When the Army Stopped Serving Beer, American Beer Barons Bought a Round for Freedom

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Private First Class Sterling G. Patterson, of Eagle Rock, California, has a real security job. He is shown standing guard on beer rations for Marines in Korea. (National Archives)

When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the U.S. military was doing everything it could to stop the communists from pushing the defenders into the Sea of Japan. They formed a defensive perimeter around Pusan (called Busan today), and made a desperate stand against the North Korean offensive.

The Americans and South Koreans did not fare well in the first months of the war, but the tide turned in September of that year when the United States launched a daring, surprise landing behind enemy lines at Incheon. The North Koreans were caught completely off-guard. The communist front fell apart as American and South Korean troops broke out of Pusan and began to push the invaders north.

Then, even more devastating news: the U.S. military announced it would not provide beer rations for the men fighting the war in Korea.

Beer brewing during World War II saved the beer industry. During World War I, anti-alcohol crusaders launched a campaign to label beer makers in America, many of whom were German immigrants, as anti-American and wasters of U.S. resources. It helped the passage of the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture and import of alcoholic beverages.

After Prohibition was repealed, breweries went right back to doing what they knew best, but the industry was still on shaky ground. Then World War II broke out, and the U.S. government saw beer as what we would today call a "force multiplier." It declared beer production an essential wartime industry, with 15% of its output reserved for the military.

When the Korean War started, some of the old "dry" politicians and activists were still around, fighting against the evils of alcohol. The teetotalers somehow managed to convince the Department of Defense that troops could do without the two-beer ration. When the news hit headlines, it sparked a nationwide debate.

A U.S. representative, Democrat Andrew J. Biemiller, who represented Milwaukee, demanded on the House floor that the Army explain its rationale for cutting off its soldiers' taps. He argued that beer could be used in place of water when necessary and had "as much alcohol as a good pudding."

While the war raged in Korea, the war at home between beer lovers and anti-alcohol groups like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union was fought to keep beer out of the hands of the GIs. Then, a couple of brewing heavyweights escalated the conflict.

Milwaukee's own Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company and Blatz Brewing Company offered to buy the troops a round and see what might happen. The companies volunteered 600,000 cans or bottles (apiece) of their products to be sent to the Korean Peninsula and handed out to the Americans fighting there.

Pfc. Nicholas Phillips next to a beer can Christmas tree in Korea. (Library of Congress)

It's hard to argue with American companies offering to get 1.2 million beers to a fight without using taxpayer money. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union would have a hard time competing with that offer. Army Secretary Frank Pace agreed to the donation, so long as the beer was less than 3.2% alcohol by volume.

The first cans of Schlitz, which was America's top beer at the time, rolled away from Milwaukee on Sept. 28, 1950. Blatz wasn't far behind, shipping theirs out on Oct. 4, 1950. The beer made it to the troops in time for Christmas.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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Military History Korean War Army