After the Korean War, when the stark reality of the Cold War stared the Army in the face, money finally became available to modernize the forces from their World War II equipment. Faced with the threat of nuclear battlefields (and in those days it was pretty much assumed every battlefield would see nukes being employed almost willy-nilly) the Army modernized its organizations, doctrine, and equipment, right down to the soldier’s rifle and his individual equipment.
And so it came to pass that the Army adopted the M1956 Load Carrying Equipment.
Designed to carry the soldier’s ammunition, water, ration and sleeping equipment, the M1956 set was actually a fairly well thought out set of gear. It was more comfortable and lighter than its WWII predecessor. It was flexible and adaptable to changing needs and loads. It consisted of a equipment belt, suspenders, ammo cases, canteen cover and canteen, a small pack held by the belt and suspenders (universally known as a “butt-pack”), and sundries such as the dressing case, entrenching tool case and sleeping equipment carrier.
It also reflected a view of how the Army anticipated the battlefield of the future would look. The Army of WWII was the most heavily motorized army in the world, and that trend had only increased in the years since. Large elements of infantry were being mounted in armored personnel carriers, and even those that weren’t mechanized still had large numbers of wheeled vehicles. Mobility on the battlefield was a key feature of the “Pentomic” division organization, and most troop movements behind the very front lines were expected to be by truck, rather than foot march. Troops would dismount the trucks, and move directly into the attack (or defense, as the case may be). The point was, it was expected to be quite rare that troops would be away from resupply by wheeled vehicles for more than one day. At a minimum, an M274 Mule would make its way to them.
If you’ve been watching some of the “atomic age” videos I’ve posted lately, you’ll notice troops wearing the M1956 gear, to include the field pack. The buttpack had just enough room to hold one Meal, Combat Individual (the infamous C-ration), a change of socks, and maybe a shaving kit. If it was cold weather, the sleeping carrier straps could carry a sleeping bag and a poncho. So the soldier was carrying enough for one day, but not much more. It just never occurred to Army planners that troops would not be on a linear battlefield, getting supplied by truck daily.
Vietnam may not have been a rude shock to planners, but it did find infantry units ill equipped for multi-day operations in dense remote terrain, where the only resupply would be by helicopter, and even then only infrequently. The Army didn’t even have a rucksack in widespread issue at that time. It wasn’t until well after major troop units had been in combat for a year that the Lightweight Rucksack started to be issued to most troops in country.
Of course, by the time I’d joined the Army, the individual equipment had advanced to ALICE gear, and the Army had rediscovered the character building aspects of burdening young soldiers with 80 pound packs.