11 ways to improve your GI impression
The World War Two G.I.
In The ETO
Written: Summer 2005
Author: Michael B. Kirby
Member: 2nd Squad Living History Group
This article is intended to help new and veteran living historians improve their impression. We claim that we are involved in this hobby to educate, so to be taken seriously by the public, museums and historians it is of the greatest importance to be correct. I implore you to do the research when assembling an impression. Look at as many pictures as possible, read 1st hand accounts. Familiarize yourself with not only the military history of WW2 but also the popular culture of America in the 1940’s There is so much out there that there should be no excuse to have a hap hazard impression.
Let’s start with headgear. Get a decent WW2 period helmet with a good H.B.T. webbed liner. They are out there and easy to find. A front seem is the preferred style of helmet although the rear seem did see use during WW2. It should also have khaki chinstraps with the proper hook style fasteners. The OD #7 straps are great for a late war impression although they too would have had the hook style fastening devise and not the later T-1 ball and clevis fastener. Again do the research! Find the correct style helmet! There is a great web site for this: www.m-1helmet.com
As far as fatigue caps, the hbt short or long billed caps are appropriate for a fatigue and garrison impression but I have seen very few pictures of soldiers actually wearing these in combat in the ETO. The hat that I have seen worn most in the ETO is the jeep cap. Buy a good quality jeep cap. Do not get the surplus store special! They are to far off from the originals. They are not at all correct. One beef that I have is all of the guys wearing the white snow camo during the Battle of the Bulge events. There were a precious few soldiers who actually received any type of new clothing during this period let alone snow camo clothing. There were only so many white sheets to go around taken or donated from Belgian civilians. It would have been unusual to see so many soldiers dressed in snow camo. Yes I have seen the pictures of soldiers in snow camo but they are the exception and not the norm!! Ok back on track.
3.) Fatigue Uniforms
Get a good set of HBT’s for garrison themed events. These were fatigues or coveralls used to protect your wool uniform, based on the coveralls worn by civilian mechanics in garages to protect them from getting their cloths oily etc. They were worn over top of your wool uniform. They were rarely worn in combat by combat infantrymen aside form those worn during amphibious landings to protect the wool uniform. Again… do the research. Would it be appropriate to wear HBT’s during the winter months in Belgium without wools underneath? How many pictures have you seen of this? You are the scholar, the historian. Your Impression is the book, the thesis that you have researched. I wouldn’t let my kids read a book that wasn’t researched or was poorly researched or be taught by a teacher that didn’t know his material. We don’t want to mislead those we are trying to educate!
One of the biggest mistakes I see living historians make is their choice of t-shirts. For the books, there were no brown crew neck t-shirts worn or issued during WW2. These are worn by the modern military. I could be wrong but I don’t even think that there were OD green crew neck t-shirts issued or worn during WW2 (with the exception of those worn by the USMC in the pacific). I do know that the army issued non ribbed white and OD tank top style t-shirts during WW2. This style was gathered at the shoulders. As a side note you can get a very good representative of the white version at your local Kholes store! Crew neck t-shirts were worn by civilians and also worn in the army but they were not to similar to the Haines or Fruit of the Loom that we wear now. They were tight fitting and the sleeves rode up your arm, they were short. They did not have the thick neckband like modern t-shirts. The neck opening was much larger. The material was much thinner. Remember, cloths during the 40’s were form fitting! That was the fashion even with civilian clothing. The closest thing that I have seen to a 1940’s style crew neck is the Haines Her Way. Don’t laugh! Really these are extremely close! I have both types of originals in my collection and they are both what I would consider to be totally acceptable. Stay away from the “homeboy” style large cut crew neck t-shirts they are TOTALLY wrong. I always see airborne re-enactors using these with the AB school logo. What a bunch of farbs! As far as drawers go, I choose to wear originals that I have in my collection. There are several reputable militaria dealers that sell both original and reproduction underwear. I have collected WW1 and WW2 militaria since I was 12 years old so I have an edge on a lot of the new guys as far as good original examples to compare reproductions to. I am giving you a lot of my SECRETS!! Again my intention is to help the living history community and to make sure that we put on the best possible impression we can.
5.) Service Uniform
The uniform worn by most combat soldiers in the ETO was the wool trouser and shirt. I don’t want to go into to much detail on these. But I will add that if you aren’t lucky enough to be a small guy like I am, than the chances of finding original wool trousers and shirts will be slim to none. For all you new guys who have no idea what I am talking about please get the book “Government Issue” G.I. clothing of the European Theater of Operations. It’s a relly good resource for clothing and equipment used in WW2. There are some pretty good reproduction wool uniforms out there so there’s really no excuse to not have the proper issued wool pants and shirt.
Socks are probably one of the tougher parts of an impression. I don’t know of any dead on good reproductions of the issue sock. I do have several original pairs and they are made of wool and cotton blend. The combat issue socks were a gray oatmeal type color and the dress socks that I have are beige / khaki and dark olive drab. These are not at all like the modern green military socks that are sold and used by many living historians. For events in the spring, summer and fall I usually wear either khaki or dark olive drab dress socks. They are as close to the originals in my collection as I can find. For winter events I wear gray colored cotton dress socks. They are fairly close and will do in a pinch. Please somebody make a good reproduction sock!!! There was however a very good number of socks sent from home (if they were not stolen) so socks can really vary. G.I.’s in the field always wanted a clean dry pair of socks!
