The New Army Helmet

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THE STEEL POT , issued in 1941 and used throughout World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, consisted of two pieces: a lightweight liner covered by a heavy, metal helmet. If it can be said that the GI loved a 3.5-pound soup kettle perched on his head that wobbled when he walked and fell off when he ran, then the American soldier loved his steel pot. In the morning it was a shaving bowl, in the afternoon it was a cooking pot, and at night it was a pillow. In between it was a desperately needed entrenching tool. Even though a few soldiers did not believe the helmet to be any good as protection —and some took them off during fire fights to increase mobility—they were always careful to retrieve this invaluable piece of Government Issue material.

 

Sentiment aside, serious questions have been raised about American helmets ever since World War I. Dean estimated that at least 75 percent of the Allied fatalities suffered during that war could have been spared by the wearing of proper helmets and body armor. Dr. James E. T. Hopkins, a combat surgeon in the South Pacific and a veteran of Merrill’s Marauders in Burma during World War II who became an outspoken critic of Army policies, has claimed that 15,000 lives could have been saved in Vietnam by armored vests and better helmets.

But the Army, fearful of developing an “oyster complex” among the troops, was loath to emphasize protection over aggressiveness. Flak jackets did not come into wide use until Vietnam, and even then some officers tried to discourage their use by calling them “chicken jackets.” By 1976, however, the Army began field tests in a $3.5 million project to develop the Kevlar helmet. Lawrence R. McManus and Phillip E. Durand at the Natick Research and Development Command in Natick, Massachusetts, said they went into the research phase of the project with “no preconceived ideas about what was the best shape. We laid out the parameters of the functions expected for the helmet and let the mission decide the eventual shape.”

In effect, the development team started out with an ideal protective device: a fifteen-pound helmet that covered the entire head. Then they pared away various elements of the idealized form to allow for peripheral vision, better acoustics, and more maneuverability until they arrived at the most comfortable compromise between defensive protection and offensive utility. And there it was—a shape markedly similar to the helmet first worn by the soldiers of the Kaiser. McManus and Durand say, somewhat wistfully, that the Kevlar helmet actually most closely resembles a Little League batting helmet. However, a piece of Army equipment tends to be known by what the troops call it, and they have already had the last word on the subject. They call it the Fritz.

One minor disappointment with the Kevlar helmet is that it was supposed to be lighter than the old steel pot; but the medium-sized Kevlar weighs the same fifty-one ounces. However, its superior design more than compensates for its weight. The steel pot’s round shape stood two inches above the soldier’s head, while the Kevlar’s flat surface more closely matches the shape of the human cranium and sits only a half-inch above the skull. As a result, the Kevlar does not wobble and is so much more comfortable that it feels lighter to the troops. The Army also tested a Kevlar model weighing one and one-quarter pounds less, but when soldiers could not tell the difference between the two helmets, it was decided to go for the heavier, more protective model. Additionally, the Kevlar comes in three sizes, unlike the “one size fits all” steel pot. At an average cost of $91.86 apiece, the Kevlar is reckoned a bargain.

While there has been some civilian concern about the public relations problem presented by American soldiers looking like Nazi Storm Troopers, the men in combat are not much concerned with aesthetics. One convert to the new model is Sp4c Brent Taylor, a paratrooper with the invasion force in Grenada who took an AK-47 shot directly on his helmet and survived.

And if old soldiers mourn the passing of multipurpose steel pots, new soldiers do not. As one officer pointed out, “You may not be able to shave in this Kevlar helmet, but you are alive to shave in something else.”