America’s Secret, Tasty World War II Weapon?

Just about everyone loves ice cream. (Apologies to those who are allergic.) And just about everyone hates war. (Apologies to those who are sociopaths, although you probably don’t mind.) And you’d think the two, therefore, don’t mix. But as it turns out, they go hand in hand — if you’re a sailor, at least.

If you’re serving on a naval ship, morale is important. Even in the earliest days of the United States, the government recognized this; in 1794, Congress issued a chart of daily rations to be given to sailors, and as seen here, each sailor was entitled to “½ pint of distilled spirits” per day. But in 1914 — a few years before the United States ratified the 18th Amendment and Prohibition went into effect — sailors serving in the U.S. Navy were met with some bad news: no more liquor was to be allowed on ships. The rule, known as General Order 99, was ” met with derision and mockery in the press, which regarded the policy as an attempt to make the Navy softer,” according to the U.S. Naval Institute, but it stuck, much to the chagrin of those serving. With morale low, the Navy decided to supply sailors with ice cream — and it worked. Maybe it wasn’t as popular as booze, but again, just about everyone loves ice cream, and sailors seemed to appreciate having the treat on board. 

Prohibition ended in 1933 but that didn’t matter for sailors; General Order 99 was still in effect. And, as you may expect, ice cream remained popular on naval ships — perhaps comically so, per one incident recounted by the Atlantic: “In 1942, as Japanese torpedoes slowly sank the U.S.S. Lexington, then the second-largest aircraft carrier in the Navy’s arsenal, the crew abandoned ship—but not before breaking into the freezer and eating all the ice cream. Survivors describe scooping ice cream into their helmets and licking them clean before lowering themselves into the Pacific.” Ice cream: it’s that good.

And this wasn’t lost on the Navy’s leadership. With the Pacific theater of World War II dragging into its third year, the government began looking for ways to help bring some joy to the sailors still at sea. Some ships had ice cream-making facilities on board, many did not — and those that did couldn’t churn out a lot of the frozen treat in any event. So in 1945, the Navy made a unique investment: $1 million — about $16.5 million in today’s dollars — on a vessel that didn’t have bombs or anything like that. Nope: this ship made ice cream.

The ship didn’t have a name because it wasn’t much of a ship at all — as the Military Times explains, the vessel was a “borrowed concrete barge from the Army” that the Navy “retrofitted it as an at-sea ice cream factory and parlor.” It didn’t have an engine of its own — it had to be pulled around by tug boats — but that didn’t matter to the sailors. The ship was a literal ice cream factory; per Atlas Obscura, it “could hold a whopping 2,000 gallons of ice cream at once” and had “the ability to churn out roughly ten gallons every 7 minutes.” That’s a lot of ice cream by any measure.

When the war ended, the barge went away, and it’s not clear what happened to it next. According to both Atlas Obscura and the Military Times, there’s a chance it’s just rotting away in some bay somewhere, along with other ships that were abandoned after the war. If you come across it, don’t eat the ice cream; it’s probably expired. 

Bonus fact: General Order 99 is still in effect today, but there’s a caveat: ships captains can request a “beer day” if their vessel has been at sea for long enough. The subsequent order can be found here if you’re interested, but Wikipedia’s editors offer an easier-to-understand summary: “when a vessel has been at sea for 45 continuous days and has more than 5 days left before coming into port, then a ship captain may request permission from the Numbered Fleet Commander to conduct a beer day. This authorization is not automatic and is subject to operational commitments, local threat assessments and the commander’s approval. This event is authorized once every 45 days at sea, so once a beer day is held, the ship’s crew has to wait another 45 continuous days without a port call until another beer day could be authorized.”

From the Archives: The Wartime Chocolate Bar You Don’t Want to Eat: Candy isn’t so dandy when it’s military chocolate.