August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
… is more comfortable and safer than World War II’s “steel pot. ” The problem is that it looks just like the One Hitlers troops wore.
Like most historical surprises, however, there had been ample warning for anyone who was paying attention. Pictures of the Teuton-styled helmet made of layers of a synthetic material called Kevlar had appeared in the press since field tests were begun in 1976, but only a few observers noticed and fewer still had memories long enough to recall that the current controversial model is almost an exact replica of a design rejected by the United States Army in 1917.
The history of helmets and personal armor is as old as warfare, and there was a time when great artists of the Western world doubled as armorers. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and Holbein all gave their talents to the development of personal armor. Then as now, armorers triedto strike a balance between the need for protection and the requirement to inflict damage on the enemy. By the sixteenth century the weight of protective armor had grown to an unwieldy sixty pounds, and as the French historian Gaspard de Saulx-Tavannes noted, it became “impossible for captains in their heavy casques and cuirasses to strike as many times as is their duty. Common soldiers had a simple solution. Preferring comfort and maneuverability to safety, they started to throw away their armor. Even so, an honest pikeman of the sixteenth century probably would have been appalled to find that 160,000 men poured onto the battlefield at Gettysburg armed with rifles, side arms, and no personal protection whatsoever. One of the few advocates of personal armor in the nineteenth century was the famous Australian highwayman Ned Kelly, who wore a combination helmet and breastplate made out of old plowshares. The rig weighed ninety-seven pounds but afforded Kelly superb protection. He was not apprehended until a posse shot him in the legs. But great nations do not like to be instructed by brigands, and at the onset of World War I the closest thing to a proper helmet worn by soldiers of either side was the German pickelhaube made from heavy, stamped leather. The science of protective armor, said Bashford Dean, America’s leading authority on the subject in the early 190Os, had become a “dead language.”
The reintroduction of a metal helmet after more than two centuries came about as if it were a plot device in a bad war movie. The French general Adrian was standing by a field hospital one day in the early months of the conflict watching the casualties stream back from the western front when he saw a French soldier on a stretcher who had miraculously survived a blow to his skull. “I had luck,” legend has him telling his general. “I happened to have a metal mess-bowl in my hat and it saved my life.”
This struck the general as a capital idea, and in short order the French front-line soldier was equipped with a casque Adrian stamped from dies used to make helmets for firefighters. The British followed suit with their porridge-bowl helmet, which left a large area of the head unprotected but had a flared rim that helped shieldmen in the trenches from falling debris. The Germans quickly developed their coal-scuttle helmet, which proved to be not only distinctive but also so ideally suited to the work at hand that, between the wars, SS officer Count Baudissin would remark with some justification that “the most perfect shape, the sublimest image that has been recently created in Germany has not come out of any artist’s studio. It is the steel helmet.”
As the United States entered the war, several designers acknowledged the natural superiority of the German design and suggested a similar helmet for use by American troops. But the French high command, fearing recognition problems in the field, refused to allow it. Eventually the United States settled on copying the British model. In spite of its limitations, the helmet was readily available and inexpensive to produce—important factors for long-range planners who foresaw a need for more than six million helmets by January of 1919.
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.”