for severing tops of rimmed metal cans," as Army nomenclature described it. In reality, the durable, handy-dandy, one-and-a-half inch metal device that opened your hot or cold C-ration cans had more practical uses than a Swiss Army knife (which actually predated the P-38 can opener by more than 40 years).
Developed by the Subsistence Research Laboratory of Chicago during the summer of 1942, the P-38 was used by service members in combat and training for four decades until the aluminum foil and plastic laminate pouches of MREs — Meals Ready to Eat — replaced canned rations in the 1980s.
The P-38 can opener was in no way akin to two other famous P-38s of World War II — the P-38 Lightning, the supercharged U.S. fighter aircraft, and the Walther P-38, the 9mm semiautomatic pistol of the Wehrmacht. Supposedly, our ingenious little gadget got its P-38 nickname because it took 38 punctures of its hinged metal tooth to remove the lid of a can of C-rations. But it also was known by many as a "John Wayne" since Wayne showed troops how to use it in a World War II training film.
If you hadn't seen the Wayne training film, you'd learn how to use the P-38 pretty quickly on your own just by reviewing the diagram and following the directions on the brown paper wrapper it came in. The wrapper even included instructions on how to sterilize the P-38 in an immersion heater or with a match before reuse. And even though the P-3 was designed as disposable, once you realize how handy it was for things other than opening cans, you made sure you hung on to it. Whether in training or combat, it also served as a great screwdriver, wire stripper, letter opener, pencil sharpener, muddy boot cleaner, and much more.
Best of all, the P-38 was every GI's meal ticket to that mouthwatering corned beef hash, meat and vegetable stew, meat and beans, cold or hot.