Wow, going through my old stuff, I found my Army Air Force survival vest. I bought this in a surplus shop way back when I first started studying survival. I remember that I was able to cram all the stuff recommended in my class into it, and then some. Very useful option for carrying survival supplies, although “real” ones are collectors items and thus are expensive these days ($100 and up). There are modern reproductions for the “civilian”, with no holster, being made for half the price, but they appear to have replaced the big inner pockets with small pockets where the holster was. Plus, they appear to have a solid back, which means you have to get the correct size and don’t have much flexibility what you wear it with.
First of all, note that the (original) vest is short and only the “front half” of a vest, with the back being held together with cloth ties. Obviously, it was designed to not interfere with the harness or cause any problems between the pilot and his parachute. They were designed to be worn OVER the flight suit and leather jacket and UNDER the flak jacket, Mae West and parachute. This sometimes caused problems, so sometimes it was carried in a bag and then donned after bailing out.
There were 3 versions; mine is the 3rd, with vertical rather than slanted pockets, and all snap closures. According to the histories I’ve read, some were shipped filled, and some shipped empty to be filled by the receiving quartermaster, so the contents varied from vest to vest. Also, there was a problem with contents “vanishing” before the vest reached the pilot, so they started sewing the pockets shut after filling them.
Some of the labels on mine are still legible; let’s see what the Army Air Force determined their pilots needed in a survival kit.
At the top on the right front, there is a small pocket which is pretty well worn off. My best guess is 1) First Aid. Below that is a bigger pocket, labeled 2) Personal items. Below that is a medium, horizontal, end opening pocket labeled 3). The contents are too worn off to guess at, but other sources seem to indicate this was a sharpening stone and a larger folding knife; possibly with a saw blade. Below that is a larger, horizontal pocket labeled 4) Signal Mirror, Rations. And at the bottom is a thinner, horizontal pocket labeled 5) Flare. The rations appear to be have been in cans, with a “key” opener stuck to the bottom of each.
The left front mirrors the right front, except there is no small pocket at the top. The pockets are labeled 6) Personal Items, 7) Cartridges, 8) Rations and 9) Flare. Under the left armpit is a holster for a 1911 .45 automatic. And behind this is a tall pocket labeled 10) Personal Items.
Below the right armpit are 3 short, wide, horizontal, side opening pockets. From top to bottom, they are labeled 12) Fire Starter, S Knife, Whistle, Burning Glass, 1?) fishing ?, ?, ?, and 16) Insect Repellent. Behind these is a tall pocket labeled 11) Personal Items.
Inside, there is a large flat pocket on each side. The right side one reads: 15) Inst. Book, Hat, Gloves, Gaff Assembly. The left side one reads: 1?) Container, Cooking, Mosquito Head Net, Bandana, Goggles, Tissue, Canteen. These pockets are not gusseted, so it is surprising they are designed to contain such relatively thick items. Plus, it would seem that the bulky items might make this more difficult to wear.
It is odd there are so many and so large pockets for “personal items”; what all would a pilot take with him on a mission? I’m thinking this might be “personal SURVIVAL items”, chosen based on location, weather, mission, pilot preference, etc. For instance, some vests are shown with an evasion map drawn on silk cloth.
As a comparison/sanity check, I found this alleged basic list of contents on the web:
- Box of 20 .45 caliber shells (for pistol) (per my pocket 7)
- Waterproof match case with compass
- Accessory kit containing fire starter tabs, pocket knife, oiler, whistle, razor and razor blades (similar to my pocket 12)
- First aid kit (per my pocket 1)
- Fishing and sewing kit (similar to one of my pockets with indecipherable number)
- Two bladed 5 inch knife (guessed at for my pocket 3)
- ESM-2 signalling mirror (per my pocket 4)
- Emergency parachute ration (per my pockets 4 & 8)
- Insect repellent (can) (per my pocket 16)
- Sharpening stone (guessed at for my pocket 3)
- Five minute signalling flares (per my pocket 5 & 9)
- Waterproof plastic pistol cover
- Type D-3 leather gloves and inserts (per my pocket 15)
- Reversible yellow safety cloth hat (per my pocket 15)
- Survival manual (Similar to my pocket 15)
- Mosquito head net (per my indecipherable interior pocket)
- Spit and gaff assembly (per my pocket 15)
- Type H01 folding sun goggles (per my indecipherable interior pocket)
- Plastic three pint water bladder (per my indecipherable interior pocket)
- Gauze bandage (shell dressing)
- Instruction/contents manual (Similar to my pocket 15)
Let’s see how this compares with our ideas (or at least my ideas). With a signal mirror, whistle and flares, signalling is pretty good. No flashlight, but that was not practical in those days (LEDs were not ubiquitous). Fire starting seems adequate, with fire tabs and matches (or possibly other ignition sources). The knives might have been fine. Navigation was probably adequate with either a compass in the match safe, or according to some sources, in a pocket. Sometimes this was paired with that silk map.
How well would it handle the conditions listed by the rule of threes? Well, the .45 could help you not be shot in 3 seconds, and the first aid kit hopefully could deal with severe bleeding within 3 minutes. Shelter (3 hours) was a bit of a problem, since there was no “space” blanket (not available then) and no “tarp” or cord to make shelter. However, the pilot did wear a flight suit and leather jacket, and with the hat and gloves in the vest, this might have been adequate against moderate cold until adequate shelter could be built from local materials. The sun goggles would protect against dust, sun and snow blindness. There did not appear to be any protection from wetness, unless the flight suit/jacket/hat were waterproofed. Protection against insects seemed quite good. A sewing kit was included to repair clothing.
Three days (water, illness, sprains, broken bones) may or may not have been a problem. There was a bladder for water, but no purification method listed. I’m pretty sure at least some kits included purification tablets, though, and I suppose with a “cooking container”, you might be able to boil water. There is not a definitive listing of what was in the first aid kit, so longer term medical care could have been good or not so good. The bandana or per some sources, triangular bandage, would be useful for many injuries as well as other purposes.
Three weeks (food) was pretty good, with rations and a fishing kit. Although by many accounts, the rations in those days were pretty dismal.
Looks like the Army Air Force had a clue back in those days. Not to say I’d consider this an optimal kit these days, but it could easily be “enhanced” to be quite adequate. And I would think most “belt pack” sized kits could be crammed into a vest like this.