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The Things They Carried

I had a chance to visit the annual World War II Weekend in Reading yesterday. That event began as an air show a few years ago and has grown into a remarkable living history exhibit. Knowing that I'm off for Normandy in just a few weeks, I had a heightened focused on the kit that G.I.'s would carry during that time period.

A 48-star flag flies above an Airborne reenactment unit's camp.
It's like I'm in France already. Oh, wait, this is Berks County. 
Sam and I spent some time talking with a young man who does reenacting for a group that represents the 101st Airborne. The material they carried, when spread out on the ground, is impressive.

Airborne kit.
The gear, altogether weighed about 130 pounds, though 45 of that consisted of the main and reserve parachutes. Normally, the troopers landed with their gun un-assembled and in a protective bag. The uniform had all sorts of interesting features, like a pocket at the uppermost part of the chest in which there'd be a switchblade knife to cut one's strings loose. Perhaps the most obnoxious piece of gear was the Mae West life vest that was worn underneath a lot of other material.

At the time of the Normandy landing the soldiers didn't have quick release harnesses, which meant some troopers couldn't get out of their chutes in time when they landed on the fields the Germans had flooded.

A mannequin displays the material when adorned on the frame of a G.I.
The chore of lugging all that stuff became only worse if one had a job of carrying something else, like components of a mortar or machine gun.

0.30-cal. machine gun
Also on display were some of the French Francs our soldiers were issued before landing in France. Even the issuance of that currency was controversial. We knew the troops would need money to spend with the locals, but at the same time we were liberating a conquered people who we hoped would be our allies. But they didn't have a recognized government. I guess that's the kind of thing that attracts the attention of an economics teacher.

As said earlier, the chutes wouldn't weigh down the troops once they landed, but they did have to heft the stuff up into their planes with them for the jump itself. There was a C-46 on display. Unfortunately, winds were too strong for a demonstration jump.

C-46 "Tinker Belle"
Some of our readings focused on the preparation for the invasion. And it's clear that a lot of well-intentioned "just one more thing" came the way of the G.I.'s. By the end, the young men jumping from the planes had stuff on them that weighed more than they did. Keep in mind, that paratroopers tended to be on the smaller side. As they survived the campaign, they became savvy about what to ditch (such as the gas masks) and what to keep (such as the water-proof bags in which the gas masks came). Sometimes, they loaded up more on things they thought they'd need, such as ammunition. But certainly our troops left a lot of debris behind as they liberated France.


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