“I’ve used one of your GI ponchos before, yes, I felt like Harry Potter at Hogwarts with my cloak on walking around in it” This response from my daughter in an e-mail she sent me from Air Force, Commissioned Officer Training that she is attending at Maxwell Air Force Base this summer.
I had gotten an e-mail and picture the day before with her and some members of her training flight standing out in the Alabama summer rain wearing their GI ponchos over their brand new Airman Battle Uniforms. GI rain ponchos have been in my life since I was in grade school. My father the Master Chief was on an old WW II US Navy amphibious landing ship that was being de-commissioned and scrapped. He was always bringing home “stuff” headed to the trash dumpsters sitting on the pier next to the USS Oglethorpe.
One item that I claimed and still have, as soon as it hit the back door of our Virginia home, was a Vietnam era OD green, heavy weigh , vinyl coated poncho. While the rest of the guys in my Scout Troop used commercial ponchos or rain gear on camping trips, I always lugged along my heavy GI poncho. At first it was way too big for me back in my early days. This also meant it covered me completely in a Virginia downpour, when you had nowhere else to go in the back woods. None of this State Park stuff with hard-sided shelters for us back in the day, we were in the manly Boy Scouts. Besides, Mr. Barber our Scout Master, a WWII combat veteran himself, expected us to rough it.
That is what taught you how to cope and make do in time of need or crisis. As Clint Eastwood said, in one of his movies where he played a gruff old Marine Gunny Sergeant, you have to “adapt, improvise—overcome.” I have been adapting and improvising with GI ponchos, including my old Vietnam era one ever since. Scout camping, camping in high school and college with friend saw the use of my GI poncho. I was in the Rooky Mountains in Montana’s Glacier Park at about 10,000 feet on a college geology fieldtrip. We were told by the professors to come prepared to hike and sleep out in the mountains. The July sun went down on the mountain, snow started to fall and many of my fellow students started to panic. The first thing I did was pull out my GI poncho and cover myself and my gear.
There was an Army veteran on the fieldtrip and he also pulled out his old GI poncho and did the same as me. By the time I entered the military the newer, light weight rip-stop ponchos were in use. This is the type of poncho my daughter the new Lieutenant is using in Alabama. When the Air Force sent me off to Army Infantry school I took along my old OD green poncho and a couple of the new rip-stop ones. The rip-stop ones were green at first then come the camouflage ones. GI ponchos have snaps on the sides so you can connect two or more ponchos together to make a shelter, or if you have enough you can create a circus tent. These snaps allow you to close up the sides of your poncho when you wear it to keep the rain out. There are also grommets on the edge of the poncho so you can tie lines to the corners and make all manner of shape and size shelters. You can tie a poncho liner (blanket) onto the poncho and make field expedient sleeping gear. I have GI ponchos in all of the family vehicles and I never travel anywhere without at least one poncho.
I was in Scotland in May and took one with me there to the land of perpetual rain. And now, third generation military in my family is using the same type GI poncho. Good, basic, simple field gear goes a long way to meet your needs in a crisis or just bad weather. I always carried three ponchos in my rucksack at Infantry school, because I never had room for a tent or a sleeping bag, and I survived. I remember my Scoutmaster telling us not to buy GI surplus gear to use on our field outings, because it was designed for adult men.
He was right, but the old GI poncho worked for any size person, and mine did and continues to save the day for me. Now it is saving the day for new veterans—one of them my daughter.
Reach Major Van Harl USAF Ret. at firstname.lastname@example.org