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Cleaning the Sword

Captain Charles F. Moore
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin, Spring 1990

Soldiering is dirty business. Since the Revolutionary War, the Quartermaster Corps has supplied clean, serviceable clothing to front line combat soldiers. One of General Mifflin’s earliest challenges was clothing procurement for Revolutionary soldiers while facing severe wool shortages, limited production capability, and no money.

The Quartermaster Corps has continually experimented with a variety of techniques to meet the clean clothing challenge. Usually, those techniques were determined by prevailing technology, the nature of the war, and the quality of the clothing.

From the Revolutionary War through the early 20th century, clean clothing was supplied to soldiers by replacing worn out, filthy uniforms with new ones. Clothing textiles and primitive construction techniques, coupled with the hard life of early soldiers and lack of laundry technology, simply did not support continual cleaning.

Whether slopping through mud, sweltering in tropical heat, or swimming in continuous rain, combat soldiers do not stay clean very long. Soldiers knew that clean clothing, when provided, did not come often. For the first 150 years of U.S. history, soldiers were left to their own devices for personal laundry. Most did not bother, and the result was substantial loss of combat power due to disease.

The health risk factors associated with poor personal hygiene were well known at the turn of the century. British forces established standards of field hygiene, appointed field sanitation officers, and published manuals on sanitation techniques-including clothing sanitation. Their pioneering efforts were a result of astronomical non-battle casualties. During the Crimean War, the English lost 21,000 soldiers to diseases. Regimental medical officers knew that clothing provided a perfect home for a persistent camp follower and disease carrier–the common louse (the “Greyback” of the Civil War and “Cootie” of World War I).

World War I marked the first real attempt to provide front line soldiers with clean clothes through laundering and sanitation. The “Cootie” problem and its inherent risk of massive nonbattle casualties, coupled with the advent of chemical warfare, jolted slow moving design and procurement activities into high gear.

French and English forces already had mobile laundries in the zone of operations and furnished many of the units first used by American Forces. The first American portable unit was completed in October 1917 by the Broadbent Portable Laundry Corporation and consisted of four trailers carrying the laundry equipment, two trailers carrying supplies, and a steam tractor as prime mover and power source. On the road, the system extended for more than 100 feet and was often associated with the arrival of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.

Laundry companies organized to operate the systems were staffed by one second lieutenant and 37 enlisted soldiers. These companies were separate organizations attached to armies, corps, or divisions based essentially on accessibility of the parent unit since the laundries needed hardstands, good roads, and considerable maneuver space.

World War I soldiers never had adequate laundry service. In 1917, General Pershing requested that every division embarking for France be assigned a mobile laundry. The first system arrived in Europe in May 1918, and three more were received in August. By Armistice Day in November, 24 units were in Europe. Capable of servicing 1,500 men per day, the units operated primarily in the rear. Most trench soldiers did not see clean uniforms until they were relieved from the front lines. This severe lack of laundry service resulted in “Cooties” living on more than 90 percent of American soldiers at the front. Following the war, mobile units were used for salvage, sanitation, and reclamation of clothing for return to storage.

In June 1940, renewed interest in mobile units led to fund allocation for study and design. The most significant technological achievement was the reduction in size from six trailers to one. Mounted on a semi-trailer, this system consisted of a washing machine, an extractor, and two steam-heated tumblers for drying clothes. The new system had obvious advantages over the old one in ease of concealment, maneuverability, and increased capacity. Contracts were let for 1,331 systems. By October 1942, several hundred had been shipped to mobile laundry companies to begin training.

Technological changes and innovations continued throughout World War II. The semitrailer design, although an improvement over the World War I model, was still too heavy and bulky. Several new designs were tested. One design shrank the equipment to fit onto two, two-wheeled trailers (precursor of our current system) and another ingenious design was for an “airborne” laundry.

The airborne laundry consisted of two skid-mounted units which were totally self-contained, needing only fuel, water, and oil to operate. It could be mounted in either a C-47 or a CG-4A glider. The system was designed to service soldiers at isolated sites far from fixed facilities, primarily on the islands of the South Pacific.

