Ike Launches WWII Coke Offensive
“On early convoy request shipment three million bottled Coca-Cola (filled) and complete equipment for bottling, washing, capping same quantity twice monthly.”1 This telegram sent by General Dwight D. Eisenhower from North Africa to High Command Headquarters, 29 June 1943, began a unique sidebar to World War II history.
Ike’s telegram reflected the popularity that Coca-Cola enjoyed from Prime Minister Churchill, General Patton, and General Eisenhower himself right on down through the military ranks to the lowly PFC in the trenches. This universal military thirst made it a vital part of the Allied war machine enjoying the same transport priority and clearance as weapons and ammunition.
The other man that helped launch the Coke Offensive was Coca-Cola’s Robert Winship Woodruff. When Woodruff saw the gathering signs of impending war and war rationing the company stockpiled large inventories of sugar. Coca-Cola was, in fact, the largest consumer of raw sugar in the world.
Soon after Pearl Harbor, Woodruff, helmsman of the Coke empire, decreed that “every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs our company.”2
When war rationing did threaten to cut Coke’s production by one half, Coca-Cola, in an act of patriotism sold some of its surplus to the military. Later one of its executives was appointed to the sugar rationing board and by “the beginning of 1942, Coca-Cola was exempted from sugar rationing when sold to the military or retailers serving soldiers.”3
Woodruff was so determined that American G.I.s had access to plenty of Coke, that he “ordered entire bottling plants dismantled in this country and shipped abroad.”4 One bottling plant located in India was dismantled and flown “piece by piece over the Himalayas and set up again in China.”5
In 1942, Coke dispatched the first of 163 employees that became known as “Coca-Cola Colonels.” These members of Coke’s Export Corporation orchestrated the construction of bottling plants overseas. They wore army uniforms, got seats on military transports, and proudly wore a patch designating them “technical observers.” By the end of the war, the Colonels had built sixty-four new bottling plants and dispensed ten billion Cokes to Allied fighting men at home and abroad.
In a letter home one soldier verbalized Coke’s universal popularity by saying that “If anyone were to ask us what we are fighting for, we think half of us would answer, the right to buy Coca-Cola again.”6
The soft drink’s privileged status grew to epic proportions enjoying a priority that outranked almost all military hardware according to war correspondent, Howard Fast. He was aboard a transport plane that “landed at a remote Saudi Arabian Army outpost where the thermometer read 157 degrees Fahrenheit. They were there to pick up thousands of empty Coca-Cola bottles.”
On take off, due to the extremely high temperature and an overload of thousands of empty Coke bottles, the C46 threatened to stall and crash into the sand dunes whereupon Fast “suggested jettisoning bottles. That, he was told, was impossible. ‘Guns they could dump, jeeps, ammo, even a howitzer . . . but Coca-Cola bottles? No way. Not if you wanted to keep your points and not become a PFC again.’ The pilot summarized the well-learned moral: ‘You don’t f . . . with Coca-Cola.’”7
- Charles Elliott, Robert Winship Woodruff: A Biography of the “Boss” (Atlanta: Privately Printed, 1979), 160.
- Mark Pendergrast, For God, Country and Coca-Cola (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 199.
- Ibid., 201.
- E. J. Kahn, Robert Winship Woodruff (n.p.: The Coca-Cola Company, 1969), 85.
- Charles Elliott, Robert Winship Woodruff: A Biography of the “Boss” (Atlanta: Privately printed, 1979), 160.
- Mark Pendergrast, For God, Country and Coca-Cola (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 210.
- Ibid., 205.