During World War II General George C. Marshall faced the challenge of keeping the spirits of his soldiers high despite the fact that they were fighting enemies thousands of miles away from their homes. “Fighting as [a] rule is a very monotonous thing,” Marshall noted, “And it’s the monotony that is very hard to endure, and it’s the monotony that has very evil effects on morale, and particularly when you are far removed from home.” Throughout the war Marshall sought ways to keep soldiers’ morale high by providing them with access to some of the comforts of home including Coca-Cola.
Shortly after the U.S. entered the war Coca-Cola Company president Robert W. Woodruff offered to provide any American in uniform with a Coke for 5 cents. Despite the generosity of Woodruff’s offer once servicemen and women began to be stationed overseas they no longer had easy access to Coca-Cola. On June 29, 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a message requesting that 3 million bottles of Coca-Cola be shipped to North Africa along with the bottles, equipment, and other supplies necessary to produce 6 million bottles of Coca-Cola per month. After receiving General Marshall’s approval the Coca-Cola Company was able to begin bottling operations overseas. The bottling plants grew from the 10 initially requested by Eisenhower to 64 plants located all over the world and were operated by 148 Coke employees who held the Army rank of Technical Observer, commonly known as “Coca-Cola Colonels” by soldiers.
Marshall was also instrumental in ensuring that soldiers had access to Coke where they needed it most; near the front lines. When recalling one of his inspection trips Marshall noted:
“I remember my great pleasure when I went into Italy and got up right behind the firing line and they brought a battalion out to go into the forward position as a picket. And before the men had gotten their pup tents up, one sergeant opened up the post exchange from two barrels which had been delivered to him and here was tobacco and here was Coca-Cola and here was the various things you want right away and they sold them right over the barrel. As I told you, I think, I never allowed them to have any sales going on in rear until they’d begun up front, because I had participated in that myself in the first world war where they did the thing exactly backwards.”
Marshall’s efforts to maintain high levels of morale among his soldiers was certainly bolstered by Coke’s availability worldwide and laid the foundation for the strong partnership between the military and the Coca-Cola Company that exists today.
If you would like to learn more about the role that Coca-Cola played in World War II, Ted Ryan, Director of Heritage Communications of the Coca-Cola Company will be presenting a talk titled “Coca-Cola Goes to War” at the Marshall Foundation on September 15th. Visit the Marshall Foundation website to learn more about the presentation or to make your reservation to attend.