News | July 16, 2019

U.S. Army Field Artillery Museum lets uniforms tell modern Army history

By Mitch Meador

As behind-the-scenes work on the U.S. Army Field Artillery Museum's new gallery creeps quietly forward, the museum at Fort Sill, Oklahoma tells an ever-more-complete story of the branch's history in uniforms.

"Throughout the museum we have uniforms on exhibit, and starting with the World War I uniforms, all of those uniforms in the cases are original and they're complete from head to toe," Field Artillery Museum Director Gordon Blaker said.

Three cabinets, each containing three glass-paned exhibit cases with two uniforms per case, have been added to the new gallery, which depicts field artillery history from 1950 to the present. Some of the 18 uniforms came out of the north gallery, where additional new uniforms replaced them, Blaker noted.

The nine new cases house both friendly and enemy uniforms from the Korean War up to present day.

For Korea, "we have an American Korean War uniform, which is really a World War II winter uniform, because most of the uniforms worn in combat during the Korean War were the World War II-model uniforms or ones that came out (about) 1948. They weren't the model 1951 winter uniforms, which were developed because of the Korean War, but most of that clothing and equipment did not make it over there while the fighting was going on," Blaker explained.

Instead, the troops wore WWII ski parkas, what was sometimes called a "bunny cap,' and a WWII version of the winter boots.

Opposite the American Soldier in the same case is a "Chi-Com" or Chinese Communist uniform -- all original and complete, which was very difficult to do, the director said.

"Some of the items were in the Army museum system, and I got those transferred here. And then I hunted down and acquired the other pieces," he said. "It's a quilted uniform, which was very warm, but then if it got wet you had a serious problem on your hands, because it's not at all waterproof. That quilting just soaks up the water."

The second case contains a khaki Army uniform of the 1950s worn up through the Vietnam War. It belonged to Capt. (later Maj.) Charles Clime, an officer who was an aerial forward observer during World War II and the Korean War.

Beside it is the model 1951 uniform widely worn in the last part of the Korean War and after the war; American Soldiers stationed in Germany frequently wore it, too. It has a newer-model field jacket and the famous "Mickey Mouse" boots, as they were dubbed. Blaker said these were "heavily insulated boots which caused your feet to perspire severely. In a lot of places they wouldn't even let you wear those because of the problems with them. But they could keep your feet warm in a very, very cold climate."

The third case has the herringbone twill, or HBT, uniform worn during WWII and the Korean War. It's a lightweight summer uniform that belonged to an artillery Soldier, Sgt. Patrick Henry Hayes, before he became an aviation warrant officer. He retired as a chief warrant officer 4.

Next to it is what Blaker terms one of the highlights: A Vietnam War prisoner of war uniform worn by Capt. William Reeder, the last American POW to be captured during the Vietnam War and to have also survived the war. He was a Cobra attack helicopter pilot. Next to his POW uniform is one photo of him taken before he was shot down, and another taken the day of his release.

"He donated this uniform back many years ago. He stayed in the Army after the Vietnam War," Blaker said.

The second cabinet has six uniforms from the Vietnam War. The fourth case contains an olive green 107 uniform used in the early part of the war. It was one of the Army's highly starched uniforms. Sharing the case is the jungle fatigue uniform that was much more practical for fighting in the jungles; museum volunteer Lynden Couvillion wore this one when he was a sergeant in Vietnam.

The fifth case houses the uniforms of two aerial rocket artillery pilots.

"Aerial rocket artillery — first the Huey gun ships and then the Cobra attack helicopters — were part of the artillery branch during the Vietnam War, and that's why they're in here," Blaker explained.

One is a one-piece flight suit, and the other a two-piece uniform made of the flame-retardant material Nomex. It has what the pilots commonly called a "chicken plate,' an armored vest to protect the wearer from ground fire while they were airborne.

"Also in the case we have the blood chit carried by airmen in WWII through the Vietnam War," Blaker said.

This was a cloth piece usually made of silk for added durability. Under an American flag at the top is the same message in a score of different languages: "I am a citizen of the United States of America. I do not speak your language. Misfortune forces me to seek your assistance in obtaining food, shelter, and protection. Please take me to someone who will provide for my safety and see that I am returned to my people. My government will reward you."

The backdrop for the sixth case is a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, president of North Vietnam from 1945 until his death on Sept. 2, 1969. In front of him are a North Vietnamese Army uniform and a uniform worn by the guerrilla forces that fought in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong.

"We've got those complete from head to toe along with some other items like a bamboo hand grenade, the dreaded punji stick, and even a punji ball," which would swing down out of the trees onto whoever was unfortunate enough to set off the tripwire, Blaker said. Oftentimes these weapons were smeared with poisons or other biohazards that would seal the victim's fate.

The third cabinet contains more current uniforms in cases seven through nine. The seventh case has one from the latter part of the Cold War (post-Vietnam War timeframe up to present day). It's a MOPP (mission-oriented protective posture) suit used to protect Soldiers from chemical or biological threats. Accouterments of the MOPP suit include its infamous "one size fits all" boots and the M17 gas mask.

40 years a Soldier
Next to it is the battle dress uniform worn by then 1st Lt. Brad Rittenhouse when he was operations officer for C Battery, 1st Battalion, 158th Field Artillery in 1997.

Rittenhouse had entered the North Carolina National Guard as a 13 Bravo cannoneer private in December 1979. In Operation Desert Storm he had the rank of staff sergeant and served as a Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) chief.

He went through Officer Candidate School in 1992-93 to be commissioned a second lieutenant. Now, nearly 40 years down the road, he serves as a lieutenant colonel and battalion commander for 2nd Battalion, 306th Field Artillery of the Georgia National Guard, headquartered at Fort Stewart, Ga. 

You can see a picture of him training at Fort Sill and read his life story on a card inside the case.

The eighth case contains uniforms worn by two Fort Sill Museum Directorate employees. On the right is Exhibit Specialist Zane Mohler's uniform from Operation Desert Storm that also saw service during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Mohler, a staff sergeant, served as an MLRS section chief.

To its left is the 2003 desert combat uniform worn by Fort Sill Director of Museums Frank Siltman when he was a lieutenant colonel serving in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Photos of Mohler and Siltman in theater accompany their respective uniforms.

The most recent uniform in the display, also made of Nomex, is an armored artillery uniform worn by a Soldier in a self-propelled M109 unit during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Beside it in the ninth case is the uniform worn by Lt. Rob Wright in Afghanistan.

Editor's note: The original story can be viewed on the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command website.