“1 [one] gutta percha poncho” — a poncho made of cloth with a rubberlike coating — was one of the articles listed by Randolph B. Marcy, Captain, U.S. Army, as needed in “...a sufficient outfit for one man upon a three months’ expedition” on the plains and in mountains of the West in the 1850s. Captain Marcy, an experienced leader of Army expeditions in the Indian-endangered West, was asked by the War Department to write a guide book for westward-bound pioneers. His The Prairie Traveler was originally “Published by Authority of the War Department” in 1859. It was republished in 1988 by Applewood Books. The advice given to travelers was based largely on the equipment and procedures that Marcy and other Army men, trappers, and hunters had found most practical.
The War Department did not act on Captain Marcy’s advice. Ponchos were not issued to large numbers of soldiers until late in the Civil War.
Toward the end of the Civil War ponchos were adopted and became prized equipment of Union soldiers. General Sherman’s 62,000 men were carrying ponchos when they left still-smoking Atlanta to begin their devastating 1,000-mile march through Georgia and the Carolinas. “The troops traveled lightly... . Each man carried a blanket wrapped in a rubber poncho slung over his shoulder, a haversack, a tin cup hung at the waist, a musket and a cartridge box with forty rounds of ammunition.” (See Sherman’s March, Burke Davis’ detailed book on that historic campaign, first published by Random House in 1980.) A soldier packed little in the way of rations, for Sherman’s army lived off the country as it destroyed much of the South’s capabilities to continue the war.
Sherman’s troops endured spells of freezing weather. Particularly when it is cold and raining, a soldier on the march wearing a poncho is better off than if wearing a raincoat. Greater air circulation under a poncho keeps clothes drier, and having drier clothing results in the wearer becoming less chilled when he stops or sleeps. Sherman’s toughened infantrymen were not burdened with tents.
The major commanding the battle-hardened 73rd Regiment of Sherman’s mobile army was Charles C. Cresson, my grandfather, later promoted to colonel before he was 21. He used and appreciated ponchos. Unfortunately, when pursuing Indian bands in California and the Dakotas after the Civil War, he and his men — like the rest of the Army — had no ponchos. Nor did their Army blankets shed rain, as did the expensive and warm Hudson Bay blankets used a generation earlier by Kit Carson and other beaver-trapping Mountain Men who bought the best available equipment. Through the generations the U.S. Army does not take full advantage of civilian progress in clothing and basic field equipment.
The Army remained without ponchos until well into its frustrating campaigns against Filipino nationalist guerrillas, prolonged conflicts which followed our quick victories over Spanish forces. The 126,000 American troops finally needed to win that tropical war wore hot woolen uniforms. They campaigned without most of the basic jungle equipment, lightweight rations, and training needed for successful mobile operations against guerrillas in the humid tropics. Most of the 4,234 American deaths in the Philippines were caused by malaria and other tropical diseases. Our troops had lacked suitable protection against tropical downpours for about two years before they were issued ponchos, pictured in Fig. 14-1.
Fig. 14-1. Hoodless ponchos made of rubberized cloth, worn in 1900 by American infantrymen fighting Filipino guerrillas. American History Illustrated, Jan.-Feb. 1990
The best account I have read of what our Army temporarily learned from its costly counter-insurgency campaigns in the Philippines is given in “Our First Southeast Asia War,” an article in the January/February 1990 issue of American History magazine. However, there is no mention in that article of Army ponchos having been eliminated a few years after the successful pacification of the Philippines. Neater-looking raincoats remained standard issue.
American soldiers had no ponchos throughout World War I. They wore raincoats.
Rubberized cloth for making 100 ponchos was one of the first things I bought with funds provided by Lieutenant General Frank Andrews to equip the first two Jungle Platoons in his Caribbean Defense Command. That was about four months before Pearl Harbor, almost 40 years after the Army had eliminated its ponchos for the second time. Mr. Kelsey (the foreman of the Panama Canal Zone’s Tent and Awning Shop which made the needed prototypes of ponchos, Jungle Hammocks, rucksacks, and other items) and I worked together to create better designed ponchos for soldiers. This was not difficult, for I had worn an American civilian poncho while exploring for mummy caves in northern Mexico, and the best available English poncho often in the high Andes of Peru and occasionally in Venezuelan jungles.