More significant than the development of new machines was the courage, perseverance, and Yankee ingenuity of the men who operated them. The 600th Quartermaster Laundry Company landed on Utah Beach on D+40 and followed VII Corps through the breakout at St. Lo. During the assault of the Siegfried Line from 18 September through 23 December, the unit set up operations just out of enemy artillery range and serviced the 1st, 4th, 8th, 9h, 83rd, 99th, and 104th infantry Divisions, and the 3rd and 5th Armored Divisions, processing more than 2 million pounds of laundry. The unit contended with fuel and parts shortages, massive workloads, and a constantly changing tactical situation. The 463rd Quartermaster Laundry Company landed in France on June 18 and set up on a narrow beachhead three days later. Staying close to the front on the race through Europe called for the men to pull patrol duty, fight snipers, and survive many bombings and strafings. In one day, the company was strafed five separate times. Despite this, one platoon cleaned clothes for more than 135 organizations, totaling more than 50,000 pounds–in one week.

Laundrymen occasionally found themselves in the heat of battle. One laundry platoon following Lieutenant General Patton across France set up on a river bank In the midst of a battle between American tanks and German Infantry. Technical Sergeant Rufus Pressley, the platoon sergeant, and his men “joined in the fight, captured eight Germans, killed a few, and chased off the remainder.” (Quartermaster Training Service Journal, 10 November 1944, page 24.) Another laundry platoon supporting Fifth Army at Anzio stayed under attack: “Persistent 20 to 25 minute strafing by enemy planes at Anzio made it extremely difficult to get the laundry done as the men had to keep diving in and out of their foxholes to escape the hail of lead that was continually thrown at them.” (Quartermaster Training Service Journal, 26 January 1945, page 14.)

In the Pacific Theater, a variety of techniques were used. Quartermaster Composite Companies were assigned to island bases to provide nearly all Quartermaster functions including laundry. For soldiers assigned to truly remote locations, the Office of the Quartermaster General developed simplified instructions on how to launder clothes and devised special handwashing kits to be used by units having no other means available. A set had 3 nesting washtubs, 7 scrub brushes, 5 washboards, and 200 feet of cotton clothesline.

Soldiers have always exhibited a remarkable degree of imagination when something needed to be done. “Rube Goldberg” washing machines were scattered all through the Pacific Islands. Most of them operated around salvaged 55-gallon drums, with an agitator geared to a homemade windmill. Lieutenant Colonel Carl Yost, Quartermaster Corps, stated: “…have seen hundreds… It is an amazing demonstration of the American soldier’s ingenuity being put to a practical use.” (Quartermaster Training Service Journal, 28 September 1945, pages 5-9.) When Japan surrendered, the Quartermaster Corps had 73 laundry companies in the field.

Quartermasters have always relied on a combination of direct laundry support, and clothing exchange and bath with backup laundry support, to get clean clothes to the front. The Korean Conflict heralded a much greater emphasis on forward clothing exchange and bath operations with follow-on laundry support.

In February 1951, the 1st Cavalry Division Quartermasters established a clothing exchange system with their bath units which provided soldiers with a shower and clean clothes from a laundered stockpile, all in a matter of minutes. This system supplied a continuous load for the mobile laundry units with outputs averaging 3,000 pounds a day from a single unit. The laundry unit rotated through the division once every 10 days, cleaning the stockpiles of dirty clothes.

The 24th Infantry Division had only half of their authorized laundry equipment. Instead of reducing service to the troops, the division Quartermasters set up a “hand laundry” with Korean labor using assembly line techniques. One set of women would hand scrub and then pass the clothes to another crew for rinsing, hand-wringing, and hanging on lines. Dry clothes were taken down by another crew, sorted, folded, and returned to stock. This method was so successful that the division’s soldiers usually received two clothing changes per week.

Field laundry operations in Vietnam posed a much greater challenge than earlier encountered. Many tactical operations were conducted by independent battalion and brigade-size task forces in jungles with double and triple canopies. Very few roads were secure after nightfall, and a considerable amount of resupply was provided by airlift.

In December 1965, there were 50, World War II vintage laundry units in the 1st Logistical Command. These two trailer units were capable of servicing 3,075,000 pounds per month with a requirement exceeding 7,000,000 pounds. Most of the shortfall was made up using maids, houseboys, and Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) concessions, usually arranged by the individual soldier. In December 1966, the new Standard-A machines were introduced. These machines were completely self-contained on a single, two-wheel trailer. By January 1968, 127 machines were in country.

Combined with the old two trailer machines, which were eventually phased out, production ranged from 2.4 million pounds per month to 4.2 million pounds per month.

