Jul 25

We All Scream For Ice Cream: World War II and America's Sweet Tooth

Thursday, July 25, 2019 12:01 AM


It’s late July, and in Maryland and most of the United States, this month provides one certainty: it is hot. There are plenty of ways to combat the heat, from taking a swim to just staying indoors in the relative protection of air conditioning, but there’s one form of cooling off that never gets old for me, and that’s having an ice cream. Something about that first taste always transports me – if I don’t get a brain freeze – to other sunny afternoons and happy days, and I can never eat an ice cream on a hot day without smiling. It’s a refreshing slice of Americana and fond memories, scooped onto a cone.

While going through our archives at the U.S. Naval Institute, I learned that I’m not the only one who noticed the transportive and positive effects of ice cream on the mind. During World War II, the U.S. Military made it a priority to provide ice cream to the troops. This is because by this point in American history, ice cream had not just become one of the most popular treats in the United States, but also had become a symbol of the American way of life. Due to Prohibition, many breweries – like Yuengling and Anheuser-Busch – turned to soda and ice cream to stay solvent, and by the end of the 1920’s American’s consumed millions of gallons per day. As a response to the stock market crash that caused the Great Depression, the ice cream maker William Dreyer created the now iconic flavor Rocky Road, a taste of symbolic comfort for the masses in “rocky” times.

Sailors patiently wait their turn aboard a U.S. Navy Hospital Ship for ice cream during World War II. Official U.S. Navy Photograph

By World War II, when other Allied countries banned ice cream, the United States held fast to the tasty symbol of their perseverance in difficult times. Arguing successfully that ice cream had morale and caloric value for overseas troops, all branches of the U.S. Military began providing the treat to soldiers in whatever form they could. In the U.S. Navy, some of the most interesting ice cream-driven projects occurred. The most well-known project is the $1 million spent on converting a concrete barge into an ice cream factory that was towed around the Pacific, delivering ice cream to ship’s that did not have the equipment to create their own. Those ships that could make ice cream were also equipped with soda fountains – a common place in the United States where ice cream was served – to provide the sailors not just with the taste, but the feel of home. As if these projects were not enough to show the U.S. Military’s dedication to the treat, some U.S. Airmen found a fascinating solution to provide dairy confections to their comrades.

A U.S. Navy “Soda Jerk” hard at work for his happy comrades at the USS Wasp’s soda fountain. Official U.S. Navy Photograph

When creating ice cream, one of the most crucial steps is the constant churning of the mixture, which turns the ingredients into the smooth, diary treat. In 1943, heavy-bomber crews began to experiment with creating their own ice cream mid-air, using the vibrations from the engine to churn the mixture. They believed this paired with the high altitudes that would keep the mixture cool would be enough to make ice cream. Even with this sound logic, the crew’s first attempts aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress ended in a melted mass of goop, however. This was because they placed the ice cream too close to the engine itself, which heated the mixture along with vibrating it. It was only after anchoring the tub to the rear gunner’s compartment that the mixture stayed cool enough to create ice cream, with the added bonus that any machine-gun fire would aid the engine’s vibrations in churning the treat.

B-17 Flying Fortress in flight during World War II. Official U.S. Navy Photograph

Thinking about how much effort put in to create ice cream during World War II, it would be easy just to write it off as America’s sweet tooth gone mad. But what I saw in learning about their efforts was a poignant desire for home and comfort. In the madness that is war, knowing that these men strived for a tangible symbol of happiness and childhood innocence humanized the nameless faces I saw looking back at me in the rare snapshots that fling me through time and space on a regular basis. These men had experienced harrowing, life-altering events that I will never be able to imagine. But they still scream for ice cream, just like me.

World War II submariners enjoy a well-deserved ice cream aboard a submarine tender during their vessel’s servicing. Official U.S. Navy Photograph



McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Simon and Schuster, 2007.

Siegel, Matt. “How Ice Cream Helped America at War.” Last modified August 6, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/08/ice-cream-military/535980/