When West Point’s Football Helmets Went to War
America remained neutral in 1940 despite wars raging in Europe and Asia. Since most understood those wars threatened our neutrality, the nation took steps to prepare for war, including Congress approving the Selective Training and Selection Act, which allowed America's first peacetime draft. Beyond mobilizing men and munitions manufacturing, the American armed forces also took steps to build new capabilities.
The war in Europe showed that advances in armor and aviation had changed many battle tactics since WWI, with the Soviet Union and Germany experimenting with paratroopers. The U.S. Army created its first paratrooper unit in 1940, which required developing the gear and tactics to ensure their safety and success.
The helmet worn by paratroopers was among the gear needing development. The Army's then standard-issue helmet was the soup bowl-shaped Brodie helmet designed for the trenches of WWI; it ripped off when worn by men jumping from airplanes. The M1 helmet used in WWII was still in the future and, even after it became available, it needed modifications for use by paratroopers. So, the Army looked into using football helmets to protect their jumpers' heads.
Fortunately for American paratroopers, the Riddell Company of Evanston, Illinois, had just released the most significant innovation in player equipment in football's history: the plastic helmet. Riddell designed the helmet to prevent skull fractures; the helmet had a plastic outer shell and an innovative web suspension system that kept the wearer's head from banging against the plastic shell. Also, the system included a chin strap anchored on the chin rather than looping under the jaw like its leather helmet predecessors. The suspension system and chin strap proved so valuable the U.S. military licensed it for the twenty-two million M1 helmets produced during WWII.
Northwestern University, located down the road from Riddell, was the first team to wear plastic helmets in a game when they did so in their 1940 season opener against Syracuse. Several other colleges tested the helmets that year as well. Interestingly, the helmet's plastic shell was transparent and paint did not adhere well to the exterior, so Riddell or each team's equipment managers painted the inside of the shell in the appropriate team colors. More on that in a minute.
While the paratroopers investigated potential helmets to use in training, they learned West Point's football team had acquired Riddell plastic helmets for use in the upcoming 1941 season. Painted gold with a black metal bar running along the top, the Cadets lent their new helmets to the paratroopers, provided the jumpers returned them before fall practice. The helmets tested at Fort Benning proved suitable for the airborne -other than a few tweaks- and Riddell soon developed a modified version for the military.
Restrictions on the supply of plastics led Riddell to stop production of plastic helmets for the football market, so they shifted to the airborne version. Notably, Riddell, a supplier to the sporting goods market, did not stock the olive drab paint the Army slathered on everything, so the earliest airborne helmets were shipped to Fort Benning unpainted. A few shipped in West Point gold and black, while later shipments were painted olive drab.
An interesting sidelight of the WWII paratrooper helmet story involves the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB), often called the Triple Nickles (misspelling intentional). America's armed services were segregated at the unit level during WWII, and the Triple Nickles were the Army's only paratroop unit comprised of black soldiers. They underwent the same training regimen as their white counterparts at Fort Benning, but did not ship to Europe or the Pacific after their training. Instead, they were sent to the Pacific Northwest, arriving in May 1945 to battle forest fires as part of Operation Firefly.
Fighting forest fires was a worthy wartime activity because virtually all supplies shipped in wooden crates, so interruptions in lumber supplies would have been problematic. However, unlike today, climate change did not cause forest fires in the Western U.S. and Canada in 1944 and 1945. Instead, a primary threat came from the nine-thousand high-altitude balloons launched by Japan that carried explosive and incendiary bombs across the Pacific Ocean, some traveling as far as Michigan. While only 300 or so are known to have completed the crossing, they started fires in the Northwest, and one balloon bomb, found by a group of picnicking children, exploded, killing six.
To fight this problem, the 555th shipped to Pendleton, Oregon and from there covered multiple states, even British Columbia, making 1,200 jumps into thirty-six fires to help pioneer "smoke jumping." Whereas military strategists planning a combat jump could target the drops at open fields, the 555th often jumped into the middle of forests since that's where the fires were. Not needing the M-1 combat helmet, they jumped wearing the Riddell plastic helmets, often with lacrosse or fencing shields to protect their faces from tree branches and the like.
Although the war with Japan ended in August 1945, the 555th remained operational until December 1947. They were immediately reactivated as the 3rd Battalion, 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment, making them the first black unit integrated into an otherwise white American combat unit. In effect, the airborne integrated before President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in July 1948.
Although the role of plastic helmets faded in the military, a new battle arose regarding their role on the football field. Opposition to plastic helmets centered on injuries caused to other players when hit by the helmet's hard plastic shell. For example, Harvard's quarterback broke his leg in 1948 when struck by a plastic helmet, and their Athletic Director, William Bingham, called for a ban on plastic helmet. Bingham, who chaired the NCAA rules committee, announced a ban on plastic helmets by the 1950 season. However, the rules committee never approved the ban because most believed the protection offered to those wearing plastic helmets outweighed the potential harm to other players. The battle of leather versus plastic helmets continued into the early 1960s. By that time, nearly everyone had adopted plastic helmets, face masks, and mouth guards that dramatically reduced skull fractures and various facial and dental injuries.
Of course, football and the military again share an interest in helmet design as both need help addressing CTE. Hopefully, future designs will reduce the prevalence of the injuries, just as earlier designs offered mechanical protection to prevent the more immediate injuries concerns of their day.
Additional images of American paratroopers in training are available on the Flickr account of Belgium's Wouter Has. Special thanks to Jim Bartlinski, Director of the U.S. Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum at Fort Bragg, for providing numerous documents and images related to this story.
If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to my newsletter or check out my books.