Taste Test in a World War II Blackout

Mad Men, the TV show about advertising in the 1960s, takes place just at the dawn age of television commercials. It was then that the taste test became prominent.

Blindfold an actor and feed him/her two competing products. The sponsor’s product is chosen as best.

But that blindfold test idea must have been created long before TV. I saw it used during World War II in a blacked-out German farmhouse where our squad of combat engineers was preparing for a night spent clearing mines from a road.

Cigarette rations for the month had just arrived and a corporal named Almgren wanted his choice of brands—Chesterfields. He said it was the only cigarette he could smoke, which provoked an argument. A few other men also preferred Chesterfields. The choice for the twelve of us in the squad was between eleven cartons of Camels, considered strong, though they were advertised as preferred by doctors, and one carton of Chesterfields, long advertised as mild.

Someone suggested a taste test —it wasn’t me, I was the youngest at 18 and only recently arrived ‘up-front’ where artillery could be heard sounding periodically like thunder. The rest of the men said Almgren was “full of it” and couldn’t tell the difference between one brand and another.

Corporal Almgren’s eyes were bound with a khaki Army-issue handkerchief, two cigarettes were selected, one a Camel, the other a Chesterfield. The Camel was marked with an X. Then Corporal Almgren tried each cigarette.

“The second one,” he said, “is the Chesterfield. It’s milder. I know because, when I smoked the first one, I could feel my throat getting raw.”

And when the blindfold was removed, Corporal Almgren had the cigarette with the X in his hand, the Camel. He insisted we were tricking him, that the X was on a Chesterfield. He was wrong but we conceded to his rank and he got the Chesterfields. You don’t really want to argue much with a guy when you’re relying on him to help lift deadly mines out of a dirt road–in the middle of invading Germany.

I confess in the early Sixties I probably chain-smoked as much as Don Draper, until my wife and three kids put me on the straight and narrow. They say write what you know, but while working on my new novel, Saving the President, it never occurred to me to put a cigarette between the fingers of my characters, including the first woman  president of the United States as well as soldiers and members of a neo-Nazi militia. Clearly, the anti-tobacco forces, or my wife, have mostly won the war against smoking.

But I wonder about Corporal Almgren—could he actually turn out to be in the audience for this new blog? Is he still a sore loser? Does he order his Chesterfields online now?

It’s unlikely I’ll find those answers, but in other blog posts I’ll talk about how experiences in the good war (World War II) and in the less-good war (the battle to make a living in the marketing world) provided some of the material for my novel.

I’ll describe how to go fishing with a hand grenade; the Army training film that said you could find deadly mines planted in the ground using just a knife; the Tree of Life, a bush growing alongside a young German prostitute’s place of business; what it feels like to see a stream of bullets come toward you from a machine gun; and why I named a military hero in my book Aaron Kaplan.


4 comments on “Taste Test in a World War II Blackout

  1. Steve David says:


    I love this story! It’s a great blog.


  2. Violet M. Sundin says:

    Way to go Miles. Am so proud of you.

    Truly, Vi

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