Even with billions of dollars spent annually on defense technology, the most iconic piece of military equipment might be a 1.2-cent can opener.
Beginning in World War II, the P-38 was standard issue in every box of rations. Veterans carried it to Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East, and with its elegant simplicity, indestructibility and versatility, it was treasured by soldiers.
“I opened a lot of culinary delights with my P-38,” says Fernando Rodriguez of Watertown, Wis., a Marine in Vietnam. But that’s not all. “It was a screwdriver, a bottle opener, and you could cut things with it. I carried it on my key chain for years. I still have it.”
In 1942, the U.S. Army Subsistence Research Laboratory in Chicago was presented with the challenge of creating an opener small enough to carry in the pocket. Moreover, it couldn’t break, rust, need sharpening or polishing. It took the lab 30 days to invent what was originally dubbed “Opener, Can, Hand, Folding.” U.S. Army Col. Renita Menyhert once called it “The Patron Saint of Army Inventions.”
The J.W. Speaker Corp. of Germantown, Wis., was one of the first companies to manufacture the P-38, and it produced millions. The company’s founder, J.W. Speaker, actually improved the design by adding tabs for the hinge, which held the blade securely open or closed as needed. J.W. passed away in 1960 and his son Jack Speaker took over.
“The first contract I bid on was a Department of Defense solicitation for 10 million P-38s, with a rider for 10 million more,” Jack Speaker says. “The bid was about $12 per thousand.” He estimates that between 1960 and the late ’80s, his company made around 50 million P-38s.
Luther Hanson, curator at the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum in Fort Lee, Va., estimates that “750 million P-38s were produced for WWII” and “at least a billion” from Vietnam to the present.
Beginning with the first Gulf War, the P-38 was phased out. Today, the Speaker Corp. manufactures electrical lighting components for vehicles, but still has about 100,000 P-38s in stock. Or you can buy one at most Army surplus stores for about 50 cents.