It is officially winter. And it’s cold. Many of us* will brave bitter, freezing weather this year. And we’ll bundle up in warm clothing, and head from our heated homes to our heated cars to our heated offices.
One of the physical challenges soldiers face in the field is that the exposure to cold weather is unrelenting. Hours, days, weeks of unceasing exposure to the cold. Warm clothing becomes far more than a matter of comfort, but an essential for mere survival, much less functionality.
Designing warm clothing that is durable and light has long been one of the greater challenges for armies. For centuries, the best insulator for clothes was wool. It was relatively lightweight. It was warm, and it was still somewhat effective when wet. In fact, right up through the mid 1980s, virtually all cold weather clothing in our Army was still woolen. Starting on the eve of World War II, thick heavy woolen greatcoats fell out of favor, and the concept of layers of clothing came into use. The most iconic piece of cold weather clothing from World War II was the M1943 Field Jacket. It was a short jacket of a sturdy cotton duck, but could be worn with a woolen liner.
Soldiers in winter face two different threats, the cold dry environment, and the cold wet environment. The Army designed clothing ensembles for both environments. While the two ensembles were distinct, both used as many common components as possible. Further, each could be tailored to the specific temperatures encountered.
The challenge of the cold dry environment is extreme low temperatures, such as in the Arctic, high in mountainous regions and glaciated regions. Ice and powdered snow abound, along with continuously below freezing temps. The cold dry ensemble started with wool long johns, then the basic combat uniform. The field jacket and matching field pants (and their respective liners) were next. Finally, a hooded, lined parka and matching lined wind pants formed the outer layer. Accessories such as mittens with woolen liners and a pile cap and face mask helped isolate the wearer from the cold. One of the most difficult things to keep warm is the soldier’s feet. The answer there was the “Mickey Mouse” boot. These were heavy rubber boots that could be inflated. This air pocket between the foot and the cold worked much like a Thermos bottle or dewar flask. The air was a poor transmitter of heat, and thus a good insulator. Wool socks and oversocks meant that feet might not be toasty warm, but frostbite was unlikely.
The cold wet environment is actually the more challenging of the two to deal with. Nothing degrades the insulating properties of clothing like water. Once a soldier gets wet, he will be almost impossible to keep warm. The cotton of the basic combat uniform is almost worthless when wet. And even wool suffers badly when wet. Further, wool takes unusually long to dry.
Once again, layering was key to the cold-wet ensemble. Woolen long johns, the basic combat uniform and the field pants and field coat, with or without the liners, formed the insulating portions of the outfit. Over this, a rubberized cotton or nylon rain parka and rain pants provided protection from wetness. This rubberized rain suit was waterproof, to be sure. But it also trapped in a soldier’s perspiration, and even mild exertion would leave a soldier damp and clammy, and soon quite cold.
Footwear in the cold-wet environment is an especial challenge. The leather combat boot is not waterproof, and soon becomes saturated. Feet subjected to prolonged cold, wet conditions soon develop what is known as “trench foot”. You know how if you stay in the tub or pool too long and your skin on your feet becomes soft and wrinkly? Take that a couple orders of magnitude higher. Trench foot is both painful, and debilitating, and can easily result in gangrene and even amputation of toes or the whole foot if not caught quickly. Often in the winter of 1944, casualties among US forces were far higher from trench foot than from German actions. But the troops were still casualties, and had to be pulled from the line. One attempt to minimize cases of trench foot was the Shoepack. L.L. Bean produced a boot with leather uppers, and a rubber sole and lower. It provided much better protection against cold wet conditions than the regular leather combat boot.
The Shoepack was pretty good for keeping feet dry, but was impractical for long marches. Also, it was pretty uncomfortable if the weather was warmer. In the Cold War era, the Shoepack was replaced by the standard leather combat boot, and a rubber overshoe, or, if you will, galoshes.
As textile technology improved, so did the ensemble. Between World War II and the mid 1980s, the major change in the ensemble was the shift from woolen pile liners to nylon shells with polyester batting liners. They were much lighter, provided good insulation, and dried very quickly. This construction was similar to that of the poncho liner. These relatively small changes still left the Army with clothing technology that would not have been too amiss during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.
But the mid-1980s were a boon time for outdoor sports, and the explosive growth of companies like Nike and others led to great strides being made in textile technologies. The Army was fairly slow to adapt them, but eventually, synthetic fibers and fabrics came to play ever greater roles in field clothing.
