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Korean war: clothes maketh the man.

The recent furor over Canada's part in sending our troops to Afghanistan with what many perceive to be unsuitable camouflage clothing sent me to my Oxford Book of Quotations, where I discovered the above warning message. This reminded me of similar events over half a century ago.

While the Canadian troops were more or less adequately prepared for their first Korean winter, the same cannot be said for other Commonwealth troops. The Australians, in particular, had arrived from occupation duty in Japan and were forced to rely on their U.S. allies for such essentials as padded outer jackets and fur-lined head dress. The British were a little better off, although it was some time before stocks of their excellent winter gear arrived.

The Canadians, perhaps, were the best prepared. For a start, they were used to cold temperatures such as those found on the Korean Peninsula in winter (although at times even the most hardened Prairie native found the freezing gales from mainland Manchuria hard to endure.) Don Hibbs recalls that during the winter the typical infantryman wore (from the skin outwards) a string vest, a normal undershirt, long-johns (complete with `back door' flap), flannel pyjamas (a gift from home), a shirt (flannel preferred), battle dress, a parka jacket, lined winter trousers and perhaps camouflaged denim, "windproof" anorak and trousers, and a woollen scarf.

Head dress varied. Ironically, on arrival in Korea many units backloaded their steel helmets. Commanders felt that they were cumbersome, noisy and would, perhaps, encourage troops in forward areas to huddle in their weapon slits, protected by their headgear, when they should be up and observing! In my platoon, only two helmets were retained -- these were used in a manner similar to an ancient pillory. As effective retribution for military misdemeanours was impractical in the line, a culprit would be forced to wear a steel helmet for a few days.

Berets were the `official' headgear. One beloved brigadier firmly insisted that all his officers would wear berets only, but frequently appeared wearing a Glengarry. A far more practical headdress was the balaclava helmet. Although some commanders discouraged its use in its usual form, as it might affect the ability to hear an enemy, when rolled up in the fashion of a navy watch cap it was comfortable, warm and convenient. British troops were issued with a "cap comforter," a two-layer hollow scarf which could also be rolled up to form a wool cap.

A Canadian alternative to the beret was the "cap winter peaked" which resembled a Second World War Japanese headdress. It had the advantage of fitting snugly under the hood of a parka. The Commonwealth Division sported a wide variety of headgear -- the Aussie slouch hat, the New Zealand Stetson (worn by a few die-hards), and the turbans worn by the Indian Field Ambulance. Besides the Glengarries, Tamo'Shanters and Balmorals worn by Scottish regiments, and the Royal Ulster Rifles' caubeens, most British battalions were issued with "hats, jungle" -- a headdress closely resembling the "fedors" style head-dress currently used in Afghanistan.

An Australian writer aroused the ire of the powers-that-be by alleging that their troops were ill-prepared, but even their leaders agreed that the Aussies who were able to acquire Canadian shirts were on to a good thing. Indeed, these were sought after by many Commonwealth troops. British and Australian units at first wore "bush" jackets and pants, but these were later replaced by more rugged combat dress, which formed an integral part of a multi-layer all-seasons outfit topped, in winter, by an excellent garment which combined the virtues of a greatcoat, parka and jump smock.

Unfortunately, as often happens, these did not always find their way into the line. I had to settle for a Canadian parka, which was more flexible than the bulkier British issue, but not quite as warm. Fortunately, it had a strong zipper, as rumour had it that the plastic buttons on Canadian parkas could be used as instant soup tablets. I found that the buttons soon disappeared from the garment, while some members of my platoon gazed despondently at melted plastic discs in the bottom of canteen cups of hot water.

Woollen gloves were soon replaced by "combat" clothing, although it was retained for wear on leave and in rest areas. Indeed you could usually tell a sharp-end soldier because he tried to look sharp in his BD, while the rear-echelon fellows would hang around the NAAFI roadhouses or Tokyo leave centres clad in combat dress.

Footwear was, perhaps, one of the most serious problems. The regular boots provided little protection against the bitter cold, and frost-bitten feet were common. (Indeed, the United States has recently recognized this as a pensionable disability for Korean War veterans.) U.S. boot pacs were effective to a degree (some readers may recall that a similar version of RBLT -- rubber-bottom, leather tops -- was in use in post-war years in the Canadian Army. The British came up with what was basically a regular boot with thickened soles and a mesh insole -- these were called "Boots - CWW" but we called them "cold, wet and windy." Keeping feet warm and dry was a problem, and we could never understand how our Chinese enemies could survive the year round in cheap basketball shoes. (These were seldom changed and it was possible to detect the presence of an enemy several yards away by their odour.)

In the line it was often a case of "anything goes" -- within limits. Scrounged U.S. or other allied gear, knitted gifts from home and purchases from the NAAFI, PX or civilian stores were often in evidence. I don't know how it got to me, but before I received my Canadian parka I braved the winter in my platoon position in a white naval duffle coat (which didn't stay white for long).

The Commonwealth Division, without a doubt, sported the widest variety of dress in the Eighth Army. To the wide variety of uniforms, weapons and accoutrements that were not in the "scale of issue" but were carried, ranged from Gurkha kukris (popular with the ex-Hong Kong set) to burp guns. The latter were supposed to have been "captured" but most seem to have been found in abandoned positions. A near-disaster occurred when a U.S. platoon encountered a trio of soldiers in strange uniforms, bearing Chinese sub-machineguns. After the Yanks opened fire only a stream of English obscenities prevented the loss of three of the Americans' allies.

The Brits had one last little fling towards individuality. En route home many troops availed themselves of the services of military tailors, and, on arrival in Britain, displayed to admiring friends and relatives exotic "formation" flashes with crossed rifles, maps of Korea and self-designed shoulder titles such as "Blankshire Regiment, Korea 1952-1953, Hill ***." The Military Police had a field-day!
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Author:Peate, Les
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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