HISTORY FROM A CANTEEN

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.


When you watch a “war movie” the Americans usually are wearing a pistol belt with shoulder harness, a canteen and ammo pouches. The good guys go out and fight an entire battle with what looks to be about 15-20 pounds of gear. That is Hollywood. Look at current news footage of the modern US soldier in the field and you see our fighting men and women carrying 60-85 pounds of battle equipment. If they are headed out for a long field stay with limited re-supply, they can often leave the safety of the rear area with over 100 pounds of field gear.

When the US entered the First World War they did so with very limited supplies of field combat gear. US war manufacturing had to increase drastically overnight. In the middle of the Mississippi River, between Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois is Arsenal Island and the home of the US Army’s Rock Island Arsenal (R.I.A.) The Army has been producing weapons and field combat gear for all branches of the military since 1880.

One of the items manufactured at R.I.A. for WWI was 649,457 canteens and covers. The covers are marked with the logo “R.I.A. 1917.” In the trenches of Europe during WWI a soldier could not carry enough water to meet his daily needs. During an artillery bombardment you may not get water brought up from the rear area for days. A full canteen was like gold in the middle of combat.

Prior to the invention of airplanes and rocket propelled weapons to protect the US coastline, a system of artillery units was established along our coasts to protect our major ports and harbors. That system was the Coastal Artillery Corps (C.A.C.) and was staffed and run by soldiers. The artillery was large: 10, 12, and 14-inch guns that were mounted permanently and pointed out to sea to defend our nation’s shipping interests.

When the US started sending soldiers to France in 1917, they sent trained members of C.A.C. units, to man French large bore artillery. One US artillery unit was Battery B of the 53rd Artillery Regiment C.A.C. It was assigned to man a French railroad rifle, which was a 14 inch cannon the same size as the guns used on the battle ship USS Oklahoma. This French cannon was mounted on rail cars, towed as close to the Germans lines as possible and then fired on selected German targets up to 17 miles away.

The problem was the 53rd’s railroad rifle could only move on established railroad tracks and German pilots knew just where the tracks were. Therefore, the 53rd Artillery Regiment had to sneak up on the enemy, fire about 30 of their 1000 pound artillery shells and then get the hell out of Dodge before the German flyers caught them in the open.

I am always looking for canteens to use in time of future crisis and GI military canteens are what I buy. The other day I found an old US military canteen. It had the tan cover that was used in WWI and the period-correct welded canteen. They were made in 1917 at the Rock Island Arsenal. The canteen cover was stenciled with a B for Battery B, crossed cannons for an artillery unit, 53 for the 53rd Artillery Regiment and C.A.C. for the pre-war Costal Artillery Corps. A lot of US history in one used canteen that I got for $1.99 at a Goodwill store.

While doing research I learned about the R.I.A. and the many, varied items the US Army manufactures there to support our Nation in time of need. R.I.A. also maintains one of the oldest Army Museums. During the Civil War, R.I.A. was used as a Confederate P.O.W. camp. There is a Confederate Cemetery on the island that is maintained by the US Army. One of my family members, Elijah C. Brugh of C Company 19th Virginia Cavalry, was interned there. He died there and was buried there deliberately under an incorrect name. My sister requested they correct his name and now 145 years later his headstone reflects both names. I need to go to R.I.A. to see our nation’s history, see where they currently make the best combat gear in the world, see my relative’s grave and perhaps to return my WWI canteen to it’s origin. Who knows, maybe it will make it into the R.I.A. museum. A history lesson for only $1.99. Go check your attic.




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