Articles: Outfitted to Fight: Innovations from the Quartermaster Corps :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Steven Anders, Quartermaster Corps Historian

From mukluks and arctic sleeping bags to rot-resistant boots and mosquito-proof jungle hammocks, the Quartermaster Corps combined new materials with innovative thinking during World War II to create gear for the combat soldier's life in the field. On August 24, 1995, the Lemelson Center hosted a reunion of members of the Quartermaster Corps research division. NMAH volunteer Lt. Col. Edward L. Heller, AUS, Ret., spoke about the inventive research and development work of the Quartermasters and Dr. Steven Anders, the historian for the Corps, led a panel discussion with other members of the R&D staff.

Examples of the Quartermasters' work, now part of the Smithsonian's military history collections, were on display during the session. The proceedings were videotaped and are part of the Lemelson Center's growing archive of documentation of living inventors.

S/Sgt Orville Koeheer inspects his new footgear “somewhere in France.” Designed by the Quartermaster Corps, the waterproof “shoe-pac,” with its warm felt innersoles, protected soldiers from frostbite and trench foot. U.S. Army photo

The attack on Pearl Harbor found the nation's armed forces ill-prepared to meet the challenge of a full-scale global conflict. Decades of relative neglect and lack of funds had left an Army that in the late thirties barely numbered 200,000, and was saddled with outdated arms and equipment. Critics at the time rightfully complained that such a force was "well suited to fight in Florida in the winter, and Minnesota in the summer--but not the other way around.

Preparing for Total War

The months immediately following Pearl Harbor witnessed a program of rapid expansion and wholesale modernization unprecedented in U.S. military history. The Quartermaster Corps, the Army's traditional supply and service branch, was faced with the enormous task of outfitting a force that would eventually total more than 8.3 million troops. In addition to the vastly swelled ranks of infantrymen there were growing numbers of specialized troops as well, such as paratroopers, tankers, jungle fighters, and mountain ski troops. Fighting extended to all types of terrain and all kinds of climates, necessitating a wide range of specialized clothing and equipment.

To help meet this need, the Office of the Quartermaster General (OQMG) in Washington created the Military Planning Division, and within it a Research and Development Branch, to coordinate the production and fielding of a whole new generation of food, clothing, and equipment. During the course of the war, this very talented group of soldiers and civilians (aided by industrial and university laboratories) spearheaded the development of everything from mukluks and arctic sleeping bags to rot-resistant boots and mosquito-proof jungle hammocks.

Explorers, Experts, and Observers

The Quartermaster Corps experimented with new materials like plastics, which were used for helmet liners and other items. U.S. Army photo

Headed by Brigadier General Georges F. Doriot, the Military Planning Division consisted of three groups. The first was made up of "survivors"--explorers, mountain climbers, and well-known adventurers--who had had to survive under difficult conditions that might approximate those likely to be experienced by GIs in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Southwest Pacific. A second group of "technical experts," who understood both the scientific underpinnings of product development and the workings of American industry, were brought onboard to figure out how to design, test, and procure what the first group said was needed.

In time a third group of "field observers" was added to the mix to ensure that the users' needs were actually being met. They went to the various theaters and saw firsthand how the equipment held up under combat conditions, garnered the opinions of those doing the actual fighting, and provided crucial feedback for continued modification of new products.

This very practical approach to research and development achieved remarkable results. Greatly improved items became available to the American soldier in World War II much sooner than had a conventional research and development program been followed.

Scarcity: The True Mother of Invention

The Army issued well over 100 million pairs of combat boots and service shoes during the war, more than 30 million tents and a like number of raincoats, nearly 50 million field jackets, and over 500 million wool socks. All told, the Quartermaster Corps was responsible for some 70,000 separate items of clothing and equipment.

This overwhelming demand placed a huge strain on many of the nation's vital resources, exposing shortages in key items such as leather for shoes, cotton duck for tents, rubber for tires, aluminum for mess kits, copper for buckles and buttons, and wool for uniforms. Quartermaster R&D personnel responded by seeking workable substitutes among less critical materials, e.g., using rayon for silk in the dress uniform, and tinned steel in the place of stainless steel for tableware and kitchen utensils.

A more novel approach called for experimenting with synthetic materials, most notably plastic. Some might argue that today's plastic industry had its true birth as a wartime substitute for metal, rubber, and other precious materials. Over time they developed plastic buttons, eyelets, whistles, bugles, canteens, knife handles, helmet liners, body armor, weapon covers, raincoats, and more. Indeed its application seemed limited only by the developers' own imagination.

Portable tents protected soldiers from gas attacks in the field. U.S. Army photo

Nylon proved to be another extremely useful synthetic material for producing military clothing and equipment. There were nylon tents and ropes for mountain climbers, nylon shoe laces that held up especially well in the jungle, nylon raincoats and lightweight ponchos for tropical wear, nylon toothbrushes and shaving brushes, plus a wide assortment of nylon jungle fabric items.

Science and Technology Supporting Victory

Military Planning Division geographers, climatologists, and cartographers conducted detailed studies and completely mapped the world according to regional weather patterns (or "Climatic Zones") to reveal the variations in humidity, cold, heat, and other climatic factors affecting the human body. They also designed hot and cold chambers to test the effectiveness of new uniforms in the laboratory, and were among the earliest in the scientific community to appreciate the effects of wind chill factor. Such knowledge led to the development of uniforms based on the "layering principle," under which successive layers could be donned to suit the climate.

For the cold zones, for example, researchers devised clothing made of fiberglass twill, warmer and lighter than any other cold weather clothing known at the time. Subsistence experts developed a whole "family of rations" suitable for maintaining the body's caloric needs in all theaters of operation. Other items included lambskin muffs for cold weather use by motorcyclists; asbestos gloves for handling hot machine guns; reversible ski suits, snow white on one side and green on the other, for fooling the enemy in either snowdrifts or pine forests; and electrically heated underwear and flight suits for Army airmen as they ventured to ever higher altitudes.

Looking back on their service fifty years ago, one member of the Military Planning Division said recently: "Our mission was to try to improve the lot of the individual soldier wherever he might be. That was our Normandy."

Originally published in Winter 1996.

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