My earliest recollection of using a P-38 can opener was while at FT Riley, KS for my ROTC Advanced Cadet Training Course, summer of 1981. The Army was still using C-Rations for feeding while in the field at that time. I will do a separate article on the history of C-Rations.
The P-38, developed in 1942, is a small can opener that was issued in the canned field rations of the United States Armed Forces from WWII to the 1980s. Originally designed for and distributed in the K-ration, it was later included in the C-ration. As of 2013, it is still in production and sold worldwide, including at Major Dads.
The P-38 is known as a “John Wayne” by the United States Marine Corps, either because of its toughness and dependability, or because of an unsubstantiated story that the actor had been shown in an as-yet-unidentified training film opening a can of K-Rations. The can opener is pocket-sized, approximately 1.5 inches (38mm) long and consists of a short metal blade that serves as a handle, with a small, hinged metal tooth that folds out to pierce the can lid. A notch just under the hinge point keeps the opener hooked around the rim of the can as the device is “walked” around to cut the lid out. A larger version called the P-51 is somewhat easier to operate. The handle portion can also double as a flat-blade screwdriver.
Official military designations for the P-38 include “US Army Pocket Can Opener” and “Opener, Can, Hand, Folding Type 1”. As with some other military terms, e.g., “jeep”, the origin of the term is no known with certainty, the P-38 opener coincidently shares a designation with the Lockheed P-38 Lighting fighter plan, which could allude to its fast performance. However, the P-51 can opener, while larger and easier to use than the P-38 can opener, also has a fighter plane namesake in the North American P-53 Mustang. One technical explanation for the origin of the name is that the P-38 is approximately 38 mm (1.5 in) long. This explanation also holds for the P-51, which measures approximately 51 mm (2 in) in length. United States Army sources, however, indicate that the origin of the name is rooted in the 38 punctures around the circumference of a C-ration can required for opening. This is the version I remember being told when I first used on way back in 1980.
P-38s are no longer used for individual rations by the United States Armed Forces, as canned C-rations were replaced by MRE rations in the 1980s, packed in plastic pouches. The larger P-51s are, however, included with United State military “Tray Rations” (canned bulk meals). They are also still seen in disaster recovery efforts and have been handed out alongside canned food by rescue organizations. Luther Hanson, curator at the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum in Fort Lee, Va., estimates that “750 million P-38s were produced for WWII” and “at least a billion” from Vietnam to the present.