Landing the Big One

Landing the Big One

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Sunday Ship History: Navy Coffee

Various forms of fuel may power ships, but what really keeps the United States Navy going is coffee. Not an original thought, as seen here:
One frequent World War II saying boasted that Navy ships operated on fuel oil and their crews operated on coffee.
But did you know that the Navy (and the Army) once operated their own coffee roasting plants? Yep, one source puts the Navy in the coffee business as far back as 1858:
Some time this year the Navy will close the coffee-roasting plants it started in 1858 because it was not satisfied with the quality or cost of commercial coffee.
That was in 1955, when President Eisenhower took heed of advice that the military shouldn't be competing with private industry.

Now, some claim that the Navy's coffee drinking habit was the fault of every sailor's least favorite Navy Secretary:
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, scandalized by reports of drunkenness aboard ship, issued an order 1919 banned the serving of wine in the wardroom and any consumption of alcoholic aboard ship. Daniels, a teetotaler, decreed that only coffee or tea should be served. This was not a popular order and Sailors promptly dubbed a cup of coffee as a "cup of joe."
I'm not sure Mr. Daniels is getting a fair rap, since the Army had long before substituted coffee and teas for liquor rations, as set out here:
Then it happened. President Andrew Jackson, a War of 1812 veteran, impatient with Congress, took matters into his own hands, and signed an Executive Order on October 25, 1832, dictating that coffee and sugar were to be substituted for the allowance of rum, whiskey, or brandy.

This Executive Order made the spirit ration an extra issue, subject to the discretion of the President. Army General Order No.100, 1832 directed that an issue of coffee and sugar, at the rate of 4 pounds of coffee and 8 pounds of sugar per 100 rations, would be substituted for alcohol. Since then coffee has remained a vital component of the U.S. Army soldier’s field ration.
Perhaps the Navy life-style also played a role in coffee becoming a mainstay for the fleet. Those long watches into the night required a degree of alertness that a little cup of coffee assisted in achieving. As with many things in the Navy, coffee inspired some poetry like the following found at the Goat Locker:
When Navy coffee's thick and black,
It guards against a heart attack,
And if it's strong enough, I'm sure
It functions as a cancer cure.
But best of all, it makes the days
Pass quickly in a caffeine haze.
But it was World War II that really set the Navy wheels grinding into action:
U. S. Navy officials, motivated by the belief that coffee is as important to personnel in the fleet as ammunition is to its weapons systems, were concerned early during wartime expansion in 1942 over the widely varying quality of the roasted coffee being supplied to ships and shore stations. The solution was to open Navy fresh coffee roasting plants on both the East and West coasts and later in Hawaii.
The coffee roasting plant at the Naval Supply Corps Depot Oakland, capable of roasting 13 million [NB E1: ? Probably should read "thousands"][ pounds an hour, went on line on Oct. 27, 1942. The plant annually produced 13.5 million pounds of freshly ground coffee from approximately 16 million pounds of green coffee beans obtained from Central and South America, usually from Brazil and Colombia.

During the period from opening in October 1942 to June 1948, the Oakland Coffee Roasting Plant blended, roasted and ground 115,830,896 pounds of green coffee into a total of 98,456,264 pounds of freshly ground and roasted coffee and packed them in 50-pound sacks of high-quality freshly roasted coffee for the Pacific Fleet. Coffee was also shipped to other Navy, Marine Corps and Army units throughout the Pacific, including bases in Western states.