Around this time, the Army finally took the leap and introduced an entirely new cold weather clothing system, ECWCS (pronounced “ick-wicks), or Extreme Cold Weather Clothing System). No longer could clothing be a uniform, it had to be a system! But the ECWCS really was a system, it’s components intended to be used together as a whole. It has three layers. First was a set of long johns made from polypropylene. Lighter and quicker drying than wool, they tended to be more comfortable as well. Next was a deep pile polyester trousers and coat undergarment known as “bearskins” from their brown color and thick, shaggy appearance. This deep pile provided great loft and insulation, and dried quickly. The outermost layer was a a shell consisting of a parka and trousers. The parka and trousers were made of a waterproof, windproof Gore-Tex fabric, with an inner nylon lining. Careful attention was paid to ventilation, so a perspiring soldier wouldn’t overheat. With appropriate accessories for headgear, footgear and hands, the ECWCS could protect soldiers in temperatures as low as –60F. It’s waterproof Gore-Tex outer shell made it suitable for use in the cold-wet environment. Variations of the ECWCS are still the primary cold weather clothing system in use today.
But despite untold millions in research dollars spent developing the system, it’s actually rarely used as intended. Look at the layers above. What’s missing? The basic combat uniform, either the BDU or today’s ACU.
In fact, most of the time, troops don’t need the full ensemble. The long johns are handy and popular** The bearskins are simply too thick and warm for most environments, and don’t fit under the combat uniform. They’re too fragile to serve as outer garments. But the parka, almost universally referred to simply as a “Gore-Tex,” is pretty much the standard jacket Army wide. But because it was designed to work in concert with the other layers, it has virtually no insulating properties itself, nor can it accept a simple button-in liner like the M-65 field jacket did. So most troops slip either an old field jacket liner or other warm weather gear under the jacket of their uniform.
One of the nice things about the Army not generally appreciated by the civilian population is that there is a wide latitude given to troops when it comes to boots and clothing accessories. You can get by well enough on what the Army issues you, but if you want to buy something better, as long as it meets certain guidelines, that’s perfectly fine as well. And in the days when the Army still wore black boots, in cold weather regions, it was a very rare troop that didn’t own a pair of Matterhorns. *** These boots were far more water-resistant than the issue boot, had insulation, and were far warmer, suitable for the cold wet environment and still compatible with the rubber overshoe if more waterproofing was needed. Similarly, most guys kept the D-3A leather glove and wool liner at home, and bought black insulated ski gloves.
And while I describe the Army as switching to the ECWCS in the late 1980s, in fact, it wasn’t so simple. As Organizational Clothing, it was only issued to those units that were likely to be deployed in cold weather conditions. Further, the changover wasn’t instantaneous. Some units would still issue the older ensemble for well over a decade after the ECWCS was first introduced. In fact, I was never issued the ECWCS, despite serving in Germany and Colorado, both quite cold environments. But the parka, at least, was offered for sale, and authorized for wear, almost from day one at the Clothing Sales store on post. So I bought one right away, back in 1989. ****
The Gore-Tex pants weren’t offered for sale, but they were authorized for wear, so I ponied up an outrageous sum of money and ordered a pair from US Cavalry and had them shipped to Germany.
During peacetime, even with relatively robust budgets, the Army tends to spend its procurement dollars on big ticket items. One of the effects of a shooting war or two, however, is to show shortcomings in individual clothing and equipment. Commanders at relatively low levels have been given much greater freedom (and budgets) to get the equipment they need for their soldiers. Virtually every piece of individual clothing or equipment worn by soldiers has been replaced or upgraded or significantly modified since 9/11. The cost is relatively minor compared to, say, buying an aircraft carrier, but the improvement to the soldier’s lot has been great.
But no matter the improvements in clothing, the infantryman will still find himself cold and wet and tired. Just maybe not as bad as his forebears.
*Well, not me. I’m in Southern California. Bitter cold weather here is overnight lows in the 40s.
**and flammable, unfortunately. I’ve heard that troops have gone back to woolen long johns to avoid having melted polypro stuck to them.
***I see they’re now marketed under the Corcoran brand, but back in the day, they were Matterhorns.
****I bought a LOT of snivel gear. I hate the cold. And I snivel a lot.