ALICE & MOLLE- Beasts of Burden

We’ve harped about the awesome loads that infantrymen have to carry into battle several times here. Since the days of the Revolution, our grunts have been overburdened. One way of easing the strain is to find the most comfortable possible way of carrying those loads that simply must be carried.  The personal equipment can be described in a variety of ways- web gear (from the cotton webbing it used to be made from), LCE or LBE (Load Carrying or Bearing Equipment) or “782 gear” in the Marines. But the Army, being the Army, just has to have an acronym for it. And one of the oddities of the Army is that the last two generations of load bearing equipment have hade feminine names.

The current iteration of this gear is MOLLE, or MOdular Lightweight Load-bearing Equipment.  A wide variety of pouches and containers can be attached to either the soldier’s body armor or a lightweight vest, or a rucksack, and tailored to individual needs to carry the soldier’s load. MOLLE was just starting to come into widespread use about the time I was leaving the Army, so my experience with it is limited.

Back in the old days, we used ALICE- All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment.  This lightweight nylon collection of equipment served US Soldiers and Marines from the 1970s through the 1990s.

ALICE as based on two separate loads the average troop would be expected to carry, the fighting load, and the existence load. The fighting load was just that stuff that you needed with you at all times, and especially in a fight. The heart of the fighting load was a belt and suspenders made to carry ammo pouches, canteens, and similar items. A typical fighting load would be the belt and suspenders, two ammo pouches (each holding three 30-round M16 magazines), two 1-quart canteens, and a small first aid pouch with an emergency compress, and maybe a bayonet. Of course, it was pretty typical for grunts to personalize their LCE with a few flourishes. I usually ended up having a compass pouch on mine, and whenever I could get away with it, a carabiner holding a pair of D-3A gloves via the backstrap. Some units were very adamant about keeping all LCE virtually identical, and others were a little more willing to let you personalize. One unit I was in laid down the law that every single person in the division would have an identical arrangement of their LCE, with no variations whatsoever. That order generated so much ill will, it was soon rescinded. Like most long serving troops, I had a set of LCE for inspections and parades and such that was virtually new, and very pretty. I also had a set that I only used in the field, and it was somewhat more broken in and had few personalized touches. I used a set of obsolete Vietnam era cotton suspenders (they chafed less) and cut off the metal hooks used to attach it to my belt. Those hooks were replaced with green nylon parachute cord. I had the regular accoutrements of ammo pouches and canteens, but also had a total of 3 first aid pouches, one holding my emergency compress, one with my compass, and one for a spare pack of cigarettes. I also had my mini-maglight flashlight strapped to it, as well as a handy little Buck folding knife. It was a thoroughly disreputable looking set of LCE.

The other half, the existence load, was basically the ALICE rucksack, which was either the medium or large nylon rucksack on an aluminum external frame.  The contents of the ALICE pack was whatever your commander told you to include on the packing list, and whatever small bits of comfort you could squeeze in after that. Extra socks, underwear, cold and wet weather clothing, a poncho liner (always!), poncho and usually quite a few MREs. The left shoulder of the ALICE pack had a quick release device so you could dump it in a hurry if you had to, such as in a firefight. Unfortunately, if the pack was under a heavy load, the quick release was difficult to operate. Even worse, if the pack was under a very heavy load, it would suddenly fail and disconnect with no warning at all.

So it came to pass as a very young PFC I was moving along a ridgeline on the island of Molokia in Hawaii. I was the platoon leader’s radioman, and in addition to a very heavy PRC-77 radio, I had a ton of other stuff crammed into my ALICE pack. This ridegline was extremely steep, and probably about 300 feet above the valley floor. And the path at the crest of the ridge was narrow, only about a foot wide.  That’s when the quick release of my rucksack decided to give way all on its own. The left strap was suddenly disconnected, and the weight of the rucksack shifted violently to the right. And that shift dragged me right off my feet. And down the hill. It seemed to take forever for me to tumble all the way to the bottom of the ridge. As by buddy Wade later described it to me, it was like the hand of God had reached down and flicked me off the ridgeline.

I hate ALICE.

13 thoughts on “ALICE & MOLLE- Beasts of Burden”

  1. My ALICE pack didn’t have a quick release on the left shoulder. But, then, a 13E normally didn’t carry the pack. I was also issued M-1956 suspenders in the TARNG instead of the ALICE suspenders. Of course, I normally didn’t wear them either. Towards the end I got ALICE suspenders, and didn’t like them.

    I’ve had several Marine friends and a cousin, and their web gear in Vietnam was the old WW2 stuff. Later they got ALICE and hated it.

  2. MOLLE blows ALICE away, and don’t even mention the Load Bearing Vest that bridged the gap between the two.
    Great thing about MOLLE is that I have yet to see a unit particularly care about how to set it up. Some people hook their stuff straight to the armored vest, and some people keep all of their stuff hooked on to an “Outer Tactical Vest” arrangement, in which you can wear the armor but drop the extra 30 lbs of junk. This is handy, for example, if you are TC/BC where you wear just the armor inside the turret, and keep the OTV hooked over the turret until you get on the ground. What sucks about MOLLE is the massive ruck (I think it is like 3500 cubic inches) that they have issued with it. It is actually a good ruck in and of itself, though no radio pocket (totally stupid), but it is a nightmare to wear with the rest of the MOLLE gear.
    My original LBE, in 11B days, was set up pretty much like yours (less cigarettes), and I too preferred the M1956 cotton suspenders, though they were frowned on in TOG.

