From a lifetime of personal field experience, single-minded dedication and involve- ment in four wars, Cresson H. Kearny offers here a detailed description and understanding of many of the major problems, solutions and specialized personal equipments — much of his own invention and design — necessary for US foot soldiers to survive and prevail in jungle combat.
Born in San Antonio, Texas just prior to World War I, Cresson demonstrated before age six his ability to handle guns in hunting small game. In his early teens his interest in military affairs and jungle environments was ignited by a summer trip to the Orient, where he visited Japan and spent several weeks with his Uncle Charlie, a US Army major assigned to the Philippines. Upon return he attended the Texas Military Institute, where he lettered in track and the rifle team, and graduated in 1932 as Valedictorian and Battalion Commander. A further year at Mercersburg Academy launched him on a scholarship at Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1937 with highest honors, a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and a Rhodes Scholarship. Attending Queen’s College at Oxford in 1937-9, he inaugurated his lifelong devotion to democracy and freedom by serving during the Munich crisis as courier for a British underground group spiriting Jews out of Czechoslovakia. Along the way, he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in geology and represented Oxford against Cambridge in track and swimming. This combination of physical and mental exertion in behalf of freedom has constituted the hallmark of his life.
After graduation from Oxford he served as a geologist with a mapping expedition of the Royal Geographic Society in the Peruvian Andes; and later as exploration geologist in the jungles of Venezuela, for which his employer, Standard Oil, provided excellent personal equipment. Becoming impatient with the Venezuelan government’s fear-motivated subservience to Nazi objectives after the fall of France, and believing that the United States would soon have to fight Japan, he quit his job, packed his specialized jungle gear and reported for active duty in Texas as an Army Reserve first lieutenant.
In February 1941 a lucky encounter with Major General Walter Prosser, then Commander of the Panama Mobile Force, led to Cresson’s transfer to Panama as Jungle Experiments Officer eight months prior to Pearl Harbor. There, building upon his knowledge gained in the Orinoco jungles, he developed and tested with the first Jungle Platoon many specialized equipments for the combat foot soldier. Impressed with a demonstration of these equipments, Lt. Gen. Frank Andrews, Head of the US Caribbean Defense Command, sent him to Washington to promote their adoption by the Army. There, he and his equipment met with strong resistance from the entrenched Engineer Corps. Some months later, however, his breath-inflated river-crossing boat received enthusiastic support from General Joseph Stilwell, who ordered several thousand of these inexpensive boats for use of his US and Chinese forces in the China-Burma-India theater. This proved the turning point, and Cresson spent most of the war in Panama developing and testing specialized equipments for US combat forces worldwide. This work was recognized in 1943 by award of the Legion of Merit. After three years in this role, and feeling that his rapid advancement to the rank of Captain and then Major should be justified by being closer to the action, he volunteered for assignment to the Office of Strategic Services.
Sent by the OSS to the mountains of southeast China, he witnessed the pathetic plight of hordes of Chinese noncombatants fleeing before the onrushing Japanese forces. In the course of his tour in China he contracted a viral disease that virtually incapacitated him intermittently for years, and that still recurs periodically and is still unidentified.
Despite frequent bouts of illness during the Korean War, he contributed to the development of frogman gear under National Research Council auspices. Then with the growing Soviet nuclear threat he turned his attention to issues of survival — both military and civilian — under nuclear attack. Working first at Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute, then hired by Nobel Laureate Professor Eugene Wigner into the Atomic Energy Commission’s Civil Defense R&D program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Cresson designed and personally constructed numerous do-it-yourself civil defense shelters, a homemakeable fallout radiation meter and other nuclear-survival equipments, and edited and published a translation of the most comprehensive Soviet Handbook on Civil Defense. Finally he described these developments in an Oak Ridge National Laboratory manual on Nuclear War Survival Skills, of which more than 400,000 copies have been printed privately by various organizations and sold worldwide.
It was at this point (1967) that Cresson brought to me, in my capacity as Science Advisor (MACSA) to General Westmoreland, COMUSMACV, designs and exemplars of many of his WW II special equipments for the foot soldier that had been allowed to drop out of the Army inventory despite being clearly of great utility to our combat forces in Viet Nam. Finally gaining an audience in the Pentagon, he persuaded General Harold Johnson, then Army Chief of Staff, to order large-scale production of these nonstandard equipments using the latest advances in materials. For those efforts he was awarded the Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service in 1972.
Not least amongst Cresson’s Viet Nam contributions was his provision of hundreds of waterproof wrist compasses, bought with personal funds, that served as welcome calling cards and conversation openers for all MACSA personnel visiting units in the field. But his hope to stimulate issuance of waterproof compasses was thwarted when the Army ordered only a nonwaterproof model.
Still concerned with the needs of the combat foot soldier, when the Gulf War erupted Cresson rapidly developed and tested a plastic sleeve-like bag to protect GI rifles and other small arms from desert sand. These bags were produced and supplied to US units in the hundreds of thousands. This contribution was recognized by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in 1992 by the award of the Department of Defense Certificate of Appreciation in Support of Operations in the Persian Gulf.
Cresson Kearny’s crowning achievement is this convincing chronicle of the benefits stemming from his development and testing of specialized equipments for the US jungle infantryman — benefits once available but yet again largely lost through avoidable snafus. These snafus could be ended if only those in charge of Army and Marine procurement would heed the cogent lessons described herein so vividly.
W. G. McMillan
Los Angeles, 1994