EQUIPMENT OF THE WORLD WAR II MARINE
The steel helmet was one of the defining pieces of 782 gear and it epitomized the look of the American fighting man in World War II. From its introduction in 1941 until being replaced with the Kevlar helmet in the 1980's, the steel helmet was worn by Marines in every clime and place.
Marines first wore steel helmets in World War I. Adopted in 1917, the helmet was a copy of the British Army Mk I trench helmet. Its primary function in this conflict was to protect the top of the wearer's head from small shell fragments. Sometimes called the Brodie helmet, it was officially designated the M1917 helmet. With a shell built of manganese steel, the helmet was painted a flat shade of olive drab mixed with sawdust. The helmet was equipped with a leather and felt liner and an adjustable leather chinstrap.
The World War I-type helmet was modified in the 1930s with an improved suspension system and adjustable webbing chinstrap. Designated as the M1917A1 helmet, this type was worn through the early phases of World War II, when it was replaced by the M1 helmet. During the interwar years, it was common practice in many units of the Marine Corps to strip off the factory paint and repaint helmets with either flat or glossy forest green paint. Also, helmets were frequently drilled for affixing of the Marine Corps Emblem intended for barracks and campaign covers.
After extensive testing and field trials starting in November 1940, the US Army Ordnance Department type-classified the M1 helmet as standard on 9 June 1941. From that date, the M1917A1 helmet was classified as limited standard. The new helmet was was a quantum leap in protection and it was a simple and rugged piece of equipment. Intended to protect the Marine's head from low velocity fragments and shrapnel, the helmet saved the lives of many of its wearers over the years. The M1 was non-magnetic, an important feature for Marines equipped with compasses and other sensitive equipment subject to magnetic interference.
As with many other types of equipment, weapons, and military items of every sort, the Marine Corps encountered severe shortages of the new helmets in 1941-42. Although the M1 helmet received the highest priority for production, there were still not enough to equip every unit in the armed services at first. Therefore, many units of the Army and the Marine Corps went to war with the older-type helmets. None of the new models had reached the Pacific theater prior to the Japanese onslaughts of December 1941. In the Philippines for example, the Fourth Marine Regiment fought a courageous hopeless campaign while wearing the M1917A1 helmet. A few Marines even deployed to Guadalcanal wearing the older helmets. But by late 1942, production capacity had reached the point where all units going overseas deployed with the M1.
There were two basic components to the M1 steel helmet. Ballistic protection was afforded by a manganese steel helmet shell. A simple two piece web chin strap was sewn onto a bales attached to the shell's rim. Two firms built helmet shells in World War II: McCord Radiator and Manufacturing, and Schlueter Manufacturing Co. They built over 22 million helmet shells during the war.
The second part of the helmet was a fiber liner with 'one size fits all' adjustable web suspension system. It had a simple leather chin strap attached to the interior. Shells were made by numerous American firms during the war. Among them were Firestone Tire and Rubber, Inland Manufacturing and Westinghouse Electric. Over 33 million liners were built during the war.
A unique feature of Marine Corps helmets was the camouflage cover which became the hallmark of the World War II Gyrene. These covers were introduced in 1943 as a result of lessons learned on Guadalcanal. In the latter half of the Pacific war, the helmet cover was used by almost all Marines in combat. The cover was reversible and sewn of sturdy cotton fabric. On one side it was printed with a predominently green and brown camouflage pattern. The other side was printed with a predominently light brown and tan pattern. The covers were sewn with long flaps that tucked between the steel shell and liner but Marines often left the back flaps untucked to give some protection from the hot tropical sun.
After its introduction, the steel helmet soon developed multiple uses by Marines in training and combat. The shell made a serviceable entrenching tool for digging in, but this use was hard on the paint. It could also be used as a stool, although the chin strap bales sometimes broke from this use. Marine sometimes used their helmet shells as cook pots over open fires, even though this risked lessening the steel temper. Another little noted but frequent use of the helmet was as a 'chamber pot.' Confined to long nights in fighting holes and dug outs, Marines often resorted to using their shells for this purpose. The shell was also a handy wash basin for taking whore's baths' not only in combat, but also in garrison tent camps.
Although the helmet was not specifically designed to protect from high velocity small arms fire, there were several recorded instances in World War II of Marines whose lives were saved from direct bullet hits to their helmets. Among those whose lives were saved by their helmet was 2ndLt Craig Leman (left) of Corvallis, Ore. He served as a platoon leader in Co H, 2nd Bn, 26th Marines in the campaign for Iwo Jima.
On 8 March 1945 while leading his platoon in an assault against a fortified Japanese emplacement, Leman was struck above his right ear by an enemy rifle or machine gun round. The round penetrated through the shell and liner, wounding Leman severely. But the impact with his helmet deflected the bullet just enough that it did not penetrate his skull. Evacuated off the battlefield, this brave Marine spent months in the hospital before returning to his unit. Craig Leman is a retired general surgeon and still has the M1 helmet that saved his life.
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