Saturday, February 24, 2007

Model 1881 U.S. Cavalry Helmet

Our last piece of retrospection before we launch back into the 20th century.
This is the full-dress version of the 1881 cavalry enlisted man's helmet, resplendent in yellow braid, horsehair plume, and gilt eagle and shield. The helmet was worn by all branches, the plumed versions only by mounted branches, each with a distinctive arm-of-service colored plume. Infantry wore the helmet with spike only.Yours truly with an 1881 artilleryman's helmet. Note the scarlet plume and crossed cannon motif. An interesting side by side comparison to two American helmets; the 1881 as a European clone, and the M1, that most distinctive and widely copied helmet of the last half of the 20th century.

The same helmet fitted with the more understated spike atop the rosette.

Holey-moley...what's going on here? When did this republic of democrats get so highfalutin?

Here we have, in 1881, a relatively new nation, the United States of America, flexing its post-Civil War muscles and trying to assert itself on the world stage. Then, as now, emerging nations looked to established world powers for cues regarding military fashion. Paper soldiers of the Franco-Prussian era demonstrate what was fashionable among the world's great military powers, the trendsetters, so to speak.
The spiked and plumed helmets of Europe evidently resonated with Generals Nelson Miles, Monty Meigs, and others in the high command of the U.S. Army. As a result this rather garish and impractical confection of pressed felt, gilt, and horsehair was foisted upon the troops.

Needless to say, as were all things European, it was generally viewed with suspicion, hostility, and contempt by the rank and file of the U.S. Army.

Drink in the splendor, the pomp, and the circumstance. Whether the troops hated it or not, spiked or plumed, this helmet would see service for 21 years, finally falling by the wayside at the turn of the 20th century, not coincidentally following the American triumph in the Spanish-American War. This victory on the world stage began America's assertion as a newly arrived world power, and provided an opportunity to cast off the trappings of "old Europe" (as a recent American leader termed it).

The details:

The interior is very simple, just a standard hat band. As this helmet is not meant to provide any sort of ballistic protection, there is no liner or suspension of any sort. Heck, this thing doesn't even provide any protection from the elements! Some models had small "pinwheel" ventilators, though most, like this example, were without any ventilation at all. Despite the very light weight of these helmets, they must have been particularly uncomfortable on hot days.

Under the band is stamped the manufacturers mark, in this case the well known maker: W.H. Horstmann, with a contract date of 1899. This is a very late contract date. I acquired this helmet in unissued condition. By the time of its manufacture its day had been eclipsed.

Although Franco-Prussian in form and appearance, the motifs were strictly yankee-doodle-dandy. The large front plate provides us with several American icons; the eagle, the shield of the Union, and the arm-of-service crossed sabers. No mistaking the nationality here...but wait, there's more.

The side buttons also drive home the cavalry identity...

and the plume holder repeats the eagle motif.

Even the hooks for the "chicken-guts" braid are smaller Union shields.

And how 'bout all that gold braid? Included with the braid are tassels, ornamental knots, and these things, the so-called "waffles".

Joining us now is American icon, genocidal maniac, paragon of faulty judgment, and the original Arrow Shirt man, George Armstrong Custer. Here he is, modeling the "waffles" and braid from an earlier version of the 1881 helmet and uniform.

You go George!
(indian name: "crazy mustache")

1881 U.S. cavalry helmet, Horstmann mfg.
number MOAh1952.6
condition: outstanding, possibly unissued, original in all respects (save for the reproduction cord and "waffles"), with both plume and spike.
Purchased in 1987 ath the Plainfield Antique Mall in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Okay, that's a wrap for our pre-20th century foundation work. We've seen the fully functional Hoplite helmet and the completely ornamental U.S. 1881. From here on in it's all 20th century.

Next stop: The Pickelhaube of 1914

Hoplite Helmet: a clarification

I've gotten emails on my last post that lead me to believe I didn't make myself clear:

Bud lite (left), Hoplite (right)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Start at the beginning: the Hoplite helmet of 500 BC

I was getting ahead of myself. Before we really get into this discussion of 20th century helmets we've got to go back in time and pay our respects to the progenitor, the great grand pappy, of combat helmets. Back to what is now Greece in 500 BC.

These are the Hoplites, y'know, Spartans (Go State!). They were the big ass-kickers on the world stage at that faraway time. They had helmets of bronze that provided an extraordinary amount of protection. Heavily armed and highly mobile, the Hoplites gave military tactics the "phalanx"... a formation which exists to this day, primarily utilized by tanks.

