Structure of ethanol molecule

Wikimedia Commons

Alcohol, more precisely ethyl alcohol or ethanol, has numerous uses as a fuel, an industrial solvent and in the chemical industry, but by far its most common use is as an intoxicant. When ingested in drinks such as wine, beer, or distilled liquors, it depresses the activity of certain areas of the brain, producing a mild euphoria and reducing psychological inhibitions. It also slows the muscle reflexes responsible for physical coordination, and in high doses it produces the usual symptoms of drunkenness: slurred speech, staggered gait, and cognitive impairment. In very high doses it produces unconsciousness and can cause death by respiratory failure.

Humans have consumed alcohol for pleasure from prehistoric times, and alcoholic beverages have become an important part of the rituals and traditions of most cultures. Alcohol is easily produced by fermentation of carbohydrates by various strains of yeast in the absence of air, and because it has a slightly lower boiling point than water, alcohol is easily concentrated by distillation. Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Pacific War of almost every nationality either were provided with an alcohol ration or became skilled at producing their own alcohol. Alcohol consumption occasionally had a significant effect on combat readiness, both in reducing combat effectiveness and in raising morale.

In addition to alcohol rations, units of all the major powers in the Pacific War were issued medicinal alcohol. Concentrated alcohol is a cheap, safe, and fairly effective disinfectant. Administration of alcohol to badly wounded or sick men was risky, as the alcohol could aggravate shock or hypothermia. American sailors were warned that drinking alcohol when fresh water was unavailable (as might occur when adrift in a life raft after abandoning ship) was tantamount to suicide due to its dehydrating effects. However, the value of alcohol as a morale booster was undeniable, and in a pinch it was sometimes used as an anesthetic, though it was not entirely satisfactory for this purpose (Ferguson 1991):

We went to Shafer's tent. "I'll collect a few things and get ready for surgery." I took my mess-kit cup to the mess hall and luckily found an open can of grapefruit juice; I took it back to the tent and added some alcohol. "Down this and your thumb won't feel so bad. No hurry." I returned to my tent and added some wood to the fire for washing clothes. I sat down and reread an old letter from my wife, killing about twenty minutes; I knew the anesthesia would last for a couple of hours, so I didn't hurry.

I went back to my patient, "How was the juice?"

"Juss fine. Have ya got any more?"

From the thick tongued reply I knew I had gotten enough alcohol in the juice. "Sit down on the ground and put your arm on this box. Here is some wood to chew on in case you feel something." I sat down so he couldn't see what I was doing. With my pocket knife I opened a little bigger area down the side of the splinter. I tried to force the blunt hemostat behind the splinter, but his skin was too tough.

"Capn Fergooson, I need a lill more juice. It hurts like hell." came the drunken reply.

"Chew on your stick; I'll be through here in just a minute." I made a little bigger incision, forced the hemostat behind the splinter and soon removed it, despite the squirming arm.

"Yow ee," he yelled.

Alcohol was also usable as a fuel. Along with kerosene, it was one of the two most common torpedo fuels, and the Japanese experimented with alcohol as a replacement for scarce gasoline as an aircraft engine fuel. However, the use of alcohol (mixed 75:25 with gasoline) as a truck fuel in China proved problematic, as the alcohol fuel proved highly corrosive. Filipino guerrillas also used alcohol distilled from palm wine as a substitute for gasoline, with similar consequences for motor reliability.

United States. Of the major powers involved in the Pacific War, the United States had the most complicated attitude towards alcohol. The temperance movement of the late 19th century won considerable support from the Progressives of the early 20th century, and by 1919 the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the manufacture, transportation, or sale of "intoxicating liquors" for "beverage purposes", with Congress given power to pass laws to enforce the prohibition. Prohibition was unpopular in large cities (most of the support for it came from rural areas of the country) and evasion of the ban became a major underground industry that most historians believe fueled a massive increase in organized crime. The 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933, but consumption of alcohol continued to be looked down on by many Americans.

Recreational alcohol was officially prohibited on American warships throughout the war, but sailors on shore leave in remote areas of the Pacific were sometimes given a small ration of weak beer (3.2% alcohol content). Marshall saw to it that 3.2 percent beer was available for sale at stateside Army bases, and soldiers overseas were given a ration of three bottles per week. Marshall braced for a backlash in Congress from the still-active prohibition lobby, but none ever materialized. The Marines provided enlisted men in more remote posts a ration of as much as two cans of beer per day.

