Fear of being separated and becoming lost alone in the jungle motivates jungle infantrymen without individual compasses to keep hazardously close together. In a tangle of tropical vegetation a man can lose sight of his buddies only a few feet away. Usually he can’t see sun, moon or stars. In jungle he can’t find north by observing which side of tree trunks has the most moss, for moss is on all sides. A jungle soldier without a compass realizes that if he becomes separated from his squad leader and second in command, who typically are the only squad members issued compasses, he will not know which way to go.

Most of our jungle fighters in World War II and in Vietnam did not have compasses. Except in a few specialized small units, every American soldier who may be fighting in jungles still doesn’t have a compass of any kind. I have heard Army engineers, whose Corps controlled the production and issue of almost all compasses used by Army personnel, give two reasons for not issuing individual compasses: they claimed that most privates can’t be taught to use a compass effectively, and stated that supplying individual compasses would undermine the authority of squad leaders because privates with compasses would argue with their leaders about which way to go.

Both of these reasons for not issuing individual compasses were proved unfounded during many World War II jungle operations in which all infantrymen in an outfit had compasses. For example, every officer and enlisted man in the 158th Regimental Combat Team (the Bushmasters, who trained in Panama before fighting their way up from New Guinea into the Philippines) learned the basics of using the lensatic compass. As a result they could use any kind of compass, including the little waterproof compasses in the caps of waterproof match containers. One of those cylindrical matchbox/compasses was issued to each Bushmaster shortly after his specially equipped regiment had spearheaded several attacks on Japanese invaders of New Guinea.

The Bushmasters originally were an Arizona National Guard regiment whose soldiers were a mixed lot of western Anglos, Hispanics, and Indians. They made good fighters but their average formal education level was not as high as in U.S. regiments today. Yet almost every Bushmaster trained in Panama learned how to “navigate” with a compass — to move through “impenetrable” jungle to reach a distant objective. If separated from his unit, a trained jungle soldier with a reliable compass can get to a prearranged assembly point. The self-confidence felt by a man alone in the jungle with a compass that he knows how to use has an importance hard to explain to those lacking jungle experience.


While in Washington on temporary duty a few months after Pearl Harbor I was unable to persuade key Engineer Corps officers of the need for individual compasses. But I did succeed in strengthening the belief of Major General E. B. Gregory, the Quartermaster General, that each jungle infantryman should have a compass. I showed him an available civilian matchbox with a small waterproof compass sealed in its screwed-on, gasketted cap. The first Jungle Platoon of the Panama Mobile Force had tested dozens and had found them to be dependable. Because matches and means for keeping them dry were responsibilities of the Quartermaster Corps, General Gregory was able to have a large number of those matchboxes produced. (I later was told 100,000.) All were procured within a few months at a unit cost of less than one dollar. Their civilian color was changed to Army olive drab. Most soon were issued to tens of thousands of our infantrymen fighting on tropical islands, and later in Burma. Those little waterproof compasses saved lives and improved both morale and combat effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the Quartermaster Corps was not permitted to order any additional waterproof match containers with compasses. Shortly after Army engineers learned that the Quartermaster was supplying compasses, thus breaking the Engineer Corps’ generations-old compass monopoly, the Corps succeeded in getting the equivalent of a cease-and-desist order against the competing Quartermaster Corps. Since then no more military matchboxes with compasses have been produced anywhere at any time, to the best of my knowledge. The last were issued late in World War II to Mars Task Force infantrymen in Burma.

Three privates from that almost forgotten outfit, litter cases like me, were on the plane that evacuated us homeward across the Atlantic in April of 1945. Those three young Texans had been wounded in Burma. One was admired by the others because he had been hit while carrying the Texas flag when storming a Japanese position on a pagoda-topped hill. They told me they had been issued little matchbox/compasses, along with mosquito-protective Byrd cloth uniforms, Jungle Packs, Waterproof Packliner Bags and Food Bags, and several other combat-proven items which a generation later our infantrymen in Vietnam never did receive.


The need for individual compasses seldom has been recognized and met in any army. An unconventional officer in the British Ist Airborne Corps must have realized that his paratroopers would not have nearly enough issue compasses in the planned largest-in-history airborne attack to seize bridges across the Rhine and other wide rivers in Holland. For otherwise Miss Clair Miller would not have “...sewed 500 tiny compasses into troopers’ uniforms, which later aided many in making an escape,” after they were encircled and defeated by German panzer divisions. This is recounted in A Bridge Too Far, Cornelius Ryan’s memorable account of monumental snafus and human courage.


The overwhelming majority of even our infantrymen in Vietnam did not have compasses, although many recognized the need. Furthermore, the Army’s lensatic and other compasses were not moisture-proof or waterproof. They often became unserviceable, above all in the Mekong Delta. In LCDR Thomas J. Cutler’s Brown Water, Black Berets, a sobering book on the Navy’s fresh-to-brackish water forces in South Vietnam, on page 253 we read “...compass components froze up with regularity.”

Before going to Vietnam in 1967 to work on combat equipment problems, I heard similar accounts of compass failures from Special Forces veterans back from the expanding war. So, with some of the money made available to me by Union Carbide Corporation to improve jungle combat equipment, I went to La Porte, Indiana to the American plant of Silva, Inc. Silva is the Swedish company that makes the world’s best compasses for individuals. In La Porte I learned about the availability of Silva compasses, and with my own money bought 100 waterproof wrist compasses on nylon wristbands. Later, in Vietnam, I and other members of the Science Advisor’s staff gave away large numbers of wrist compasses, including additional hundreds of Silva compasses that I bought with funds made available to me by Union Carbide. We distributed individual compasses to American and Vietnamese officers from the Demilitarized Zone to far down in the Mekong Delta. I gave a few to Aussies and to Special Forces officers at the U.S. Army Special Forces Camp at Lopburi, Thailand. All agreed that every jungle soldier should have a waterproof compass.

During the Vietnam War I did not buy or show any match containers having waterproof compasses in their screw-on waterproof tops, because the Corps of Engineers’ jurisdictional rights do not cover ways to keep matches dry. There was a better chance of getting large numbers of individual compasses bought and issued if I avoided jurisdictional rivalries and advocated providing provenly waterproof wrist compasses.

Shortly after the Tet Offensive I returned temporarily to Washington and briefed key decision makers, including General Harold K. Johnson, the Army Chief of Staff, on quickly attainable ways to help our foot soldiers in Vietnam. I emphasized to him the need for individual waterproof compasses such as the waterproof Silva wrist compass that I displayed. As a result of decisions made at that meeting early in 1968, 28,000 wrist compasses were ordered from an American company, the Waltham Compass Company. (See Fig. 10-1.) Those compasses were not waterproof, although serviceable if not immersed. All 28,000 were air shipped to Vietnam; 7,000 were lost in transit. However, with our involvement in the war winding down and fewer Americans being committed to footmobile operations, it seems unlikely that more than a few thousand of the remaining 21,000 wrist compasses actually reached combat infantrymen.

Fig. 10-1. Non-waterproof “W. C. Co” wrist compass, issued to a few thousand infantrymen late in the Vietnam War. Its case is filled with air, and its lens is not securely held in the metal case. The whole compass card (disk) turns without binding, quivering on its jewel bearing.

A quarter of a century ago, the arrow of this compass was luminous, as were the “E,” “S,” and “W,” and also the marks at 30 degree intervals on the compass card. By 1991 the luminosity was gone. The luminous straight line on the inside of the lens was especially useful at night. In this photo the compass is turned so that the luminous line is E-W.

This was the only compass issued to every man in a few ordinary infantry units during decades following World War II.