Reading the introduction to the history of the Quartermaster Corps in World War II has highlighted for me on issue that consistently irked me in my mostly peacetime service- the improvement of the soldier’s personal equipment.
Hampered by extremely austere budgets, and with large surpluses of equipment from World War I, the Army was unable to devote significant resources to developing improved clothing, rations, personal equipment, tentage, or other equipment critical to the comfort and efficiency of the soldier, such as laundry and bath equipment or field laundries. The soldier of 1940 was equipped, clothed and fed almost identically as his father 20 years before him, indeed, often from the very same stockpiles. It wasn’t that the Army was satisfied with the status quo. It just didn’t have money to replace anything. When the floodgates of spending opened at the beginning of World War II, the Quartermaster Corps had little time to develop and test replacement items. The pressure to field something, anything, for the massively increasing Army meant that less than fully tested equipment was ordered, and great pressure was exerted to procure it in quantity. The problem was, it wasn’t until large numbers of troops started to serve overseas that the shortcomings in much of this equipment became known. For instance, the basic Army field shoe, which had seemed suitable in early testing, proved incapable of withstanding more than a week or two in the field before it started to fall apart. The field range for cooking seemed to work just fine. But the leaded gas it burned caused it to clog after just a handful of hours, and units often had no way of cooking meals.
In most cases, improvements were made, and orders placed for production of the improved items. But the press of mass production meant that it took time to switch to production of the improved models. Further, until stocks of the earlier versions were exhausted, the new iterations of equipment were stockpiled. As a result, many of the refined versions of uniforms, footwear, packs, tents and such never reached the troops in quantity before the end of the war.
With the end of the war, funding for continued research and development, let alone fielding, of many of these classes of items again fell by the wayside. What little money the Army had for procurement went to big ticket items, such as tanks.
Indeed, some items developed during World War II were still in widespread use over 40 years later when I joined the Army. The M1 steel helmet with liner was the most visible of these legacy items, but hardly the only one (not to mention the fact that the very barracks I took my training in had been built for World War II). Stoves and tentage, if not dating from wartime production, was of the same type. In some cases, that was because the items worked pretty well, and there was no sense reinventing the wheel. After all, a wood/coal burning stove for a tent is going to be pretty similar no matter how much design effort you put into it. But other items that were issued could easily and relatively cheaply been vastly improved. What possible excuse did the US Army of 1994 have for issuing shelter half tentage to infantry troops, a design in use with little improvement since 1912? At that time, there were literally hundreds of commercial off the shelf one-man tent designs that could have been adapted at low cost, providing much better comfort to the soldier in the field.
The same “boom or bust” routine played out during the Vietnam era. If I worked with a fair amount of World War II era equipment, virtually everything else I used when I first joined was of Vietnam vintage. The M16 rifle, the combat boot (and the excellent jungle boot), the night vision systems, the load bearing equipment and rucksacks. While some effort was made to replace elements of this equipment, it wasn’t until after the Army began operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that widescale replacement of that era’s equipment began. Today, there’s almost no piece of personal equipment in use that I have first hand experience with.
Is there any doubt that with the budget cuts soon to come, the Army will again put the development and procurement of soldier equipment at the bottom of the “to-do” list?