Through my recent eBay adventures, my vintage compass collection has increased dramatically. Some of my favourite new acquisitions are a pair of 1918-vintage US Corps of Engineers military marching compasses both made by Cruchon & Emons in Switzerland. These are the types of compasses that Horace Kephart might have used.
In this post we’ll be looking at camping hammocks. Specifically, we’ll be looking at a 1942 canvas jungle hammock and an early-noughties nylon Hennessy Hammock. The Hennessy is their first true ultralightweight option, the “Ultralight Backpacker A-sym” with a silnylon canopy.
Item #1 – the WWII US Jungle Hammock
Developed over a period of several months in early-mid 1942, the US Jungle hammock was an ingenious piece of equipment designed for soldiers operating in the disease-ridden “green hell” of the Pacific islands. It was intended to provide shelter from rain, protection from flying disease-carrying insects, protection from crawling insects and vermin, all with the happy side effect of supplying the user with a comfortable place to sleep in all weathers.
Thousands of Jungle Hammocks were rushed to the Pacific Theatre in late 1942. Here’s what the Official History of the US Quartermaster service had to say about the jungle hammock.
“Conspicuous among the pieces of equipment shipped from San Francisco in late 1942 was the jungle hammock, which was expressly designed for soldiers entering a combat area. This hammock was optimistically expected to take the place of tent, shelter half, canvas cot, and mosquito net in regions where these essential items could not be taken either because they were too cumbersome to carry or because of unsuitable terrain. One of the chief virtues ascribed to the hammock was that it permitted men to sleep off the ground and so avoid insects and dampness. Made of a lightweight duck fabric, it had a false bottom that provided a dead air space and prevented mosquitoes from biting the occupant’s back. Attached to and over this bottom was an enclosed zipper-opening mosquito net, which in turn was fastened to a rainproof canopy stretched over sticks placed in the ground. The hammock itself was suspended between neighboring trees. This ingenious piece of equipment never fulfilled the high hopes of its originators.
Light though it was, it still was too bulky to be carried easily. Most important of all, it proved impractical in operational zones. The Sixth Army reported that front-line troops did “not like to sleep above ground because of possible aerial bombing” and hostile infiltration, and “soldiers behind the line” wanted “to keep out of the way of
shrapnel.” In combat areas, the Sixth Army pointed out, it was “essential that troops sleep in fox-holes, dugouts,” or slit trenches.
Despite such reports, which flowed in from all parts of the Pacific, the OQMG continued to improve the hammock, simplifying its zipper opening and reducing its weight by increased use of nylon. More than 700,000 hammocks were manufactured in 1944, and 600,000 were scheduled for 1945 procurement. These articles, though not widely utilized by the combat troops for whom they had been developed, nevertheless proved valuable in other ways. Rear areas, recurrently afflicted by severe shortages of tentage and cots, found hammocks satisfactory substitutes. During the wet season, when rain fell incessantly for hours, flooding bivouac areas and preventing tents from being pitched, jungle hammocks kept the troops “high and dry during the sleeping hours.” Some men in rear areas, Lt. Col. D. B. Dill, OQMG observer, noted, consistently preferred them for the better protection they gave against crawling and flying insects and slept in them as often as they could. When constantly employed, jungle hammocks had one conspicuous disadvantage—speedy deterioration, which limited their life, according to Dill, to about forty-five days.”
After WWII, hundreds of thousands of surplus jungle hammocks appeared at army disposal auctions and in surplus stores, particularly in the US and Australia – two of the main wartime users of the jungle hammock. Extremely popular with hikers, bushwalkers and scouts throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s the jungle hammock soldiered on for decades. Although not quite extinct in 2013, the reputation of the original jungle hammock has suffered due to the proliferation of poorly-designed Chinese copies sold as a “GI Jungle Hammock”. Make no mistake, these knock-offs are pure crap – I say this from personal experience. They are too short, they are too narrow and the rain canopy isn’t big enough to provide protection from anything other than morning dew. They might be OK for kids to use in the backyard, but they are not suitable for adult use in the wilderness. The original jungle hammock was.
