The GI P-38 Can Opener

Perfection in a Low-Tech Device

It's an unsung hero among the "Ten Essentials" for the Outdoors People of the World!

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The hot Southern Oregon sun beat down on me that August day of 1965. I was hungry, so hungry I felt eager at the prospect of opening my first-ever box of Army C-rations. Nearby, the forest fire that I was fighting smouldered, but I ignored it as I threw down my Pulaski and ripped through the wrappings around my "ration." Inside, I was confronted with several cans and no way to open them. Then a tiny shiny metal object about an inch long fell out and into the pine needles. My solution was at hand. The perfect can-opener! No gears, no wheels, no electricity, no plastic! Elegant and perfect in its simple mechanical design and execution. Should be in the Smithsonian Museum. These two images display my 1962 vintage GI P-38 can opener, still working perfectly after some 50 years, although a bit the worse for wear. Officially, its instruction sheet called it a P-38, but in the Forest Service it was commonly nicknamed a "Church Key," which harked back to early bottle openers which accessed alcoholic and often-restricted substances such as beer! Invented in 1942 for WW II, some have called it the "Army's Best Invention," famed for its speed of can-opening, and also revered for its multi-tool capabilities, eg. it can be used as a screwdriver, a fingernail cleaner, a dull mini-knife, and much more! I read that the "38" referred to how many punches around the rim were required to open a can of C-rations. See complete story of P-38 below, by Maj Renita Foster.

Sadly, since this device went mass-market, its quality has often gone downhill, and there sometimes isn't so much to admire about the perfection of the device. It seems too simple to mess-up, but I've bought some new ones at mass-market outlets and been disappointed. Perhaps the metal is cheaper and softer, but they just lacked the fine cutting abilities of the original from that old C-ration box, so my stained 1962 opener maintains a prime spot on my mini-biner that goes with me on any and all outdoor excursions!


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Page last revised 10/02/2017

Thanks to MAJ Renita Foster for the following History of the P38


Story by Maj. Renita Foster


The P38 was developed in just 30 days in the summer of 1942 by the Subsistence Research Laboratory in Chicago. And never in its history has it been known to break, rust, need sharpening or polishing. Perhaps that is why many soldiers, past and present, regard the P-38 C-ration can opener as the Army's best invention. C-rations have long since been replaced with the more convenient Meals, Ready to Eat, but the fame of the P-38 persists, thanks to the many uses stemming from the unique blend of ingenuity and creativity all soldiers seem to have. "The P-38 is one of those tools you keep and never want to get rid of," said Sgt. Scott Kiraly, a military policeman. "I've had my P-38 since joining the Army 11 years ago and kept it because I can use it as a screwdriver, knife, anything." The most vital use of the P-38, however, is the very mission it was designed for, said Fort Monmouth, N.J., garrison commander Col. Paul Baerman. "When we had C-rations, the P-38 was your access to food; that made it the hierarchy of needs," Baerman said. "Then soldiers discovered it was an extremely simple, lightweight, multipurpose tool. I think in warfare, the simpler something is and the easier access it has, the more you're going to use it. The P-38 had all of those things going for it."

The tool acquired its name from the 38 punctures required to open a C-ration can, and from the boast that it performed with the speed of the World War II P-38 fighter plane. "Soldiers just took to the P-38 naturally," said World War II veteran John Bandola. "It was our means for eating 90 percent of the time, but we also used it for cleaning boots and fingernails, as a screwdriver, you name it. We all carried it on our dog tags or key rings." When Bandola attached his first and only P-38 to his key ring a half century ago, it accompanied him to Anzio, Salerno and through northern Italy. It was with him when World War II ended, and it's with him now. "This P-38 is a symbol of my life then," said Bandola. "The Army, the training, my fellow soldiers, all the times we shared during a world war." Sgt. Ted Paquet, swing shift supervisor in the Fort Monmouth Provost Marshal's Office, was a 17-year-old seaman serving aboard the amphibious assault ship USS New Orleans during the Vietnam war when he got his first P-38. The ship's mission was to transport Marines off the coast of Da Nang. On occasional evenings, Marines gathered near Paquet's duty position on the fantail for simple pleasures like "Cokes, cigarettes, conversation and C-rations." It was during one of these nightly sessions that Paquet came in contact with the P-38, or "John Wayne" as it's referred to in the Navy. Paquet still carries his P-38, and he still finds it useful. While driving with his older brother, Paul, their car's carburetor began to have problems.

