The Pressed Fiber Sun Helmet
While the M1 steel helmet is remembered as being one of the main signature items of the G.I. in World War II, throughout the Cold War and into the Vietnam War, this long-serving helmet was actually less prominent than another helmet introduced just a year earlier. Much like the M1, this other helmet was copied under license by America’s allies and used throughout other parts of the world in the post-World War II era.
This helmet was first adopted in October of 1940, and remained in service until the early 1980s, eclipsing the M1 in longevity but always being somewhat overlooked. Ironically, this “other” helmet actually never earned its own name — a strange development considering the U.S. Army’s penchant for naming everything! This was, of course, the pressed fiber sun helmet.
It was introduced just before America’s entry into World War II. Interestingly, it really only became popular because the U.S. Marine Corp adopted it as a training helmet in the early part of World War II. The helmet, which has the shape of a safari style sun helmet, was initially designed and manufactured by the Hawley Products Company. While obviously different in shape, the helmet was essentially made of the same materials as the early Hawley-made M1 liners.
The pressed fiber helmet was first adopted in October 1940 and “corrected” in May of 1941, with a change from a leather chinstrap to a web chinstrap. In addition to designing the helmet, Hawley was the primary manufacturer. The design and manufacture called for a two-part fiber material to be formed into the basic shape, and then impregnated with a bonding agent to make it waterproof.
Because the demand was so great, and because Hawley was busy making helmet liners, another company, the International Hat Company, was called in to help meet the demands.
DESIGN AND USE
The resulting helmet, which was designed in the late 1930s, was among the simplest sun helmets ever produced. The pressed fiber shell was covered with a thin layer of cotton cloth, and painted green on the inside. It had the basic shape of a “safari” helmet, complete with a faux ventilator at the top and a faux wrapping of puggaree around the dome of the helmet – the latter because previous American sun helmets (used during the Indian Wars and Spanish-American War) never actually incorporated a puggaree.
For ventilation, there were a number of vent holes with grommets on each side. These early helmets had three lower vent holes with two vents above, while post-wartime examples feature four lower ventilation holes.
The lining system was affixed to the two outer lower grommets, and consisted of a thin rubberized band, while the chinstrap was attached to the center of the three grommets. The early pre-wartime chinstraps were of the same manufacture as the M1 steel helmet liner chinstraps, while the later wartime straps for the Marine Corp were made of a webbing material. Also, the post-war lining changed slightly, with the liner band attached to the two inside (of four) grommets, and a hook for the chinstrap attached to the helmet band. The post-war examples also feature an elasticized strap, which was replaceable, unlike the wartime example that was permanently attached.
In May 1941, Hawley was contracted to make 24,000 helmets, while International Hat Company was charged with supplying 20,000 additional. This number was increased to 100,000 following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It is believed Hawley produced the majority of the additional helmets.
Most of the helmets were originally produced with a light khaki colored cloth that was the same color of the pre-war American uniforms. Both the United States Army and the United States Marine Corp used these helmets, and the basic cap badges were worn on the front through a hole with a grommet. Based on photos and surviving examples it seems these helmets, which were designed for use in warm weather regions, were used mainly by army officers, who wore the gold officer’s cap insignia on the front.
The Marine Corp appeared to use these helmets across all ranks, and these examples feature the Eagle-Globe-Anchor (EGA) cap insignia.
In the early part of World War II the fiber sun helmets were used as the “training helmet” at various U.S. Marine Corp bases, as steel helmets were not always readily available to the Corps. The helmet was known in the Marine Corps as the “fiber helmet,” and that the regulations following its issue in 1940 officially and simply refer to it as a “helmet, fiber.”
Later in the war, a darker version appeared in an olive drab color, and it was originally the United States Navy that used these helmets. However, surviving examples do suggest that the U.S. Navy did use the earlier khaki versions, and in the post-war years and into the Vietnam War the OD version was used by all services.
During WWII, the Canadian military used its own version of the pressed fiber sun helmet, made under license by the Canadian branch of Hawley. This pattern of helmet was also adopted and used by several South American nations, with these being of Hawley origin from the U.S., and later made under license in Argentina.
The sun helmet, which actually predated the introduction of the M1 steel helmet, also remained in service throughout the Vietnam War, and was used stateside in hot weather locations until the 1980s, outlasting the steel helmet. In fact, some of these helmets were used in the first Gulf War in Saudi Arabia by support troops. So while among the most under appreciated American helmet designs, this one was the one that served the nation the longest.
The legacy of these helmets survives to this day. The basic shape of the pressed fiber helmet, as well as the construction, serves as the basis for the all weather helmets of the United States Postal Service.
Peter Suciu is author of the book, Military Sun Helmets of the World, which chronicles the history and development of sun helmets from the Indian Mutiny to their use in the modern day. This article includes excerpts from this book.