When I was kid in the late 80s and early 90s I inherited my uncle’s original WWII jungle hammock which he had used in the scouts throughout the 60s and 70s. He swore by it and after using it in scouts myself it forever converted me to sleeping in the air while out bush. Sadly that original hammock has been lost over the years, but in 2013 I became the proud owner of not only one, but TWO original WWII jungle hammocks. One is an absolutely brand new 1944 second pattern hammock which is going into storage until such a time as I can have a pattern made from it, while the other is one of the originals – a 1942 first pattern which is a little rough around the edges, but remains serviceable.
Denis, the nice old bloke from whom I purchased the one seen below, bought it as a kid in 1953 as brand new army surplus. He had to save up for months to pay the 7 quid the disposals store was asking. He and his mates used them for many years for camping and bushwalking and it had been in storage for a couple of decades before I bought it off him. The hammock had a 3-inch tear in the rain canopy and a few small rips in the cotton mosquito netting. These I fixed with waterproof cloth “sniper” tape, which is a completely reversible fix that won’t harm the originality of the hammock in any way, while ensuring the hammock stays serviceable.
Here’s a walkaround of the 1st pattern WW2 jungle hammock in pictures.
Item #2 – the Hennessy Hammock Ultralight Backpacker Asym (now sold as the “Ultralite Backpacker Asym Classic”)
So what’s a modern ultra-lightweight camping hammock got to do with a blog which is devoted to vintage gear and “old ways”? When Tom Hennessy designed the Hennessy Hammock it was based in part on his experiences with the WWII jungle hammock above. That makes the Hennessy Hammock an important evolutionary step forwards from the old school canvas jungle hammock. Besides, I’ve used mine for years and love it, and that’s enough.
At the age of 16, I would make 200 mile, weekend bicycle trips out of Washington D.C. into the Appalachian Mountains. I carried a minimum of food & water, a light sleeping bag and a WWII surplus U.S. Army jungle hammock. I loved this old thing because it rolled up so small and weighed so little and had no poles or stakes, perfect for moving light and fast.
Later at university, I loaned my hammock to a “friend” who never returned it. As the years passed, I continued to miss that little piece of gear and finally decided to duplicate my old army hammock from memory during my winter vacation.
The duplicate of the army hammock took less than a day to finish. As I was cutting and sewing, I began to see ways to overcome some of the army hammock’s shortcomings. The prototype needed to be more spacious inside to eliminate any sense of claustrophobia. It needed to be wider to allow resting or sleeping on the diagonal without curving your back. The netting had to be increased to improve air circulation and the weather fly needed to be adjustable and removable to create an open and airy feeling during good weather and yet close up for protection at night or during inclement weather.
The rectangular army shape evolved into a sleek diamond shape; the cord assemblies at each end disappeared to create more interior space by attaching the hammock fabric directly to the suspending ropes….
The rest is history.
Here’s a photo walkaround of the 860 gram Ultralite Backpacker Asym Hennessy Hammock –
Please note that for the photoshoot I stupidly forgot to bring the “treehugger” traps which protect the tree from the hammock’s main suspension cords. This is particularly important when tying to smooth-barked trees such as these scribbly gums. If I had slept in the hammock overnight, the trees would have been scarred for years. Leave no trace.
UPDATE: I’ve posted an addendum to this article which details some hootchie-esque military shelters from the pre-WWII era.
“Hootchie” or “hutchie” is the slang term for the Australian Army’s Shelter, Individual – NSN 8465-66-013-5032.
