Alcohol and sailing have long gone hand in hand, with long weeks spent working at sea often demanding something to take the edge off. For that reason, the profession has historically been associated with heavy drinking — a narrative furthered by the once global practice of paying Naval officers for their service with alcohol rations in wartime when funds were scarce. While alcohol consumption aboard U.S. Navy vessels was outlawed in June 1914, the ban couldn’t stop American sailors from wetting their whistles during World War II— even if it meant they had to siphon fuel from their own weapons.
During the first half of the war, the U.S. utilized steam-powered torpedo engines on its Pacific theater-based submarines, each of which was fueled by 180-proof grain alcohol. Without other alcohol aboard the subs to indulge in, the sailors quickly turned to the high-proof torpedo fuel, combining it with pineapple juice to smooth its burn. And thus, Torpedo Juice was born.
This habit eventually resulted in a power shortage, which tipped off the superiors on board. To break the sailors’ habit, higher-ups spiked the fuel with Pink Lady, a liquid made from red dye and methanol, a poisonous substance known to cause blindness. Their strategy failed to discourage the drinking, as sailors attempted to separate the grain alcohol from the compound by straining it through compressed loaves of bread. This technique was not always successful,, and many soldiers still went blind after consuming the Pink Lady-tainted Torpedo Juice.
After this, the U.S. Navy replaced the methanol with slightly less harmful croton oil, a purgative substance that caused extreme stomach pain, vertigo, fainting, and diarrhea if consumed. Still, the sailors couldn’t be stopped. Rather than swearing off Torpedo Juice for good, sailors aboard the U.S.S. Gudgeon developed their own distilling system to remove the croton oil from the booze.
Prior to being dumped into 50-gallon vats used to fuel the torpedoes, the 180-proof alcohol was stored in five-gallon containers, which the sailors would smuggle off-board in port cities to redistill in inconspicuous locations, mainly hotel rooms. The alcohol, still sitting at 180 proof, was then brought back onboard and mixed 2:3 with pineapple juice. The operation was extremely dangerous — as operating makeshift stills typically is — and resulted in a number of explosions and subsequent fires. In addition to the obvious health issues that come with consuming anything containing 95 percent alcohol, Torpedo Juice was also associated with mild to severe reactions to the croton oil that still remained post-distillation.
The beverage fell out of popularity among Navy officers after the 1943 introduction of the Mark 18 torpedo, the U.S.’s first electric storage battery torpedo, which didn’t need high-proof to power it. While the crude cocktail may not be found onboard Navy ships these days, a few spirit brands still make their own version of Torpedo Juice today, including Pendelton, Ore.’s Oregon Grain Growers. Their iteration bottles distilled vodka with macerated pineapple, and if you get to try it, proceed with caution: While it may not contain any toxic substances, it’s still bottled at 100 proof and still packs a sailor-worthy punch.
*Image retrieved from – Pixel-Shot – stock.adobe.com