A Genuine Military Artifact:  The P-38
By Bill Harris, HQ USAFE History Office



          Military personnel are very unique and by the nature of their profession they tend to collect unique things.  And each military generation has its own special items to collect.  For example, the current generation has the challenge coin, the grenade pin, the printed coffee cup, the MRE spoon, the base-named teddy bear, and the highly sought after t-shirts from “downrange.”  All are particular symbols of an age.  Some are issued, some are not.  But, with time, many may end up on tables at swap meets or surplus shop bins, their meanings long faded into obscurity except to those that purchased them. 


However, there may be an exception to the rule for one particular military issue item.


It all started in the summer of 1942 when American ingenuity went into overdrive.  The Subsistence Research Laboratory in Chicago faced the military’s challenge of providing a small device for opening tinned foods that would not break, rust, need sharpening or polishing, and was small and light enough to carry in a pocket.  The military’s official nomenclature was “Opener, Can, Hand, Folding, Type I.”  In a mere 30 days the engineers designed a small, nondescript piece of hardened steel they determined would meet the rigors of combat.  What they didn’t know was that their over-engineered “Type I” would become a true American icon.


Nicknamed the “P-38,” the small, 1.5-inch long by one-half inch wide opener had four distinctive attributes that made it instantly appealing to the GIs fighting in Europe and the Pacific:  it was bomb-proof, it could open cans without wearing out, it was a multi-function tool, and it had a hole near the blade for attaching to dog tag chains.  This latter was particularly appealing to GIs.  Like a dog tag “charm” the P-38 could be carried into combat and used over and over again.  It quickly gained the reputation as the soldier’s pal.  It also became a shared item.  And that’s where the story gets really interesting.


A case of rations usually contained 12 meals.  However, each case would only contain three or four can openers.  Now, that was fine if a single military member consumed all the meals.  But under field conditions, several members shared the case.  That meant there was competition for the P-38s.  And if you were unlucky to grab one during the “c-rat scramble,” you were simply at the mercy of your buddy.  From the beginning, not only did American GIs share their combat experiences, they shared their P-38s as part of the brotherhood of war.


Following World War II the P-38 migrated from dog tag chains to key rings, tool boxes, closets, desk drawers, and surplus stores.  And it was from the surplus stores that civilians, notably the Boy and Girl Scouts, began to experience the 1001 uses of Uncle Sam’s “Type I” contrivance.


The P-38 took on additional significance during the wars in Korea and Vietnam.  Korean War GIs followed the trendy example of their forbears and once again took the P-38 as a functional charm on steel necklaces, seeing them through actions from Pusan to the Yalu.  But it was during the ten intense years of the Vietnam War that the P-38 was ushered into both mainstream American culture and the counterculture scene.  Combat photographers documented the small can opener in the company of dog tags, Mickey Mouse watches, peace symbols, beads, bullets, rings, religious symbols, and dozens of other talismans military members deemed important.  The P-38 also made its way into the anti-war movement as returning vets proudly displayed it with their peace symbols and love beads.  And it is rumored that P-38s were readily available for tinned foods at Woodstock in 1969.


 During all three wars and particularly Vietnam, some service members etched names, dates, locations, and engagements into their P-38s.  In so doing, GIs embellished the P-38 with a dual artifactual and psycho-social “I’ve been there” connotation.  In short, the P-38’s essence slowly began to transcend even that of jewelry because of its empirical significance.    


The replacement of the c-rations by the MRE in the early 1980s did not mean the demise of the P-38.  If anything, it further entrenched its mythos.  During the Gulf War and Balkan conflict thousands of service personnel continued to wear their P-38 with their dog tags (including the author who, ironically, used his P-38 to open MRE cases).  Even now, GIs deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan are exposing the P-38 to battle-rattle. 


The modern warrior’s love affair with the P-38 means an increasing number of P-38 owners are no longer pre-MRE vets.  There must be a reason for this phenomenon.  As some deploying members have suggested, it is the feeling of belonging to an exclusive community whose commitment is symbolized by a small, time-honored piece of grey stainless steel.  Regardless, the P-38’s presence and popularity has outlasted all other military issue items.  Weapons, boots, helmets, and web gear have all been modified.  Not so with the P-38.  Its “elegant simplicity” still mirrors its grandparent from 1942.  And maybe that’s the magic—continuity.


Culturally, social scientists are still perplexed by the P-38’s societal significance.  Why do vets passionately hold on to these tiny stainless keepsakes?  And why do they grieve when they lose them?  This has been the case with several veterans recently when they’ve had their P-38s confiscated at airports, many of whom have possessed their P-38s for 50-plus years.  Pleas for replacements have been answered by fellow veterans who have joyfully provided spares to these veterans not to mention letters of protest to airport officials.  But why the attachment?  Is it the “security blanket” phenomenon?  There may be a much simpler, yet profound answer.