An onrushing phalanx of helmeted Hoplites was something to strike terror into the heart.

"Don't ask, don't tell"
The American military could take a cue from these guys. Many Hoplite soldiers were homosexuals, openly so, celebratorally so. The theory seems to be that these men would fight even more ferociously at the side of their lovers, providing mutual protection for a loved one while totally eviscerating the enemy.

These helmeted, oiled-up, and mostly naked terrors, provide a whole new take on "homophobia". I'd be pretty scared.

In my collection I have a replica Hoplite Helmet. I use it for my traveling helmet show that I take to libraries, historical associations, schools, etc.

It's a really cheap helmet hammered out of old Buick bumpers (back when bumpers were still made of steel) and definitely not bronze. But its a logical place to start our exploration into the "tin lid".

The helmet was somewhat restricted in visibility but provided outstanding protection for the head neck and face. Plus it makes the wearer look like an anonymous, featureless, killing machine. Man, that's scary!

Aside from the restricted visibility another drawback is the suspension and lining of the helmet, of which there was none. The hoplite soldier relied on his full head of hair and beard for the needed cushion inside the helmet. I wonder if baldness provided one with a deferment?

Provenance: Helmet (replica) acquired on Ebay in 2004. Purchase price $35.00

So now we're off and running, zooming through time from 500 BC into the more recent past. Next stop will be our only other pre-20th century side trip. The time: 1881. The place: the lone prairie of the United States of America.

Here comes the cavalry!


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Peruvian model 1934 Steel Helmet

Front view

side view. This helmet has the original chinstrap and...
French-style six pad liner.

Unlike the steel shell of the helmet, the comb is made of aluminum. I sometimes read that the comb of a helmet was to deflect sabre blows. Really? sabre blows? In the age of machine guns and high-explosive shells? I never really bought this idea of 20th century soldiers being under much a threat from cavalrymen weilding swords. Lets take a closer look at that comb thingy...

Look, you can see light through it, air can flow through it. Lets look inside the bowl of the helmet and see what this comb is covering.

Aha! ventilation holes! Almost all European manufactured helmets of the era had some sort of passive ventilation system, and this is basically a French helmet in Peruvian livery.

Imagine being out under the sun with a close-fitting steel dome on your cropped head. It could get pretty warm. Without ventilation your head could roast. The comb is simply a decorative and rain-proof "roof" over those vent holes. As we go along we'll see lots of other types of helmet ventilators. For the French, the comb was like a little cupola on the roof of a barn, providing a positive air flow while keeping the rain out, all while deflecting sabre blows from the ...farmer?

You also see manufacturer's marks stenciled inside the dome as well as the word "Sota" crudely scrawled in black paint . I'm wondering if this was the name of the wearer (who obviously didn't have access to a sharpie).

Also written in pencil.

Inside the liner the manufacturer's stamp is clearly visible,

as are other stamps which I assume indicate inspections as well as size.

Here then, is the most obscure helmet in my collection; the Peruvian (as in llamas) model 1934, Which is essentially a French Mod. 1926 with the Peruvian sunburst insignia. The sunburst is, coincidentally, the insignia of the bane of the current Peruvian government, the Marxist Leninist Sendero Luminoso ("the Shining Path)...the local Commies who promise to set the peasants free while cutting their fingers off (go figure).
Me, I prefer the Leninist MaCartneyist movement, but nonetheless, here is the helmet of the Peruvian army of the WWII era.

Peru, that bastion state which protects the free world from Ecuador.

Pictured here, is the Victory monument commerating the Peruvian triumph over Ecuador in 1941, the seven week war which established the border between those two world powers. Nice monument. The helmets are clearly visible, and apparently this piece was cast on a particularly chilly day as the nipples on the allegorical figure are in high relief.(that's chilly, not Chile).

This helmet was purchased at a Military relic show in Lansing Michigan in 1978. Purchase price was $15.00. It is original in all respects.

Starting Next week I'll begin a chronological posting of helmets beginning with the leather pickelhaube of WWI both infantry and artillery

Stay tuned.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Siamese/Thailand model 30-32 Steel Helmet

 A recycling story...

If you were a nation occuppied by the Japanese in WWII you find yourself awash in Japanese military materiel upon their surrender.  Suddenly your army (such as it is) has lots of helmets!

Such was the case with Thailand.  A small army, a whole bunch of Japanese helmets, just add insignia, and away you go!

The distinctive Japanese 30-32 profile in Siamese livery.

Ventilation holes in the dome.

