At the height of World War II in 1943, U.S. Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower made an urgent request.
He sent a pressing telegram to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall asking not for more troops, but that three million bottles of crisp, refreshing All-American Coca-Cola be sent to soldiers in North Africa.
Marshall approved Eisenhower’s request, knowing how important a taste of home would be in improving troop morale. The president of the Coca-Cola Co., Robert Woodruff, also knew how impactful the gesture may prove to be. In years prior, Woodruff had ordered that “every man in uniform get a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs the company.”
The significance of Coca-Cola in World War II will be the subject of a Coastal Georgia Historical Society lecture at 6 p.m. Thursday at the A.W. Jones Heritage Center, 610 Beachview Drive, St. Simons Island. The talk, given by Justine Fletcher, a Coca-Cola Co. archive specialist, is free to society members and $10 for nonmembers.
Following Eisenhower’s request, Coca-Cola quickly sprang into action, Fletcher said.
“Within six months, a Coca-Cola engineer had flown to Algiers (in North Africa) and opened the first plant, the forerunner of 64 bottling plants shipped abroad during World War II,” she said. “The plants were set up as close as possible to combat areas in Europe and the Pacific.”
Moving all that Coca-Cola amid a world at war proved no easy task. A special group of Coca- Cola employees known as “technical observers,” or “TOs,” bottled and shipped more than five billion bottles of Coke to service members during World War II, according to Coca-Cola Co.
The Atlanta-based soft drink company took its role in supporting troops as seriously as the war itself.
“More than five billion bottles of Coke were consumed by military service personnel during the war, in addition to countless servings through dispensers and mobile, self-contained units in battle areas,” Fletcher said.
It built makeshift bottling plants near the front lines, eventually employing nearly 150 TOs, all of whom held Army ranks and were treated like Army officers. The so-called “Coca-Cola colonels” oversaw the production of Coca-Cola and had no other military duties to speak of.
Leigh Ann Stroud, a spokeswoman for Coastal Georgia Historical Society, said she’s excited for her organization to host Fletcher, and thinks the talk will be enjoyable and informative.
“As we look forward to the World War II Home Front Museum opening in 2018, we think Coca-Cola’s World War II activities will interest our audience,” she said. “Justine Fletcher will discuss the role Coca-Cola played in keeping our troops overseas supplied with perhaps their favorite reminder of home.”
That familiar taste was something that helped keep troops’ morale high, echoed Fletcher.
“Coca-Cola was a taste of home for members of the military,” she said. Having a cold drink of Coca-Cola in the familiar contour bottle, was a reminder of their families and loved ones back in the U.S.”
Fletcher is also slated to speak about the role other American companies played in supplying morale-boasting treats to troops, including the Hershey Co. and Caterpillar.
As an archive specialist for Coca-Cola Co., Fletcher has worked previously on a number of other Coke milestones, including the company’s 125th anniversary, the 100th anniversary of the iconic Coke bottle, and has traveled extensively documenting interviews with collectors and artists of Coke memorabilia.
“Many people don’t realize the effort Coca-Cola made to make the drink available everywhere the troops were stationed,” Fletcher said. “Coca-Cola fits into your life – whether you listen to music, have a meal, attend a sporting event or share a drink with a friend – those are all wonderful memories that people carry around with them.”
Registration for Thursday’s lecture is required, and may be made by calling 634-7090 or visiting www.coastalgeorgiahistory.org.
For information about becoming a member about the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, community members may visit the society’s website, or call Kathleen Bennett at 912-634-7096.