A forgotten American experimental helmet
by Peter Suciu
Much has been written about American efforts to develop the first modern infantry combat helmet during World War I, as well as subsequent efforts before and after World War II. The role of such individuals as Dr. Bashford Dean are well documented in numerous books, including those by Dean as well as other noted authors such as Chris Armold and Mark Reynosa. However, one particular helmet has been largely forgotten. Developed by Hawley Products Co., of St. Charles, Illinois, during WWII, the unusual helmet saw testing during the U.S. military’s Task Force Furnace tests of the late 1940s.
Beyond the M1 Helmet
Developed just in time for America’s entry into WWII, the M1 helmet could best be described as “adequate.” It did the job; so well, in fact, that it remained in use until the early 1980s. Yet, it was clear from its use in WWII that it was far from perfect. This iswhy American military planners considered a number of replacements for the M1 steel helmet. One was actually developed during the war as a possible replacement for the pressed fiber sun helmet that was introduced in the 1930s.
“The U.S. rigid fibre [sic] sun helmet was one of the only items of headgear that was not researched or designed by the military establishment but simply adapted for use from a commercial design manufactured by the Hawley Products Co.,” said American helmet collector Marc Giles.
“In 1942 the standard U.S. sun helmet came under scrutiny by members of the Army organized to review the effectiveness of equipment currently in use for desert and jungle warfare,” Giles told Military Trader. “This group determined that the current standard sun helmet was not adequate. Specific objectives seem to have been to make a new helmet that was lightweight, provided adequate air circulation around the head, and would afford protection to the face and neck from the sun and reflect radiation. The suspension was designed to be removable to allow for telescope stacking of the shell during shipment.”
This particular experimental helmet was manufactured in limited numbers by the Hawley Products Co., and it seems to have undergone trials in 1943 along with other variants. As with many wartime prototypes, the helmet was tested but never actually adopted. The story could have ended there.
On Second Thought...
This model helmet was tested again in the deserts of Arizona in 1947 — along with other equipment intended for use in desert warfare — during the U.S. military’s Task Force Furnace program, overseen by the Desert Warfare Board. The American military apparently considered the development of lightweight helmet for use in tropical areas where the rays from the sun were often as much as a problem as enemy bullets.
The helmet bears a passing resemblance to the American “Liberty Bell” helmet designed by Dr. Dean, but it isn’t clear if this is simply a matter of coincidence. Giles did note that Dean said in an interview in the 1920s that the Liberty Bell “was an almost perfect defense against sunburn.”
Tropical and Desert Helmet
The Hawley-made helmet doesn’t appear to ever have had an official moniker — it is simply described as “the helmet” in various news reports and articles, including a Popular Mechanics magazine profile on Task Force Furnace (“Task Force Furnace,” by J. Alvin Kugelmass, Volume 88, No. 3, September 1947).
In the article (which seems to be a military-sponsored recruitment effort), the caption merely notes that the illustration includes soldiers wearing ‘streamlined helmets to guide cooling air around the nape of the neck’.”
Another period image from Popular Mechanics seems to show a “foot soldier” in a “Nylon uniform.” This time, the unique headdress is only described as a “coolie” helmet (highlighting the fact that the pejorative term “coolie” — usually used to describe an unskilled native laborer in India, China, and some other Asian countries — was acceptable in a major magazine at that time).
The Quartermaster Equipment for Special Forces (Q.M.C. Historical Studies, No. 5, pages 92-95) mentioned the helmet and noted:
“... consideration of the terrific heat likely to be encountered in the summer in such areas as the Red Sea coast and the Persian Gulf brought a revival of the study. The Office of the Surgeon General gave its opinion that there were a number of areas where the protection afforded by the helmet liner would be insufficient and where, under non-combat conditions, a tropical helmet should be used. Work was pushed ahead once more on a helmet to meet this need. In the spring of 1943 a helmet designed on really scientific principles was ready for testing. Samples in several different shell arrangements were prepared by the Hawley Products Company of St. Charles, Illinois. The shape had been determined by laboratory research to allow maximum air flow. The shells, of impregnated, waterproof fiber, were made up in both single and double thickness and, since the Surgeon General’s Office had withdrawn its objection to the use of aluminum, both with and without layers of aluminum foil. The suspension was designed to hold the helmet firmly on the head, but was removable so that the helmet could be stacked compactly for shipping in quantity.”
The Quartermaster study noted that the helmet’s material was similar to that of the M1 helmet liners produced by Hawley. The same material was used in the production of the pressed fiber helmets.
Helmet collector Giles further noted that he is convinced that the military’s pressed fiber sun helmet may have been one of the “other” body styles tested at this time. His rationale, which this reporter agrees with, is that, if, for no other reason, the standard pressed fiber helmet would have been used as a baseline or control for measuring improvements. A period press photo of the testing the pressed fiber helmet provides evidence for this theory.
Were There Other Fiber Helmets?
It also appears that this experimental helmet may not have been the only such tropical helmet to have been tested during and immediately after WWII. The International Hat Company produced its own version of the pressed fiber sun helmet, and may have offered its own solution to the problem of air flow by adding greater ventilation to the side of the helmet.
A few such helmets with such ventilation have shown up in recent years. Currently, less than half a dozen of these helmets are documented in private collections, making this one of the rarest of the American experimental helmets. Therefore, it is not surprising that it is nearly the “forgotten American helmet.”
Peter Suciu is author of Military Suns of the World and runs the website, MilitarySunHelmets.com, where he continues to share new findings about military tropical headdress.