The hootchie is a sheet of 70D nylon or PU-coated cotton with various press snaps and webbing tape loops attached around the outside which allow it to be used in a variety of configurations such as –
- Tarp tent
- Hammock tarp
- Improvised hammock (heavyweight ones only)
- Swag (bedroll cover)
- Sleeping bag (best used with a wool blanket or nylon poncho liner)
- Fighting position cover
- Waterproofing sheet for bundling up equipment during water crossings
- Trailer or open-top vehicle cover (when stationary)
- Solar still sheet (so says the Australian army’s survival pam)
And that’s just the ones I’ve tried or heard about. If you have alternate uses for the hootchie or its NATO/ANZUS cousins, post ’em in the comments.
The hootchie concept is widely used by military forces around the world as well as by outdoor enthusiasts such as bushcrafters and recreational hikers. Here’s some military users –
United States – Poncho and Field Tarp
In the US, service personnel, outdoor enthusiasts and bushcraft practitioners have been using the venerable rain poncho in place of the hootchie for decades. These do an admirable job, but are just that little bit too small to be an effective tarp tent or hammock tarp. Recognising this, the US Marine Corps has recently introduced the “Field Tarp” it has a digital woodland camouflage print on one side, and is coated with “coyote” tan polyurethane. By all accounts it works well, but is a little heavy.
New Zealand – Kiwi Hootchie
Like the Aussies, our Kiwi brethren have long been advocates of the simple utility of the hootchie format for their shelter sheets. The Kiwi hootchie is camouflaged and is bigger than a standard Aussie one.
The United Kingdom – Basha
The British call a hootchie a “Basha”. In British service, the idea was copied off Australian and Kiwi troops operating in Borneo during the Indonesian Confrontation in the early 1960s. Back in the early to mid 1960s British bashas were identical to Australian hootchies of the same era – solid green in colour. Later they were made in British jungle camouflage, which is a sort of yellow-tinged camouflage pattern. And for desert operations they were made and issued in British desert camouflage.
They are currently being made and issued in the British Multi-Terrain Pattern (MTP) camouflage, a variant of American Multicam. Although never as widely used by the Brits as it is by the Aussies, the Basha/hootchie remains a well-loved piece of equipment for both tropical and arid climates, particularly since the British Ministry of Defence’s procurement people seem to have specified a much higher standard of materials and construction for the new MTP equipment.
Australia – Hootchie
The original and best, the Australian hootchie evolved from experience gained over decades of previous wars and other military operations.
During the First and Second World Wars, Australian (and other British Commonwealth) troops were issued with a rubberised canvas ground sheet / rain cape. It was far from suitable as an individual shelter in the trenches, although a couple could be laced together to provide a shelter for two men, or as a cover for a fighting position. As a ground sheet and as a rain cape, it did sterling work despite it’s heavy weight. It was state of the art for its time.
Along with the rain cape format, WWI and II era Australian and Commonwealth troops were issued with a ground sheet, which was essentially the rain cape without the triangular section and the collar accoutrements. Like the rain cape, an individual ground sheet was too small to be of much practical use unless used as a dry surface to bed down on or if laced together with another ground sheet as a cover for a sleeping or fighting position.
During WWII Australian forces fighting the Japanese in the Islands had an urgent requirement for a decent individual shelter. The rubberised canvas groundsheets and rain capes continued to be used (now issued separately), but these were less than effective in the tropics.
A better solution had to be found, and quickly.
To improve the troops’ individual shelter systems, large stocks of American shelter halves began to be issued. Similar in form to an Australian ground sheet, a shelter half was made from lighter water-repellent sateen cotton cloth and was fitted with press studs to connect to another “half” to make a two-man pup-tent. The shelter half was constructed in such a way that it resulted in a tent with a closed-in end. This is great for helping to keep rain and snow out of your bedding while you lay there freezing through a European winter, but it reduced visibility and blocked ventilation in the jungle to unacceptable levels. As a consequence, US shelter halves were mainly used by Australians as fighting pit covers and as groundsheets. Ultimately the Australian troops were no better off than if they had retained their Australian-issue groundsheets.
