As previously noted the conical hat – known as the “nón lá” or leaf hat – was in fact widely used in the Vietnam and neighboring regions throughout the 19th century by farmers and soldiers (including bandits) alike.
What is unique about the Vietnamese nón lá is that it has its own origin, based on a legend to the growing of rice in the region. This tells of a giant woman from the sky who protected humanity from a deluge of rain, and she wore a hat made of four round shaped leaves to protect her from the rain – and that inspired farmers to stitch together their own style of helmet. This has evolved over the centuries and various styles have become common in the different parts of Vietnam. Continue reading →
We’ve see plenty of oddball helmets. Many are fakes or bad copies, but then occasionally we come across something that seems completely wrong but yet doesn’t exactly seem like someone was trying to fake anything.
The most recent example is this apparently “homemade” North Vietnamese sun helmet. It came from a reader, whose said her father had bought it at least 20 to 25 years ago. This would have still been long after hostilities ended, and in truth before the current wave of surplus and outright fakes has flooded the collector market. It is simply put a helmet that could be many things, but what exactly is the mystery?
An American Army tropical “Pressed Fiber” helmet and mosquito net from the Vietnam War era of the late 1960s (Author’s Collection)
The military sun helmet was introduced to save lives, not from bullets or even spears but from quite literally from the sun. The European soldiers – first the British but later the French, Belgian, Spanish, Portuguese and Germans – fell victim to sun stroke and heat stroke in their respective newly obtained colonies. The sun helmet offered protection from the sun and along with better tropical clothing likely helped save countless lives beginning in the second half of the 19th century.
The other problem facing soldiers as well as diplomats, colonists and workers was tropical disease. Among the most deadly was yellow fever. Even today in many tropical regions – especially Africa and South America – yellow fever continues to be a major problem. Today nearly a billion people live in an area of the world where the disease is common. Yellow fever originated in Africa but spread to South America through the slave trade in the 17th century, and since that time there have been major outbreaks in the Americas, Africa and even Europe. Continue reading →
While khaki was typically the color uniform of colonial powers, it was also used – alongside with the sun helmet – by the forces of North Vietnam during the conflict with the United States. In 1958 the PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam) – also known as the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) began a modernization following its war that saw Indo-China “liberated” from French rule. This modernization included efforts to standardize its uniform.
While dark green is typically the color associated with PAVN forces, in the 1965-73 conflict with the United States, khaki and tan uniforms also became prevalent, especially among officers.
The American pressed fiber helmet, which was used from the late 1930s until the 1990s, is unique in that it didn’t follow the U.S. Military tradition of naming everything. It had no model number and hence isn’t an M1 Sun Helmet – and for the record that might have been confusing with the M1 Steel Helmet. Continue reading →
A light fiber helmet of the so-called East German pattern with the badge of the Cuban Navy
German sun helmets are well-established. Imperial Germany had colonies in Africa, and during the Third Reich fielded the infamous Afrika Korps. However, a lesser known sun helmet is one purported to be of East German origin.
A few sources, including Paolo Marzetti’s Elmetti (“Helmets”) note the existence of a “DDR sun helmet, made in fibre material” the use of these helmets would seem to be limited. The Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), or East Germany had no colonies of course. East German soldiers of the NVA (Nationale Volksarmee or National People’s Army) did serve as advisors to various African countries during the Cold War and it is possible the helmets may have been developed for this purpose. Continue reading →
This was the standard pattern used by the Afrika Korp. While most of these were made of cork, there are many examples that were apparently made of weaved straw with wicker support. This example, while in bad condition offers an excellent look at the “inside” of the helmet
While sola pith and cork are among the most commonly used materials in the construction of sun helmets, straw weave and wicker were used at times as an ersatz material, especially in wartime. We previously noted two examples of British-made Wolseley straw helmets in the collection of Stuart Bates. While these are the only two known surviving examples of British straw helmets of this pattern, there are many surviving examples of straw helmets from other countries.
How many of these helmets were produced remains a mystery, but surviving examples given an indication that serious craftsmanship went into their construction. Continue reading →