Coffee and cookstoves

I’ll be among the first to admit that mechanized infantry troops have it pretty easy. Relatively speaking, of course. I mean, it’s a tougher life than being a tanker or a band electronic repair technician. But life in mech infantry usually has some of the touches of civilization. Given that mechanized units have to refuel at least once, and often twice a day, bringing a hot meal to them isn’t too much trouble on top of bringing them a few tons of fuel. And with those hot meals comes something far, far more precious than food or diesel.


I love coffee. I mean, I’m not a coffee snob. I’m more a “quantity” over “quality” guy. I’ve been drinking coffee for 35 years. I’m legally not responsible if I kill someone in the morning before I’ve had my coffee.  So having a goodly supply brought up from the battalion trains twice a day was nice. And even in between meals, in  a mechanized unit, there is space available to store things like a propane stove to brew up a cup or two. Heck, in a  pinch, you can heat water on the heater vent around the base of the turret ring in a Bradley.

Lightfighters, that is, grunts in the light infantry units, don’t have that luxury. We were lucky to get one hot meal during a weeklong trip to the woods. And by “hot” meal, I mean the food had been cooked hours before and dozens of miles away, and was stone cold before it reached us. So, since Uncle Sam wasn’t going to take care of us as befitted such noble servants of the Republic, we had to make do on our own.

Weight and space are at a premium for the lightfighter. My co-author Roamy thinks NASA obsesses over weight. She’s never seen a light infantryman pack his rucksack. I knew grunts that cut the handle off their toothbrush to save weight. MREs were routinely stripped of excess packaging, and the parts no one liked tossed away, both to save weight, and be rid of bulky packaging. But one part of the MRE that was never discarded was the packet of instant coffee that came in every meal. And even when I was a Radio-Telephone Operator, humping the insanely heavy PRC-77 radio, I always managed to find enough space in my rucksack for a small bottle of Folger’s crystals.

The problem then, wasn’t so much finding coffee, per se, but heating the water to make a cup of coffee. When times were really rough- say, at night, when no fire or light of any kind was permitted- troopers would just rip open the small pack of MRE instant coffee and pour it between their cheek and gum, just like snuff. I’ve done it, it keeps you awake a little longer, and it tastes incredibly bad. But it is better than no coffee at all.

In countless trips to the woods as a lightfighter, not once did we enjoy a “campfire” so heating water that way was out.  There were a couple other options, though. I early on invested in a “Tommy Cooker” identical to what British troops have carried since before World War II. It’s a simple folding piece of aluminum that can be used with solid cooking fuels like hexamine, trioxane, or even sterno to heat water in a steel canteen cup. Give me 15 minutes to myself, and I could heat up just enough coffee to keep me alive and non-homicidal.  There are any number of variations  on folding metal stoves designed to heat a canteen cup of water. I’ve seen and tried most of them. And heck, if you don’t have a stove, no problem- as long as you have the fuel, you can always use the triangular handle of your entrenching tool as a stove.

The Army rarely gives soldiers stateside access to large amounts of C-4 plastic explosives (and when it does, it accounts for its use extraordinary vigilance) but if you can get your hands on a 1-1/4 pound block, you can slice that up and use chunks about the size of your thumb in place of sterno to heat up a cup of coffee. Note to civilians-don’t try this with dynamite, TNT, PETN, TNA, HDNA or any other explosives-your coffee will have more kick than you like!

I am almost certain that every single soldier in the US Army has at one time or another made “mocha” by mixing the MRE instant coffee with the really terrible cocoa mix that came in a few breakfast-menu MREs.  Two coffees, one cocoa mix, non-diary creamer, and two sugars. Of course, other folks may have used slightly different formulas, but I’m right, they’re wrong.

5 thoughts on “Coffee and cookstoves”

  1. I always toted around trioxane tabs. Those worked fine and I used a small folding frame heater. In fact I still have the heater and probably more than a 100 of the tabs. Used them some time back when camping. Funny how in the “old days” I never minded the chemical after taste!

  2. We used to make Mocha with the stuff from C-rats too. Tasted terrible, and this from a guy that like Ham and Lima Beans. I used to use Trioxane (AKA Heat Tabs) when I caved back in the 70s and 80s before I was racked up in ’83. We used them to heat food on those long 18-24 hour trips into the big cave at Mammoth Cave Nat’l Park exploring and surveying. I never noticed an aftertaste though.

  3. Good story. Thanks. Sheesh.

    *feeling very guilty with two Espresso machines in domicile, using only ‘Lavazza’ imported Italian, and still pouting when there’s no milk in the house to froth for the 3 daily Cappuccinos*

    What a wimp I am.

    *hides in shame*

  4. Never light the trioxane and then huddle over it while wrapped in a poncho or poncho liner. The chemicals immediately sear your eyeballs.

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