Goodbye, Farewell, and Bottoms Up

On February 28 1983, 121 million viewers sat down to watch the last episode of M*A*S*H. If you have lived in a biopod on Pluto for the last 55 years, M*A*S*H was a sitcom about surgeons and staff at a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. When BJ Hunnicutt and Hawkeye Pierce hug it out and say goodbye in front of that helicopter, 121 million teary-eyed fans said goodbye right along with them, surely devasted that the only opportunity they’d get to catch up with the 4077th would be in roughly 1,692 reruns a week for the rest of their lives. Hawkeye takes off in the chopper, Suicide is Painless plays one last time, and everyone in America went to the bathroom at the same time.

M*A*S*H was groundbreaking. It was the first non-zany war show (Hogan’s Heroes and McHale’s Navy had that corner covered). It made fun of war during the most unpopular war in American history (up to that point). It made fun of its absurdity, the oxymoronic and often lethal logic of the army, the stupidity of those in charge, the meaningless death. Characters died in non-gag ways. In a way no other show had done and in a way prescient to those that would come, M*A*S*H jokes came from all angles – language, physical, diatribes, cultural references. M*A*S*H tried to show the realities of war while making people laugh at it.

And that included booze. M*A*S*H was the first show to feature not only booze, but heavy drinking in earnest. The drinking of most other sitcoms was done by buffoonish drunks in comic relief. In the 80s and 90s, it was an episode-specific device: in this very special episode of Blossom or The One When Chandler Gets Drunk and Grows a Weirdly Long Fingernail. But in M*A*S*H drinking was a matter-of-fact part of the show because it was a matter of fact part of life at war. More than a prop, booze in M*A*S*H was always present, setting the mood of the episode. They chatted over beers in the Officer’s Club. Colonels Blake and Potter delivered bad news, celebrated joys, or augmented orders with whiskey. Charles Emerson Winchester III established his superiority with cognacs and brandies. But most of all they drank from the still.

‘The still’ is a homemade distillery already built by Trapper John and Hawkeye Pierce by the time we meet them in the war. The still had glass beakers attached to a copper faucet system, a bowl half-filled with sediment (rice?), and heating coils. According to BJ Hunnicutt the “heating coil is from an ammo truck, the funnel is from the generator shed and the filter is made with [Frank Burns’] shredded skivvies.” It is a ubiquitous presence in the Swamp except for the few episodes when it’s nabbed by commanding officers or smashed to pieces by a smashed BJ Hunnicutt. The still pours a clear booze and Hawkeye and his BJ sip “the breakfast of champions” out of martini glasses. Exactly what kind of booze was produced or what they used is given in very rare or sparse detail, and it still remains up for speculation. Experts suggest it was a gin from fermented rice and other scraps that might be found at a combat hospital. As juniper berries are available in Asia, it might have been closer to gin that expected. Despite the additive of Frank Burns’ underwear or sweat socks, it was probably somewhat drinkable.

Of all the realities of war that M*A*S*H tried to nail, the still is the most authentic. Americans drinking in war seems to combine the two things that have hankered our young country for as long as it’s been around. Our country was conceived of booze and born of war. And for nearly three centuries we have had a love-hate relationship with both. It’s this relationship that has served our alcoholic ingenuity in war time. In the US Civil War, northern embargoes cut off Southern soldiers from supplies, so they made moonshine. In World War I, most countries’ soldiers were given a daily ration of booze (especially if they were in a forward combat zone), but Americans were not. Nevertheless, they found booze, fighting off the U.S. Army’s desperate attempts to discourage them from drinking and probably compelled by a boozy openminded French culture and a few days of walking into machine gun fire.  

But we see true American ingenuity in the war before the Korean War, a little skirmish we call World War II. In the European Theater of Operations, men could get alcohol at pubs and cafes in the towns they were clearing out. Grateful locals poured wine, beer, and booze into GI gullets to thank them for liberation and a genuine return of one’s life. But in the Pacific, men were clearing out bunkers and caves, places not known for happy locals with stores of alcohol. And they weren’t getting a constant supply of alcohol. They had to make do. They also had hours to kill in between periods of being bombed to Jupiter and attacked by a terrifying, resilient enemy. So why not get shitty in the meantime?

They made wine called ‘raisin jack’ or ‘swipe’ by mixing up canned peaches, plums, or pineapples, and two handfuls of sugar. They left them in the sun in the middle of the jungle. Jungle juice was made from fermented coconut milk. Men on Guadalcanal combined Aqua Velva aftershave with canned grapefruit juice. The effect was like a Tom Collins. When these measures weren’t doable, the men went to greater lengths. Torpedo Juice was the result of sailors using a 180-proof grain alcohol that was used to fuel torpedoes. Navy authorities tried adding inseparable poisons (like methane) to keep sailors from drinking the liquid fire powering rockets, but no. The hangovers were legendary, the poison caused combustible internal reactions, and though sailors tried to remove the methanol, which causes blindness, they were largely unsuccessful. Thus a generation of guys nicknamed ‘Squinty’. The Navy then tried to dissuade drinking by adding croton oil, which the men could just about distill out and so they suffered cramps, internal bleeding, and a violent emptying of the bowels.

Assuming that combat on its own merits was a nightmare, it’s hard to imagine how pleasant it was made by the addition of a debilitating hangover and bowels violently emptying themselves. The alcohol blinded men, maimed others, and killed even more (188 in one seven month period), so you’d think the men might just not drink. However, killing, blinding, and maiming far more men was the artillery, bullets, and landmines that took up a great deal of their bandwidth. Namely, the entire reason for drinking. A bad hangover, going blind, or dying from alcohol poisoning were all better than being blown to pieces. In two of those choices you got out of the war. If you died of drinking, at least you had more fun on the way out. In any event, the raisin jack, swipe, jungle juice, Kickapoo joy juice, and torpedo juice the soldiers were drinking at least provided them some comfort.

Hopefully, Hawkeye Pierce’s still provided him and his colleagues with the same. As a doctor with chemistry training, we hope his was better and didn’t blind anyone. I assume that when he left Korea and got home to Crabapple Cove, Maine, he went to a bar and had a real drink. And he surely deserved it. Today we raise a glass to Hawkeye Pierce, the still, and the 4077th M*A*S*H. Since replicating the still’s alcohol would basically be a straight shot of nearly 100 proof alcohol, we’re having Torpedo Juice. And since genuine Torpedo Juice includes a grain alcohol that’s 95% ethanol and really genuine Torpedo Juice contains torpedo fuel, and since I have no plans of killing any of you, we’re improvising a bit.

Torpedo Juice

  • Pineapple juice
  • Vodka (any kind)
  • A glass
  • Nowhere to go


Measure out 2 shots of vodka and put it in a glass, then add three shots of pineapple juice. Raise the glass and drink to anyone you know or knew who ever had to be in a combat zone. And remember, while suicide is painless, a violent emptying of the bowels is not, so no torpedo fuel.

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