"There were no tools in the car and, almost simultaneously, both of us reached for P-38s attached to our key rings," Paquet said with a grin. "We used my P-38 to adjust the flow valve, the car worked perfectly, and we went on our merry way." Paquet"s P-38 is in a special box with his dog tags, a .50-caliber round from the ship he served on, his Vietnam Service Medal, South Vietnamese money and a surrender leaflet from Operation Desert Storm provided by a nephew. "It will probably be on my dresser until the day I die," Paquet said. The feelings veterans have for the P-38 aren't hard to understand, according to 1st Sgt. Steve Wilson of the Chaplain Center and School at Fort Monmouth. "When you hang on to something for 26 years," he said, "it's very hard to give it up. That's why people keep their P-38 just like they do their dog tags. ... It means a lot. It's become part of you. You remember field problems, jumping at 3 a.m. and moving out. A P-38 has you reliving all the adventures that came with soldiering in the armed forces. Yes, the P-38 opened cans, but it did much more. Any soldier will tell you that."
items since more and more people are putting them in their military & medal displays or their P-38 collections. P-38 collections don't cost too much and don't take up much space and they're a lot of fun finding the hard to get ones. I've had the same P-38 on my key-ring ever since my first Boy Scout camping trip when my Scoutmaster gave it to me to open the big cans of peaches for the delicious cobbler he would make over the campfire in a huge cast iron skillet. I can still taste that delicious cobbler as we sat around the campfire before crawling into our sleeping bags. My Scoutmaster was a WWII and Korean War veteran that knew how handy the little P-38s were and he gave one to every new member of the Scout troop on their first camping trip. Recently P-38s have added a new role to their long list of uses. Shelters and organizations that aid the homeless hand them out and also they were included in the humanitarian relief packets dropped into Afghanistan. I've also been told they have been handed out here in the USA by relief organizations after natural disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, storms and floods) for when the power is out and electric can openers no longer work. A P-38 is a lesson in simplicity at it's best. taken from surplus yes listing
Don't you wish everything in life could be as simple and useful as a P-38.

List of P-38 Uses By Steve Wilson, MSG Proponent NCO, Dept of the Army
Office of the Chief of Chaplains, The Pentagon
1. Can Opener
2. Seam Ripper
3. Screwdriver taken from surplus yes listing
4. Clean Fingernails
5. Cut Fishing Line
6. Open Paint Cans
7. Window Scraper
8. Scrape Around Floor Corners
9. Digging
10. Clean Out Groove on Tupperware lids
11. Reach in and Clean Out Small Cracks
12. Scrape Around Edge of Boots
13. Bottle Opener
14. Gut Fish (in the field)
15. Scale Fish (in the field)
16. Test for 'Doneness' When Baking on a Camp Fire
17. Prying Items taken from surplusyes listing
18. Strip Wire
19. Scrape Pans in the Field
20. Lift Key on Flip Top Cans
21. Chisel
22. Barter
23. Marking Tool
24. Deflating Tires
25. Clean Sole of Boot/Shoe
26. Pick Teeth
27. Measurement
28. Striking Flint
29. Stirring Coffee copied from surplus yes
30. Puncturing Plastic Coating
31. Knocking on Doors
32. Morse Code
33. Box Cutter
34. Opening Letters
35. Write Emergency Messages
36. Scratch an Itch
37. Save as a Souvenir
38. Rip Off Rank for On-the-Spot Promotions

 

 

 

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