Because of troop dispersal and questionable ground lines of communication, most forward soldiers received clean clothes through resupply rather than direct mobile laundry support. Soldiers at fire support bases were either resupplied through routine deliveries (although clothing did not receive nearly the priority of ammunition, fuel, or food), or they received a change of clothes and a bath when they rotated back to a forward support area. The 25th Division devised a “super contact team” where soldier support items were loaded into container express (CONEX) containers and moved from site to site either by truck or airlift. The team provided support services normally available only in large troop concentration sites. These services included representatives from personnel, finance, and legal; a traveling Army exchange (PX) with magazines, candy, cigarettes, ice cream, and other items; and Quartermaster supply with fatigues, boots, socks, and underclothes. The team also carried a portable shower unit, maintenance teams, a dentist, and a barber.

Consequently, the technique used in Korea of clothing exchange and bath with follow-up laundry support was continued during the Vietnam Conflict. The major differences were the mode of transportation used for resupply, and adaptation to changes in the battlefield and organizational structure.

That technique, proven through two conflicts, persists as doctrine today. That does not mean, however, that the Quartermaster Corps has gone static. The basic premise of this doctrine is adaptation to change, as has happened in every major conflict since World War I, and this focus on change is continuing. Although the single trailer units fielded in Vietnam are currently in the inventory, a new system is being tested. The Laundry and Decontamination Dry-cleaning System (LADDS) is projected for fielding in the second quarter of FY 94 and promises great improvements in productivity, reliability, and meeting the rigors of a modern AirLand battlefield. Techniques used for resupply will change based on soldier needs in either a high Intensity AirLand Battle or a low-intensity conflict.

Logisticians understand the significant combat multiplier generated by clean, dry clothes. In an undeveloped theater with few existing facilities, mobile laundries “bridge the gap” until fixed laundries are constructed. In Third World low-intensity conflicts, fixed facilities may never appear, Increasing the reliance on mobile units. The task at hand is to prevent research and development of this crucial service from being sidetracked by shrinking budgets and the more glamorous appeal of weapons systems and tactics.

“”There isn’t anything that affects a person’s well being more than these things with which the Quartermaster Corps has to do–a man’s food, his clothing, and those other items that affect his daily life–and one of the things that affects his daily life, his health and comfort, is the way his clothes are taken care of by laundries.”

–General E.B. Gregory The Quartermaster General, 1940-1946

At the time this article was published in 1990, Captain (now Major) Charles F. Moore, Quartermaster, was S4 (Supply Officer) for the 142d Supply and Service Battalion, 16th Corps Support Group, 3rd Corps Support Command in Mainz-Kastel, Federal Republic of Germany.


Quartermasters and ‘Cooties’

Dr. Steven E. Anders, Quartermaster Corps Historian

Back in the bad old days, life in the Army could get, well, downright lousy. An estimated 90 percent of the front line troops in Word War I suffered from lice infestation-more commonly known as “Cooties.”

Without proper field sanitation, lice spread quickly from one soldier to another. Hence it took very little time for the uninitiated to begin slapping, scratching, and nit-picking along with the rest. Alas, it seemed the only alternative was to simply learn to coexist with, as one wag put it, “our little brothers in the trenches.”

Lice (called “Greybacks” in the Civil War) were also referred to as “Arithmetic Bugs” on the Western Front. Why? Because as anyone who ever experienced them could attest, they added to your misery, subtracted from your pleasure, divided your attention, and–worst of all–multiplied like the dickens! Edgar B. Jackson, a veteran of the Great War, vividly recalled doing battle with the little bugs. “For several days,” he noted in his wartime journal, “I had been tortured by a desire to scratch-and to keep on scratching. Reluctantly I came to the conclusion that a legion of uncommonly active anthropoids, members of the order of Pediculus corpus or of Cimex lectuladus, were gallivanting over my anatomy with an attitude of proprietorship and carefree abandon.”

Fortunately for the trench-bound Allies, the Quartermaster Laundry Branch came to the rescue. By war’s end, mobile laundry units (horse drawn and steam driven) moved closer and closer to the front. Such apparatus operating near the front had to be carefully camouflaged, as either smoke or steam led the enemy to believe they had discovered artillery batteries.

The delousing plants set up at Le Mans and other base ports were so elaborate that doughboys termed them “mills.” Entering “The Mill” dirty, weary, and disheveled, the soldier on his exit came out completely renovated both in clothing and body. So successful were these operations that within six weeks the incidence of lice infestation dropped to an amazing 3 percent! The U.S. Army discovered that with the right equipment, good planning, plus plenty of soap and water; it could lick an age old foe –“Cooties.”