While World War II (WWII) birthed unspeakable horrors that will forever stain human history, it also birthed many notable stories, from the soldier that fought for three different armies to the solider that was a literal bear. It should be little surprise, then, that many previous installments of Hidden History have looked at the more noteworthy episodes of WWII that your history book probably didn’t include. However, this time around, we won’t be looking at the life of a soldier (man or bear). Instead, this week’s Hidden History looks at the unlikely life of a U.S. Navy concrete barge.
As the name implies, a concrete ship is built primarily out of ferrocement (reinforced cement) with the primary advantage being that less steel is required than a traditional naval vessel. During WWII, steel shortages in the U.S. led to the construction of several small fleets of concrete ships as part of the war’s Pacific Theater as well as the D-Day landings. The most notable concrete ship in the arsenal of the U.S. Navy, however, had the simple bureaucratic designation of Barge, Refrigerated, Large (BRL).
BRL’s story is documented in Anne Cooper Funderburg’s “Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream.” In this book, Funderburg dedicates a large part of the discussion to the heavy morale value placed on ice cream by officials in the U.S. armed forces. So much value, in fact, that the U.S. Quartermaster Corps reportedly shipped over 135 million pounds of the frozen goodness to Allied bases worldwide in 1943. Giving our troops on the front a taste of home was seen as a vital element of keeping morale high throughout the war.
Thus, in 1945, the U.S. Navy commissioned the conversion of a concrete barge into a floating ice cream factory to serve U.S. forces throughout the Pacific. BRL was outfitted with several heavy duty refrigeration units, turning a mundane naval barge into a 265-foot-long ice cream factory capable of churning out 10 gallons of the sweet stuff every seven minutes and storing another 500 gallons alongside around 2,000 tons of other foodstuffs.
While the idea of a U.S. Navy vessel being dedicated solely to producing ice cream is notable in its own right, it is also a perfect analogy for the strength of U.S. industrial production throughout the war. While superior firepower, manpower, and leadership may have played a role in the ultimate victory of the Allied Forces, it was the industrial might of the U.S. that truly led to our victory in the war. Consider the example of BRL from the perspective of Imperial Japanese Army. While wartime shortages on their side continued to drain their forces, depriving their troops of everything from guns and ammunition to boots and uniforms, the U.S., meanwhile, was able to spare over $1 million, dozens of crew members, and a sizable amount of fuel to a ship whose sole purpose was to produce ice cream.