How we talk to each other, the popular expressions we choose when expressing feelings, all contribute to the culture of an era. Slang can tell us a great deal about people, and much of it is created new for each generation, though some words and phrases survive through time.
Additionally, within a given era, there may be sub-cultures where language intrinsic to that group evolves. I am particularly interested in WW II military slang. In researching my novel, I came across refreshing expressions for objects and activities and used many of these in The Burma Road.
For example, in the WW II mess hall, beef was “tiger meat” and prunes were “army strawberries”. (1) Likewise, ketchup was known as “red paint”, “redeye”, “red ink”, or “red lead”. In contrast, a “meatball” was what they called the red disc-shaped rising-sun symbol on Japanese flags or planes, and a “Hershey bar” was a short, horizontal gold stripe on an olive green bar worn by the men to indicate six months in a combat zone, officially known as an “Overseas Service Bar” or “Overseas Bar/Stripe”.
If they liked their mess sergeant, he was fondly called the “Bean King”. But the k-ration lemonade powder was not so fondly christened as “battery acid”. This was seldom drank, and often discarded or used for cleaning. Finally, the meal of choice at many boot camps was “SOS”, short for “shit on a shingle”—creamed, chipped, or ground beef on toast. (2) One veteran I interviewed, Erv Giacomini, said he had this for dinner every night while in training. I imagine even prime rib or lobster, gets old after a while.
In one of my chapters, “Fort Ord”, Georgie gets in trouble with his sergeant who sends him to the mess hall for some “bubble dancing”. Georgie’s cousin was stationed at Ord the summer before and taught him military slang, so he was fully aware his sergeant had ordered him to wash the dishes. In this same chapter, while Jack and Georgie are standing around, smoking outside of Stilwell Hall, the officer in charge yells at them to, “Roll up your flaps,” (i.e., stop talking), and “Taxi up,” (i.e., come here). (3)
The soldiers must have missed their families and girlfriends while braving harsh conditions in the trenches. Getting the “lowdown” (i.e., news or information) (4) from folks stateside was their only way to learn the latest about loved ones. Receiving a letter from home was the most important factor in building a serviceman’s morale. (5)
Unfortunately, when the Marsmen crossed the Burmese mountains, they didn’t receive any mail, with the exception of the 613th Field Artillery. This group had a pilot on one of their observation planes, Lieutenant John Sittner, who dropped their letters down to the trail via a small homemade parachute. (6) But most Marsmen didn’t have this luxury. For over a month while the Mars Task Force crossed the Burmese Mountains, most went without prized letters from home. When they arrived in the Hosi Valley and settled in, mail would resume being air dropped. (7)
The men wrote letters to loved ones back home and these were delivered when possible, going out by truck or sometimes by the small L-1 or L-5 planes that evacuated the wounded. A note to one’s sweetheart was called a “behavior report”. And if the GI was lucky enough to have his paramour write back, he received a “sugar report”. (8)
Also in the “Fort Ord” chapter, Jack and Georgie meet their Sergeant Argent, or “Sarge”. They are exposed to his acerbic method of command when he warns that he hopes there are no “zombies” (9) among them—soldiers who rank in the next to lowest category in the Army classifications tests. Sarge doesn’t tolerate stupidity; patience is not his strong suit.
In my chapter, “Mule Skinners”, Sarge breaks up a fight between Carson and Bradson by screaming, “Blow it out your barracks bag, privates!” This means, “Shut up, and go to hell.” (10)
In my chapter, “Mong Wi”, you learn that the Burmese natives loved to trade fresh vegetables and chickens for cigarettes and American-made parachutes. According to John Randolph in his Marsmen in Burma, one white cotton parachute earned a Marsman twenty rupees. He could then buy a chicken for one rupee per pound. (11) The soldiers called the parachutes “umbrellas”. (12)
Perhaps my best-loved military slang term is the word they used for the 105 mm M101A1 Howitzer. The men of the Mars Task Force did not use these. Instead, they fired the 75 mm pack Howitzers. However, the 105 mm was one of the standard U.S. light-field Howitzers used during World War II, and they were prevalent in both the European and Pacific theatres. (13) These were nicknamed the “priest” due to their pulpit-like .50-caliber machine gun mount (14); the “priest” was both extremely accurate at hitting its mark and dealt a powerful punch—springing images to mind of the enemy praying like priests for the deadly shells to miss them. (15)
My favorite part of writing The Burma Road was researching the slang used during the WW II era. I minored in Folklore at Sacramento State University, and I’ve always loved learning about the things people say and do. Studying the culture helped me to understand how it felt to live during the war-torn forties. I hope this article gives you some insight into the veterans’ experience. I appreciate what these men endured, and I have some idea of what their ordeal was like by the language they used, and I have a sense of how they coped through the humor they built into their slang. My study of their informal use of vocabulary and idiom gives me a bird’s eye view of the soldier’s daily life, and, historically, I find this priceless.
(1) Slate’s History Blog, The Vault, “Some Choice Bits of Slang from American Soldiers Serving in WWII”, November 11, 2013. 1:40 pm,
(2) Fubar, Soldier Slang of World War lI, Gordon L. Rottman, 2017. Osprey Publishing, pages 92, 76, 59, 22, 23, and 101.
(3) Slate’s History Blog, Ibid.
(4) Fubar, Soldier Slang of World War lI, Ibid., page 73.
(5) Marsmen in Burma, John Randolph, 1990. Curators of the University of Missouri, page 186.
(6) Marsmen in Burma, ibid., page 115.
(7) Marsmen in Burma, ibid., page 186.
(8) Slate’s History Blog, Ibid.
(9) Slate’s History Blog, Ibid.
(10) Slate’s History Blog, Ibid.
(11) Marsmen in Burma, ibid., page 132
(12) Fubar, Soldier Slang of World War lI, Ibid., page 112
(13) Wikipedia.org, M101 Howitzer, Printed 9-2-19.
(14) Fubar, Soldier Slang of World War lI, Ibid. page 88
(15) Wikipedia.org, Ibid.
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