This example has mounts for the French m. 26 liner and chinstrap.

Close-up of riveted mounting frame for the liner...

though the mounting holes for the original Japanese liner are apparent

Back story...

Remember back in the late '70s and early 80's seeing ads in military magazines for genuine Japanese helmets for only 15 (later 25) bucks? Sounded like a rip-off, but what the heck, it was only fifteen dollars, so I gave it a shot. The helmet I got in the mail proved the adage: "You get what you pay for"; a stripped-down Japanese helmet sans liner and insignia of any sort.

On the plus side it did have a chinstrap, though it was unlike any I was used to seeing on Japanese helmets, and had the French-style suspension for a liner intact. What was most intriguing about this helmet though, was the printing on the remnants of newspaper that were stuck to it (obviously this helmet had been in storage for some time). The script on the newspaper fragments was unlike any I'd seen before. It was definitely not Japanese, nor was it Chinese or Korean. That puzzled me. Also, on the front of the shell, where an insignia had been, was the distinct and symmetrical outline of that missing insignia. The outline was clear and very distinctive, and again unlike the shape or size of any Japanese insignia that I was familiar with.

Mystery aside, I felt a little sheepish about this helmet and pretty much tucked it away in the old "live and learn" box, where it stayed for almost 25 years until it suddenly became somewhat of a prize.

In the intervening 25 years a couple of things happened: the publication of that outstanding book by Paolo Marzetti "elmetti di combattimento di tutto il mondo" (Combat Helmets of the World) and the advent of ebay.

Marzetti's book gave me my first glimpse of the Siamese model 1930-32 which was simply a salvaged Japanese 30-32 with a replaced liner (French m.26 style) and leather chinstrap.

  And mounted on the front, with that distinctive outline that had so puzzled me was the embossed metal Siamese insignia. Shortly after that, as ebay came into full-flower, I successfully searched out and obtained that helmet plate. The helmet came out of storage, the insignia was affixed, and suddenly that cast-off was placed front and center in my collection with some of the other more obscure models.

A very nice ending indeed.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

It all started on Guam...


The purpose of this blog is to show my collection of 20th century combat helmets and to foster a discussion among other collecters and interested individuals about helmets and the hobby of combat helmet collecting.

I invite all questions, comments, and corrections.

Each week I’ll be posting photos and text of a particular combat helmet.

But first, some background

I've been collecting helmets since 1972 when some shipmates and I were boonie-stomping on the island of Guam where we were all stationed as young Navy radiomen. We were exploring an area around the village of Yigo ("Jee-go") which was the scene of one of the last stands made by organized Japanese forces.

Crawling on our bellies into a spiderhole cave which was half filled with water, we inched our way about 150 feet into the base of a ridge line. When we got to the source of the subterranean spring we found a Japanese helmet, buckles, teeth and other human remains. There were about six of us cramped in this deep, dark, cool, wet resting place of a Japanese soldier on this speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific. In the beams of our flashlights we started conjecturing about the circumstances that drove this long-ago soldier into the depths of this hillside.

We had our own war going on in those days, and bore none of our fathers' malice toward the remains that shared this space with us. It seems strange, in retrospect, how long we lingered to consider the life and death of a Japanese G.I. from that different war.

(U.S.Navy Radioman Roger Jacobs emerges from cave with helmet and buckle - 1972)
We returned to the surface, taking the helmet with us. Crawling back into the tropical sunshine, all introspection passed and again we were a bunch of jocular, knuckleheads in Uncle Sam's Navy, simply looking for the next adventure. Even so, that time in the cave stuck with us. And when I get together with the one old pal I've still kept in touch with, our conversation often turns to the afternoon of the helmet.

You can view a Youtube of that whole story here.

That helmet, now completely out of any historical context, resides here on South Mountain, Maryland, with me. Sometimes, when it catches my eye, I find myself wondering about the life of the young man who wore it to Guam but not back home again.

There is something about the very personal nature of a combat helmet that I find very compelling. Some guy wore it through some very difficult situations and may or may not have made it home again. Helmets aren't grand or dangerous, they've no moving parts, and they're totally utilitarian and characteristically drab. But a helmet suggests to me the thinking person who once wore it into combat; a young G.I. just like many of us were, once upon a time.

I guess there's something very optimistic in the nature of the "tin lid"...everybody's entitled to hope that he, or she, is going to make it home alive.

I share their hope.

Next week a closer look at the Japanese model 30-32, though this one’s in pretty good condition with liner, chinstrap, and insignia.