Philosophically, these experienced symbols are not just important to us, they remind us of us.  In museological terms, the time-place empathy theory explains it all.  The P-38-as-artifact returns the veterans communally to a specific time and location, often with constructive memories within a shared context.  Philosophers such as Theodor Adorno also shed light on the subject by suggesting that there is a distinct difference between individual and group accessioned items.  Individuals seeking personhood through culture-driven items (i.e., the current artificiality of “bling” or designer fashion) will not be content because these “individual” items do not have shared values.  In short, they leave one void of contentment because they were self-purchased, not group-assigned.  Conversely, items of practical value provided to a given population with a certain provenance assume importance because they speak to us through commonality of purpose and collective experience. 


And that is why veterans are so close to their P-38s.  They are symbols of shared humanity and steadfast soldiering against great odds.  And those great odds include but are not limited to field toilets, Camel Spiders, MOPP 4, Korean winters, the burden of preservative-flavored ham slices, and the visceral B-2 bomb known as fruit cake (you had to be there man).


Throughout the past seven decades a number of companies have manufactured the P-38, each with its own distinctive marking.  These included the Speaker Company, U.S. Malin Hardware of Shelby, Ohio, G.G. Greene of Warren, PA, U.S. Ajax, the Shelby Corporation, and sundry others.  The markings usually include U.S. followed by the company’s name, many of which no longer exist.  That makes them collectible.  And they’re affordable.  Prices begin at around 50 cents for the recent models up to 25 dollars for the older, rarer versions. 


Collecting small can openers?  Why do people collect Hummels, Christmas ornaments, or coins?    It all comes down to individual taste.  But as former AC-130 pilot and Vietnam Vet Ken Spence noted, “I can’t open a can, strip wire, or pick my teeth with a Hummel.  They, uh, sort of break or don’t fit in my mouth.  My P-38, I’m certain, could have slain the enemy and fixed my C-130.  Now let’s see a Hummel do that!  And Hummels don’t bear the US stamp.”


Speaking of practical uses, Army Master Sergeant Steve Wilson once provided a list of 38 uses for a P-38.  These included a seam ripper, screwdriver, fingernail cleaner, paint scraper, bottle opener, fish scaler, and the list goes on.  As a former security policeman and 81mm mortar gunner, the author used his to fix sights on his M-16, handcuff release, gunpowder fouling remover, and potential bayonet.  As an active duty historian, the author also used the Type I to fix his trusty Olivetti typewriter, bind histories, open M-17 gas mask filter caps, staple remover, and cutting B-2 fruitcake (you had to be there man). 


But that still begs the question:  Just where did the “Type I” get its nickname?  The Marines and Navy called it the “John Wayne” because of its reliability and the fact that the patriotic actor used a P-38 during one of his many wartime films.  Others have guessed that it took approximately 38 punctures to open a B-2 tin.  Still, others surmise that the item could open a can as fast as a P-38 fighter.  Like the jeep, P-38 moniker myths abound.  And regarding mythos, historians are certain Alexander the Great and Aristotle would have owned a P-38.  And Napoleon would have stated “An army may march on its stomach, but it overwhelms the enemy with a P-38.”


  Some years ago, Army Major Renita Foster of the Pentagon Public Affairs office authored a fitting tribute to the P-38.  “Information abut the actual inventor of the P-38 has faded with the passing of years.  So perhaps it’s best to fanaticize about a “Patron Saint of Army Inventions” who’s been responsible for creating devices empowering a GI to survive in war and peacetime.  There were the steel helmets designed for head protection but proved ideal for washing, shaving, and cooking; the faithful, trustworthy jeep, guaranteed to go anywhere and in any kind of weather; and the TA-50 ammunition pouch for storing those personal items that soldiers just couldn’t leave behind.  The P-38, however, remains the Saint’s finest work.” 


As for the author of this article, well, he still possesses a Shelby Co P-38 he sourced from a c-ration box in 1976.  It accompanied him through 24 active duty years and now civil service.  And, like other veterans, he’s very proud of his “Type I.”  So, okay, in closing you’re still puzzled about the B-2 fruitcake?  As any “over there” vet would explain, one can’t elucidate B-2 fruitcake with words.  It’s like combat. “You had to be there man.”  



Note:  This article was written with the assistance of James Clarke, the National Archives, the Air Force Historical Research Agency, and sundry veterans willing to share their P-38 war fables.