Our new poncho’s long cylindrical neck piece, with its draw cord to close it rain-tight, and other improvements made that poncho more practical for use as a rain canopy or improvised tent than the U.S. Marines’ poncho, or conventional civilian ones.
Most of those 100 ponchos made in Panama were the only ponchos being used by U.S. Army soldiers when I showed General Joseph W. Stilwell one of them and he ordered hundreds of thousands of that design for his American and Chinese troops in Burma, as recounted in Chapter 11. By that time Natick Laboratory had been working for a few months on other poncho designs. The Panama-style ones ordered by Stilwell were quickly manufactured, using a variety of readily available materials.
Significantly, a few weeks before the beginning of expedited production of the ponchos for General Stilwell’s planned Chinese/American forces for the reconquest of Burma, the Philadelphia Depot of the Office of the Quartermaster General bought 50 Marine Corps ponchos for field testing. In Clothing the Soldier of World War II, Q.M.C. Historical Studies No. 16, September 1946, on page 86, under “B. Ponchos”:
On July 27, 1942, some fifty ponchos, made in the design used by the Marine Corps, were ordered for testing by the Quartermaster Board. They were to be tested along with the synthetic resin-coated raincoats to determine the practicality of the poncho in comparison with the raincoat. In its report the Quartermaster Board recommended that the poncho not be considered a substitute for the standard issue raincoat.
The Q.M.C. historical study does not recount that demands for ponchos, made by fighting generals from North African deserts to South Pacific jungles and Burma, resulted in emergency procurement of synthetic resin-coated ponchos. It merely states: “First purchases of ponchos were made in October 1942.” No mention is made of the hundreds of thousands of ponchos demanded by and produced for General Stilwell. Embarrassments are forgotten sooner if unrecorded. The first tens of thousands were delivered to Ramgarh, which became the training center in India for Merrill’s Marauders and for Chinese regiments equipped and trained by Americans. The development of hoodless coated-nylon ponchos for jungle troops, which “saved 1 pound, 13 ounces in weight over the synthetic resin-coated poncho...” is summarized in the official historical study cited above.
Not until after the tides of war had turned disastrously against the Japanese was a satisfactory poncho with a hood, essentially the Army’s present model, designed and produced in test quantities. Unexpectedly, the principal designer was not a man in uniform or a Civil Service specialist; he was a civilian product designer with no military background. Major General E. B. Gregory, the Quartermaster General during World War II, and other leaders in Washington had decided that our troops soon would need hooded ponchos in the cold rains and snows of Europe. (The Marines still had ponchos, but, like the Army’s early World War II models and the ponchos issued in the Spanish American War, they had no hoods.) Unwilling to tolerate the months required by the Army’s laboratories and official boards to design and approve even a simple new item, General Gregory retained Raymond Lowey, Inc., a private firm with a reputation for being creative and getting things done in a hurry. The hooded poncho prototype was almost completed when I, then on temporary duty in Washington, was ordered by General Gregory to go to Raymond Lowey’s headquarters in New York to see if I could suggest improvements. During a full day in that high-pressure firm I was unable to contribute anything of consequence other than to recommend, following a suggestion made by May, my bride, that the hood extend farther forward so it could be adjusted to cover the forehead. The principal designer, whose name I have forgotten, was a bundle of frayed nerves who had his sewing machine operators immediately make rough prototypes incorporating new ideas. Not burdened by established concepts as to how ponchos should be made, in a couple of weeks he had investigated more different designs of ponchos that also could be used for tents, canopies, and sleeping bags than a typical Government organization could make and evaluate in many months. He paid a personal price for working frantically; at lunch he ordered only crackers and milk, saying his stomach ulcers were bothering him. Expedited production of hooded ponchos helped many thousands of our troops in Europe.
Certainly the armed forces of the United States will become less well equipped and less able to protect our interests if cost-cutting measures force them to stop using creative civilian consultants, who thrive in competitive America.
Fortunately for the G.I.s and Marines who later fought in the frigid rains and snows of Korea, by then the Cold War had stimulated improvements in some equipment. Hooded ponchos made of coated nylon cloth, colored solid olive drab, had been thoroughly tested, standardized, produced, and issued.