A second coffee roasting plant, located at the Naval Clothing Depot at Brooklyn, N.Y., provided a similar service to the Atlantic Fleet and to other American military services in the North African and European theaters of operations. Both plants were operated until disestablished in 1956. An older Navy coffee roasting plant at Mare Island Shipyard in California was dismantled, shipped to Pearl Harbor, and began operation in July 1943 to meet expanding coffee needs of growing and rapidly advancing forces in the Central Pacific.
Despite the supply, demand always seemed to outpace production- making coffee a valuable trading item:
RADM Jim Miller, 37th Chief, reports, "When I was a young junior supply officer, skippers of my ships would always warn me to have 5-pound tins of coffee aboard when we visited Hong Kong. There, a sampan captained by 'Mary Sue' with a crew of young girls, would pull alongside arriving U.S. Navy ships and offer to paint our hulls in return for tins of coffee. We'd supply the paint and rollers and the women would use them to paint our ships." RADM Ted Walker, 35th Chief, adds, "A 5-pound tin of coffee would get almost anything done at a Navy shipyard."(from an Navy Supply Corps Newsletter article written by Rear Admiral Frank J. Alliston, SC, USNR (Ret.), and Captain Kathleen Jense, SC, USNR)
When the military coffee plants closed, then specifications had to be written as to what coffee might be purchased. Here's an example from 1996: Moderately dark roasts. Moderately dark roasts are coffee beans/grounds that have a rich, dark color with an Agtron number between 40-50, and/or the SCAA roasted coffee color disk value Tile Number 45. This roast has some oil on the surface and with a slight bittersweet aftertaste. Dark roasts. Dark roasts are coffee beans/grounds with shiny black beans that have an Agtron number between 30-40, and/or the SCAA roasted coffee color disk value Tile Number35. This roast has a glossy oily surface and a pronounced bitterness. The colors for dark roast coffees run from slightly dark to charred.
But in the military there is always planning going on for "worst case" scenarios like this Defense Technical Information Center research:
The purpose of this study was to: evaluate commercially available coffee extenders and substitutes; establish a data base on the effectiveness of extenders and substitutes in event of future increases in coffee bean prices; and design a consumer rating form to acquire sensory information. The following areas were investigated: reducing the amount of roasted and ground (R&G) coffee in armed Forces Recipe Service (AFRS) guidelines; replacing up to half the R&D coffee with carmel-based extenders; one-to-one substitution of roast grains for R&G coffee; three miscellaneous products; substitutions and reblending with African robusta coffee varieties. Field data confirmed laboratory findings. Recommendations on advantages and drawbacks to future deployment of extenders, substitutes and alternate varieties are provided.
Carmel based extenders?

Coffee has also "inspired" uniform colors:
KHAKI--originated in 1845 in India where British soldiers soaked white uniforms in mud, coffee, and curry powder to blend in with the landscape. Khakis made their debut in the U.S. Navy in 1912 when they were worn by naval aviators, and were adopted for submarines in 1931. In 1941 the Navy approved khakis for on- station wear by senior officers, and soon after Pearl Harbor chiefs and officers were authorized to wear khakis ashore on liberty.
Or, in another version:
There is a story, probably not quite true, that coffee made a significant contribution to naval attire. There had been a dust-up in 1914 involving naval personnel on an island just off Mexico. We won't go into detail, but suffice it to say some Americans wound up in jail (but you shouldda seen the other guys!). Anyway, the Marines, accompanied by a party of sailors, were going in to get them out. Problem was, the sailors had no appropriate attire, since their kit consisted of either blue woolens or dress whites, neither of which was deemed suitable for combat on a tropical shore. The problem was solved by an enterprising cook on a destroyer who dipped the whites into vats of coffee, thereby creating the first khakis. Well, maybe . . . it could've happened.
Sailors have never lacked for opinions on how to make Good Coffee as found at Seabee
A seaman working in the boatswain’s locker reports he was upbraided unmercifully by the chief boatswain’s mate for washing the coffee pot. "Never wash it, just rinse it gently!" the chief roared. Scouring a pot to its bare metal is more sacrilegious to a joe pot artist that scraping a pipe bowl is to a lifelong briar puffer.

Probably the most complicated joe pot ever used in the Navy was one rigged in the engineroom of a wartime transport. Designed and built through the combined efforts of several engineering, construction and coffee brewing "experts," it was a Rube Goldbergish-looking affair with a half a dozen pressure valves, vacuum lines, drain lines, safety valves and water and coffee level indicators. The "pot" would boil on either "hot" or exhaust steam through an arrangement that put a vacuum drag on it when desired. Procuring a cup of joe was more complicated that operating the main engines, and no one under a first class petty officer was allowed to touch it. Sailors who once tasted beverage brewed in this contraption say all other coffee is flat and tasteless in comparison.
Some things have changed in the Navy of today, but I have it on good authority that a good cup of coffee is still an essential component of the Fleet Sailor's life.

I could probably go on, but I feel the need for a cup of Joe.

General history of coffee here.

UPDATE: Image of coffee roaster "cooling cart" from here. Image of Admiral Burke with coffee cup from here. Caption:
Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, USN,
Chief of Naval Operations (at left)
With a Third Class Quartermaster on bridge of USS Picking (DD-685), circa 1955-1961. He is holding a Tennessee coffee cup marked with the Confederate battle flag.
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.
UPDATE2: Agtron number? See here. SCAA color disks? See here. And an updated Federal "Commercial Item Description" for coffee here.


  1. Anonymous12:19 PM

    Ok... quit trying to Pull The Wool over our non-seeing eyeballs. I read Tom Clancy books... an Ol' Salt hisself: look @ his pix over one his penned books. Navy. He said Navy coffee came from Kenya... @ least what Navy stewards brew in the WH.