A decent shelter was seen not as a luxury in these tropical malaria-infested areas, but as essential. Both the United States and Australia went to extraordinary lengths to try and prevent tropical diseases such as malaria and scrub typhus among the troops. As a result of this effort, the American Jungle Hammock was born.
The jungle hammock was a revolutionary individual shelter system. It consisted of a canvas hammock protected by mosquito netting and topped by a waterproof canopy. It rolled into a bundle just a little bigger than a woolen army blanket but it was still portable and provided a waterproof, insectproof shelter for an individual soldier. In practice it was not a great idea to be using a jungle hammock in the front lines with the ever-present threat of an enemy artillery barrage or infiltration parties, but in larger camps back from the lines the jungle hammock was much appreciated. Keep a look out for a separate post on the WWII jungle hammock.
Towards the end of the war in the Pacific Australia began issuing its troops a lighter weight version of the groundsheet manufactured from polyurethane-coated cotton – the same material which formed the canopy of the US jungle hammock. Although issued too late to be truly revolutionary during WWII, the PU cotton material remained in the Australian Army’s institutional memory and became the basis for the first pattern “Shelter, Individual” – the hootchie.
Along with the jungle hammock, American ponchos began to be issued in quantity to Australian troops in the pacific. Made from a rubberised cotton, these were a turtle-neck format without a hood, but were lighter than the rain cape and larger than the groundsheet.
During the Malayan Emergency of the 1950s, Australian troops were issued with hooded ponchos. Unlike the WWII US pattern ponchos which always had a hole in the dead centre of the poncho sheet, the Australian-issue hooded ponchos made an effective shelter – especially when two where clipped together. The problem of course is that the rubberised canvas ponchos were far too heavy for jungle use.
The weight issue was critical for troops undertaking long range patrols in the jungle which could last for weeks. Some expedients such as the shower curtain idea used above were workable, but a lightweight and hardwearing shelter sheet was urgently required.In the early 1960s Australian units in Borneo hunting Indonesian infiltrators from Kalimantan were issued with the first pattern hootchies.
The hootchie was a sheet of PU coated cotton measuring approximately 2.7m x 1.9m (approx 8ft 10inches x 6ft 2inches) with press studs and loops sewn at intervals around the outside edge as well as various eyelets and grommets. A line of loops was sewn down the centre of the sheet to allow more options when pitching as a shelter. Although still a little heavy, the hootchie was a vast improvement over its predecessors, and was almost bombproof. Its one failing was its weight – still over a kilogram.
The hootchie became a standard piece of Australian equipment which was included in a new recruit’s initial clothing and gear issue. With Australia’s entry into the Vietnam war, a second pattern lightweight hootchie was issued. Made from nylon, but retaining the hardware and loops, the lightweight hootchie weighed a mere 680 grams, still heavy, but suitable for tropical use.
In practice in Vietnam, the hootchie was rarely used as a slung tarp shelter. When wet it shone in moonlight and in the pre-dawn glow. Tying it to trees left “sign” and for exhausted troops on patrol it was simply a hassle to pitch the hootchie. It was often used in conjunction with a woolen “horse blanket” or a poncho liner as an open-sided sleeping bag or it was simply laid upon as a ground sheet with the soldier sleeping under a poncho. In more permanent positions such as patrol bases or fire support bases, the hootchie was widely used as a sun and rain shelter and as a cover for fighting pits.
After the Vietnam War the hootchie soldiered on and continues to form part of the equipment of the Australian soldier to this day. Modern hootchies are made of Australian camouflage (Auscam) nylon with khaki loops, but aside from this the size and pattern are identical to the green Vietnam hootchies.
That’s the evolution of the hootchie in a nutshell.
Next post in this series will look at types of shelters which can be pitched using a hootchie as well as an overview of a very decent commercial equivalent to the military issue hootchie – in environmentally-friendly green rather than “tactical” camouflage.