The Soviet Union once exchanged their warships for Pepsi when their vodka trade was not good enough anymore (we wrote the whole story here.) They’re not the only soda company that joined the whole war thing because their rival, Coca-cola, also hopped in during World War II to make sure that all American GIs had access to their sweet sugary drinks wherever they were. They took the job seriously as they even had Coca-Cola Colonels who would make sure that no soldier would be left sodaless.

The Creation of Coca-Cola

Coca-cola was first marketed as a patent medicine in the 19th century, invented by American pharmacist John Stith Pemberton when he was addicted to morphine and was trying to find a substitute for the drug. Before its formula became a trade secret, it was originally made from coca leaves and kola nuts. Thus the brand name. Prior to his creation, there were no colas yet, making Coca-cola the first of its kind and inspiring other companies to try and imitate the product. Its inventor called it a “brain tonic and intellectual beverage,” and offered it as a medicinal treatment for headaches, stomach ailments, and fatigue. He wasn’t just making all that up.  The original cola formula included cocaine extracted from the coca leaves which was legal and a widely used drug at the time.  The cocaine content was steadily stepped down until 1929 when it was removed completely from the formula. You see, Prohibition had banned the production or possession of alcohol and people were turning to Coca-cola in droves to catch a buzz.

When World War II broke, Coca-Cola was already being served in 44 countries, including Canada and North America. The entry of the United States into WWII war crushed their production, cargo ships once bringing coca leaves from South America were now carrying war materials and getting torpedoed by U-boats. The company had to close down one plant completely. Because of this, the cost of soda per bottle increased too, by one penny, which was a 20% increase.

As Coca-Cola wrote, they have witnessed how families were devastated that they had to send their loved ones overseas and join the war. They began running ads showcasing Coca-cola as a patriotic brand ready to follow the American soldiers wherever they were, “reminding them of home.”

“Every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola”

It was in 1941 when America entered into the war scene. To show their sincere support for the brave servicemen and women, Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff ordered: “to see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs the Company.”

It might not seem like a huge thing, Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower saw its importance that he sent a telegram to Coca-Cola’s headquarters in North Africa in Algeria on June 29, 1943. He requested ten portable factories, 6 million filled bottles of Coke a month, and the materials and resources to provide soldiers with the beverage which in those days was also served as a ready mix of syrup combined with soda water from machines, just like today at a convenience store.

A Coke machine being worked by the refrigeration crew of the 64th Seabees in Tubabao, Samar, Philippines. Gift of Joseph Cohen, The National WWII Museum Inc., 2003.083.071

This was a huge task that Coca-Cola was more than willing to do. The main challenge to making this request come true was how they would carry these supplies aboard. As Museum of The American GI wrote:

Vital equipment, gear, and food for survival packed the cargo decks and rooms aboard supply ships. Anything that wasn’t used for survival was viewed as nonessential, and that included crates of Coke. When Eisenhower’s plea was received by high-level executives from Coca-Cola, they started devising a plan to bring distribution of Cokes to combat areas. After six months of planning, a Coca-Cola representative flew to Algeria to turn their plans into reality.

By selling to the military the Coca-Cola company got themselves off the restricted resources list of non-essential to the war effort to make a major claim on commodities like sugar and glass, and not just here in the U.S.  The country of Iceland allocated half of the countries monthly sugar ration(supplied by allies like the US and Canada) just to Coca-Cola production.

Coca-Cola Colonels

Soon enough, the company built a special group of employees called Technical Observers (TO). The TOs’ main task was to plan the logistics, get the plants built and the bottling started, and make sure that the American soldiers were supplied with their much-loved colas. All in all, there were 148 TOs, all complete with army fatigue uniforms, officers’ rank and pay, as well as a unique identification patch. They were also treated like officers. They worked tirelessly, and the American soldiers considered them as essential to the war effort as a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Military transport aircraft would fly empty cola bottles back to the bottling facilities to be reloaded like empty shell casings.

Cadets fill a vending machine at Rankin Aeronautical Academy, Tulare, California. Gift of Lindi Caywood, The National WWII Museum Inc., 2009.562.003

The original ten plants requested by Eisenhower turned out to be 64 bottling lines at the end of the war. They were able to distribute a total of 5 billion bottles of Coca-Cola to the troops, including in Paris, which was just liberated in 1944. After the war, they also decided to turn the plants into fully operational facilities. So as the U.S Army conquered ground all over Europe, Africa, and Asia, so did the Coca-Cola Company. By the 1950s it was the largest soft-drink maker on the planet with servings in the hundreds of millions per day and had become a symbol of America.  The icon of Coca-Cola was so powerful that some countries like France feared its influence on the native population.  France banned it entirely in 1950 sparking an international crisis.  The only thing missing was our ambassador hearing about the ban and telling the Frencjh, “Of course you know, this means war” Americans, expressing outrage, boycotted French products and Congress even threatened to cut off aid to France via the Marshall Plan.  Believe it or not, the French government went into direct negotiations with the Coca-Cola company to end the crisis and reached an agreement that ended the ban in exchange for the Coca-Cola company’s help in ending the boycott.  Coca-Cola had gone from selling 9 drinks it first day in a shop in Atlanta, to having Cola Colonels in uniform to negotiating like a nation-state on international affairs with a foreign power and making trade deals.

Coke had really become “The Real Thing.”