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Where Did It Come From? Armor With A Mystery
03-23-2007, 01:08 PM,
Where Did It Come From? Armor With A Mystery
Where Did It Come From? Armor with a mystery
WWI helmet excavated in Vancouver based on medieval design

[Image: 0321armorwideczf5.jpg]
Vancouver, Wash. Soldiers from Vancouver have fought in a lot of history-changing battles, but that long list of campaigns does not include the Crusades.

So where -- and when -- did that visored steel helmet excavated near Fort Vancouver come from?

It looks for all the world like a relic of the slash-and-stab era of medieval combat, and that's actually what inspired its design. But the artifact at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is a rare example of a World War I experiment.

The helmet also represents a big chunk of history that still is waiting to be put on display: the U.S. military's role at Vancouver Barracks.

"Our focus has been on the fur trade, from the early 1800s up to 1860, when the Hudson's Bay Company left," said Tessa Langford, National Park Service curator at the Fort.

The steel helmet was recovered during excavations just northeast of the reconstructed fort in 1971, said Bob Cromwell, a National Park Service archaeologist. It probably was manufactured by the Ford Motor Co. in November 1918, Cromwell said.

It's officially a U.S. Army Model 8 helmet, Cromwell said, and only 1,300 were made.

"We don't have any other information on it," said Heidi Pierson, National Park Service archeological technician.

While the face-plate helmet was an experiment, it was inspired by a time-tested design, said Les Jensen, curator of arms and armor at the West Point Museum.

"It's part of a group of helmets designed by Bashford Dean," Jensen said by phone from the U.S. Military Academy in New York. "He was a major in the ordnance department and assigned to design body armor. He also was curator of arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

"A lot of the helmets he designed had a very medieval look because he was copying what was in the collection. A whole bunch of these experimental helmets were designed. One or two actually saw some service, but the vast majority never made it past the experimental stage," Jensen said.

"It's beyond me how this particular helmet ended up at the Vancouver Barracks, where the Army was busy running the Spruce Production Division plant," building wooden components for World War I military aircraft, Cromwell said.

Still a current topic

The helmet is an early echo of a discussion we still hear today: How can we do a better job of protecting our troops?

Soldiers on both sides were hunkered down in trenches during World War I, but artillery-shell fragments still created heavy casualties.

"They were worried about aerial bursts," Jensen said.

French, British and German soldiers were equipped with helmets when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, and American troops used the British style.

Some German helmets could be rigged with a detachable steel face plate, said Frank Hanner, director of the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Ga. "If they were a sniper or machine gunner, on top of a trench, they could put on a visor piece."

According to some reports, the Germans' helmet options included a partial steel mask that only covered the left side of the face. It's something of a "Phantom of the Opera" look, but it gave the soldier a clear view with his right eye as he aimed his weapon.

The visor slit in the Fort Vancouver helmet, meanwhile, is only a quarter of an inch: A soldier with his visor down wasn't going to get a good look at the enemy. That's why the face plate was supposed to be worn in the up position, except during long periods of waiting when soldiers weren't firing their weapons, or when risk of casualties was great, Hanner said.

"We have an even weirder piece of body armor," said Jensen, the West Point curator. "It looks like the Tin Man out of the Wizard of Oz. It had some things going for it, but when all was said and done, the whole concept of body armor was related to static warfare. If there was anything Gen. John J. Pershing wanted to do, it was to get out of the trenches and get moving."

Exhibits may expand

While the military academy's Model 8 helmet is on display at the West Point museum, Fort Vancouver's experimental helmet will remain in storage, along with other reminders of Vancouver's long tenure as an Army town.

But the site's National Park Service staff is looking to expand the focus, and "Word is starting to get out now," said Langford, the Fort's curator.

People have dropped off heirlooms of their family's military past, including uniform parts and other clothing from the 1800s.

"We haven't even been able to catalogue a lot of it," Langford said.

Archivists also are coming across items known as "ephemera." The term includes menus, concert programs, transportation schedules, bulletin-board notices and other things -- usually thrown away -- that reflect day-to-day life at Vancouver Barracks.

Some of the artifacts provide more questions than answers, like a well-worn belt buckle that shows an eagle astride a railroad handcar: "Very much an oddball," according to the members of the archaeology team.

They haven't been able to find a matching emblem in any other collection. Their best guess connects the buckle with a U.S. Army unit that visited Vancouver in the 1850s. The unit was surveying the region for possible railroad routes, which provides a plausible link with the buckle's emblem.

That tale remains to be told, and it's not the only one, Pierson said as she looked around the storage area.

"There are a million stories here," Pierson said.
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