The P-38: open for business

Bill Harris
HQ USAFE History Office

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

***image1***Military personnel are very unique and by the nature of their profession they tend to collect unique things. The current generation has the challenge coin and the highly sought after T-shirts from downrange.

Some items are issued, some are not. But, with time, many end up on tables at swap meets or surplus shop bins, their meanings long faded into obscurity except to those who 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. The Subsistence Research Laboratory in Chicago faced the military’s challenge of providing a small device for opening tinned foods. The device must not break, rust, need sharpening or polishing, and be small and light enough to carry in a pocket. 

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. 

***image2***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 Vietnam War that the P-38 was ushered into 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.

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).

***image3***The modern warrior’s love affair with the P-38 means an increasing number of P-38 owners are no longer pre-MRE vets. 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.

Army Master Sgt. 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, 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-3 fruitcake. 

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. 

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.”