    1. My only beef with the MOLLE ruck is that it is next to impossible to wear over an interceptor or IOTV. We mostly use the 3-day pack, and strap extra gear down to the outside rather than carry more around.

      As for a radio pocket, in Afghanistan we only ever carried Harris Falcon 3’s or MBTR radios, and those fit on your web gear. Spare batteries went in the pack.

  3. So it was an ALICE that knocked you off your feet, huh, XBrad? Enjoyed the story. Laughed when I read you fell. Sorry about that.

    Back in the stone-age our Girl Scout troop used WWII Army Surplus stuff on backpacking-hiking-camping trips. I remember having to pack half a pup-tent and then buddying-up with another scout to put our 2-person pup-tent together. I still remember that heavy, smelly canvas. This was before lightweight nylon tents were available. Um. Yea. I’m old. But that was our small peek into the sort of thing y’all are talking about… keeping the weight down but having what you need.

    Thanks. I really enjoyed the read.

    1. Oh, I know the shelter half pup-tent quite well. Every unit I was in still issued them. I’ve even used them on occasion. It wasn’t until well into the 1990s the Army decided to replace them. As a practical matter, we rarely used them in the field, and instead constructed expedient shelters from lightweight nylon ponchos and such. But we had them in our issue, and I’ve spent a goodly amount of time on my hands and knees scrubbing them clean.

    2. Before I went to OCS I took my shelter half and scrubbed it down inside and out. The thing had sat in the Armory supply room folded and gathering dust before it was issued to me and you could easily see which side was up on the shelf. I put it in a plastic bag and didn’t get it out until I had to display my TA50 to the TACs.

      I liked the things as a kid. Not so much as a troop.

  4. Like any good lawyer would say. “It depends”. On the arena of combat, mission, etc. etc. I bet there are 100 persons that would love the 1980’s Alice LBE, even with a new-fangled, tricked-out M4 carbine, 200 shot range model weapon. 😉

  5. Certain smells are powerful memory-joggers. The smell of old water-repellent canvas on those half-shelters is one for me. I can still smell it today ‘in my brain’ rendering it as an odd combination of fresh paint and vomit, but it’s not bad enough to hurl on my keyboard right now.

    One night I convinced my tent buddy that we could take it apart and string each of our halves up as a lean-to. Yea. That was a good idea! Weather was not rainy or windy, so I slept better breathing in the fresh air.

    But it never occurred to me that I could scrub that thing without losing the water repellent properties. Where were you guys when I needed ya!!!???

    1. Scrubbing the shelter half did ruin a goodly portion of the water repellent properties. But that’s beside the point. The point is in the Army, it has to be clean. They had to look good at inspection. That was far more important than any residual ability to keep you dry at night…

  6. I’m embarrassed to ask this, but how do ALICE clips work? I’m trying to mate an old canteen cover (with the clips on the back) to a pistol belt. Going hiking soon.

  7. If it is this kind of clip…

    The non-sliding side goes in the slots on the canteen cover, and the sliding portion goes over ONE layer of the pistol belt.

    If it is the other kind of clip, like a bent piece of coathanger, you need to wrangle the ends of the wire into holes on the lower half of the pistol belt.

  8. Ah yes, web gear or my TA-50! AS I recall my heaviest load I carried was as a rifle company commander…more than when I was a 90mm RR gunner as an EM. Here’s what I carried on the belt and suspenders.

    Going from the metal belt clip (hated the plastic ones.) around to my right:

    – Lensatic compass in pouch
    – .45 ACP pouch with 2 mags
    – M16 ammo pouch which held marking pens, spare batteries, hot sauce, etc
    – M191A1 .45 ACP in leather holster
    – 1 quart canteen
    – SAW Ammo pouch with M22 binos
    – 1 quart canteen
    – M9 bayonet (My SOP…if you drew a weapon from the arms rooms you drew a bayonet…always.)
    – Mini Mag flashlight in leather holster
    – M16 ammo pouch with 3 ea 30 round magazines
    – 1st aid pouch

    Suspenders Left Side
    – Demo gloves on a snap link hooked around bottom of suspenders
    – Flashlight on clip
    – 1st aid pouch
    – (On back side) Strobe light with IR cover

    Right side suspenders was always kept clear for rifle butt

    Hooked to adjustment tab on back and left side of pistol belt
    – M17 Protective Mask

    When mags and canteens were full it weighed 48 pounds

    Add a K Pot…..

    This was typical for a rifle company commander in the late 1980s.

    Add MILES crap on top of that and it really stunk!

    And all of this was BEFORE I rucked up.

    No wonder my neck and shoulders ached whenever I came in from the field!

    I have heard MOLLE was much better…never wore it.

    All the above shows I waited to way too late in my career to branch transfer to the Quartermaster Corps!!!

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