There are several pairs of good reproduction boots and there are a few bad pairs! I have originals of most types of boots so again I have the edge of being able to determine a good repro from a bad one. The soles are important. Lug soles were not used on boots issued to the common GI, some very rare exceptions existed – such as lug soled mountain boots, or lug soled British commando boots. What I am referring to is the French Ranger boots with the vibram type soles that are commonly sold as “Reproduction/Surplus Buckle Combat Boots”. I bought a pair of ranger boots and compared them to several pairs of original buckle boots in my collection. Obviously the soles are wrong. The cuff portion where the buckles are located is in one piece and the buckles are wrong as well as the cut of the boot. In my opinion they aren’t a good bet for doing WW2 living history. If you want to do a French foreign legion impression in Cambodia they are 100%! Go with a trusted company that makes actual reproduction WW2 boots. You can get early war cap toe ankle boots, rough out ankle boots and M-43 buckle boots. There are some really good reproductions out there but be aware you get what you pay for! My peeve with people who buy WW2 reproduction buckle and ankle boots is that they buy them and wear them. WRONG WRONG WRONG! Buy them, water proof them with sno-seal or another type of dubbing and saddle soap the hell out of them!!! You want to break them in before you wear them. They need to be darkened in most cases. The suede nap should be flattened and DARK! Don’t wear them fresh out of the box!
8.) Field Jacket
In most cases for your infantry impression you will be wearing the M-41 or M43 field jacket. The M-41 or Parsons jacket was used from 1941 through 1945. The M-43 jacket started to be phased into combat troops in the fall of 1944 in the ETO. There are a couple decent reproduction jackets out there although I don’t know of a dead on jacket for either. The wool lining of most reproduction M-41 jackets is way off.
Please if you have to wear glasses get a pair that are vintage. This is another peeve of mine. I have seen so many good impressions blown by modern glasses. Don’t think that you can get away with today’s modern wire rimed glasses, they are not correct and in most cases bare no resemblance at all to 1940’s period eyeglasses. Eyeglasses of the 30’s and 40’s were usually rounder in shape than modern glasses. I have several original pairs that I use for display. Again do the research! Look in period Life magazines. There are tons of adds in most popular magazines that show eyewear. I have yet to see any oval glasses that were used in the 1940’s aside from granny glasses worn by older people in the 30’s and 40’s that look more 19th century than WW2. You can get a really good pair of original glasses at any local antiques mall for from 5- 25 dollars! There are a few good optometrists’ who can make lenses for them at a reasonable price.
If you must wear a watch make sure that it is vintage or a good reproduction of a vintage watch. Again don’t wear a watch that you are not sure of. If it says quarts on the face its wrong. There were no quarts watches in WW2. Most modern military watches that people wear are not correct for a WW2 impression. The makers are wrong the face is wrong and usually the strap is wrong. Timex did not make watches during WW2. They started making cheap watches in the early 50’s. Popular watch brands included: Hamilton, Gruen, Waltham and Bulova. You can get an excellent reproduction Gruen “Curvex” at your local Value City for under 20.00. The key again is research! Look in any period magazine and you will see advertisements for watches. This will give you a good idea of what was popular at that time. For all you military watch types, I talked to a veteran who said that more than anything they wanted civilian style watches. These were real popular on the black market. Every G.I. wanted one. I asked him why he didn’t prefer the military style watch. He said : look we were mostly draftees! We didn’t want stuff that was G.I. issue. We ate slept and drank G.I. so anytime we could get away with anything civilian we would do it! Bottom line: Just because it has an OD strap and luminous dial doesn’t mean that its authentic enough for a WW2 impression.
Who were these people that lived in the 1940’s? What defined them? This is as important as your uniform impression. Without knowing what made these people tick NOBODY can possibly come close to representing them. You might know the TM’s inside and out and be able to disassemble an M-1 rifle blindfolded but that simply doesn’t cut the mustard if you have no idea about the material culture of the era in which you are representing. A good way to familiarize your self with this is to immerse yourself in the 1940’s. What music was popular? What sports were popular? Radio shows, foods, magazines, hairstyles, the list goes on. I can’t express how truly important this is! I see so many young kids (and adults) coming into this hobby because they want to play “Medal of Honor “ for real, or because they just saw Band Of Brothers and want to be a paratrooper! There is a serious lack of knowledge in this area. It is IMPERATIVE to be familiar with this time period, especially when you do a public event!!! Pick up some period magazines, read a period newspaper, watch period movies. There are many ways that you can become familiar with the 40’s. Be creative! As long as you are constantly trying to improve your impression and doing the research there is no one that will consider you to be a FARB!
In closing, keep in mind that unlike today’s army of volunteers, over half of the soldiers that served during WW2 were draftees. They were not career military men. Many would have never chosen to join the service if they were not drafted. They bitched and complained about being in the army. They came from all walks of life. They had a job to do and they wanted to get home as soon as possible. They came home, had children, went to collage and tried to attain the great American dream. They were humble people and rarely talked of the war. None regretted being in the war. Keep this in mind when you put your impression together!
I hope that I have helped or at least enlightened one person.
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