Official alcohol rations and purchases were supplemented with "moonshine" alcohol, much of it produced by Seabees, who had access to the materials needed to build stills. The carbohydrate source was often raisins, producing a "raisin-jack" which resembled hard cider. A former Seabee told Bergerud (1996):

Every Seabee outfit built stills. I made raisin-jack in five- and ten-gallon batches. You would get a gallon can of raisins and put them in a five-gallon can. You would then fill it with still water and add some yeast. Then in goes five pounds of sugar. Put a stopper in with a rubber hose which you stuck in another can of water so it wouldn't smell. You didn't want a nosy CO or master of arms (Navy MP) to find it. We'd hide it in foxholes. In about twenty days it was ready. Sometimes it was pretty strong, sometimes the batch didn't work out. Depended upon the weather or something. One batch was outstanding. I filled a soup bowl full, drank it down, and in twenty minutes I could barely walk. Good stuff.

Some men were desperate enough to filter hair tonic through bread. Others were lucky enough to capture Japanese medicinal alcohol or to have access to Navy torpedo alcohol. Notwithstanding the prohibition on recreational alcohol on warships, medicinal alcohol could be pilfered by pharmacist's mates, and ships had many corners and crannies in which illicit alcohol could be cached. Sailors often traded alcohol for souvenirs from combat troops, and as a result, a minor industry in counterfeiting Japanese battle flags grew up in some areas. Exhausted Marines at Iwo Jima got a lift from "Suribachi Screamer", medicinal alcohol cut with fruit juice.

Commonwealth. British sailors were issued an alcohol ration, consisting of an eighth of a pint (59 ml) of rum mixed with an equal quantity of water ("grog"). Commissioned and petty officers received no grog ration but were able to purchase alcoholic beverages from ships' stores.

Much of the Australian public shared the American disapprobation for alcohol consumption, but Australian officers were issued medicinal alcohol as a morale booster. As one veteran told Bergerud (1996):

It was an unwritten rule that an officer had his weekly issue of Johnnie Walker Scotch whiskey. Most troops were not aware of this, but due to the experiences of World War I, duplicated in the Owen Stanleys, we knew that platoon commanders were the first to be knocked off. Young men were out front with too much responsibility and too much stress. They all had the hip flask of medicinal. The secrecy rarely broke down. The frontline soldiers probably knew. But they also knew that if they reached the "end of the tether" or were badly wounded or sick, they would get a snort too.

Japan. There were relatively few social restraints on drinking in Japanese culture. Certainly nothing like a temperance movement ever took hold. Officers had access to sake, an alcoholic beverage fermented from rice. Enlisted men also occasionally received an alcohol ration, often strong beer, particularly on auspicious occasions such as the Emperor's Birthday. The Japanese equivalent of a post exchange on a major warship was called the shuho, which literally meant "a place were sake is kept."

The desperate banzai suicide charges staged on 25 July 1944 on Guam, and perhaps some of those at other times on other islands, were fueled by alcohol (Leckie 1962):

... A few hours later, with the advent of a black night, while a daylong drizzle changed to a downpour, Tamai's officers began passing out the whisky.

Six miles to the north, outside the Asan-Adelup beachhead held by the Third Marine Division, the drinking did not begin until midnight.

At Asan-Adelup the attack was not going to be the drunken suicide-rush brewing on Orote. This was to be the well-planned "single stroke" with which Lieutenant General Takashina hoped to "solve the issue of the battle." Saki would be used to inflame the ardor of the troops, but not until after they had reached their assembly areas...

"Listen at 'em", a Marine hissed to his foxhole buddy. "Damn if it don't sound like New Year's Eve in the zoo!"

The Japanese were screaming, singing, laughing, capering — they were smashing empty bottles against the big mangroves and clanging bayonets against rifle barrels.

The smashing of bottles was a Japanese military tradition (Tamayama and Nunneley 2000):

Company Commander Marukawa gave an address of instruction: "Let everyone toast their lives to me in this operation..." He was speaking in tears. Then about ten porcelain cups were brought in, filled with Japanese sake, and circulated among us. After we all had a sip the cups were thrown at a rock to be broken in pieces — a ritual before going into a hard battle.

Gifts of alcohol were sometimes left at the Shinto shrines on Japanese carriers by pilots leaving on particularly dangerous missions, and kamikaze pilots leaving on their final flight were usually toasted with sake in an elaborate ceremony.

However, abuse of alcohol was a cause of concern to Army senior adjutant Kawahara Tadaichi (CINCPAC 1945):

Liquor creates a fine spirit among the troops; since it is the only comfort of soldiers, the success of the army and liquor actually have a very close connection. However, the evil of excessive drinking has already been noted. After the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Army prohibited drinking because liquor was an important cause of their defeat. This fact should suffice to indicate the extent of the danger.


Bergerud (1996)

CINCPAC (1945; accessed 2011-6-17)

Donovan (1991; accessed 2011-5-29)

Garand and Strowbridge (1970; accessed 2011-5-29)

Leckie (1962)

Perret (1991)

Richards and Banigan (1942; accessed 2011-5-29)

Romanus and Sunderland (1954; accessed 2011-5-29)

"U.S. Naval Technical Mission to Japan" (accessed 2011-5-29)

Werneth (2008)

Wise (1968)

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