Living in Jackson

Stevie's Headgear

July 29, 2020

Stevie R. Commercial Exchange Inc. employee of over 20 years

When men’s lives are threatened, inventors and industries respond.

Combat helmets are among the oldest forms of personal protective equipment worn by Greeks and Romans and foot soldiers as early as the 17th Century. They were worn to protect the head from cutting blows of swords, clubs, and flying arrows. As weapons became deadlier, protective materials and construction techniques advanced.

Headgear worn by WWI French dragoons in 1915 were cloth, felt or leather. Soldiers fell or suffered headwounds from shrapnel. The French reacted and developed the Adrian helmet, a bowl-shaped steel skullcap soldiers wore under their cloth caps. But shrapnel still pierced the steel.

Leopold Brodie improved on the design when Britain entered the war. The Brit came up with a one-piece helmet pressed from a single sheet of steel that saved hundreds of lives. Brodie added a rim wider than that on an English Bowler to protect the soldier's head and shoulders. The design included a leather liner with a chin strap to hold the “battle bowler” on a guy’s head. Production capabilities were limited in Britain and industry could supply only enough for soldiers in the trenches. Gunshot and flying debris still shot through the steel.

Robert Hadfield recognized the critical challenge. He improved Brodie’s “tin hat” design by adding 12% manganese to harden the steel. His company produced a helmet during 1915 imperious to shrapnel falling from above, a dishpan hat that could withstand a .45 caliber pistol bullet traveling 600 feet per minute at a distance of 10 feet. The 1.3-pound Tommy Helmet was painted to camouflage. Responding to comments from commanders in the field, Hadfield changed the paint to a dull non-reflective khaki and sprinkled the finish with sand, sawdust and crushed cork. Hadfield’s company manufactured 250,000 helmets and had them on the battleground by early 1916 saving thousands during WWI.

The first American doughboys that entered WWI wore the limited number of Brodie helmets made in Great Britain. American industrialists reacted quickly. They formed what is known today as an assembly line. Seven American factories retrofitted their production capabilities into pressing and stamping the M1917 helmet shells into bowl shapes then shipped them by rail to the Ford Motor Company in Philadelphia. The companies were the E.G. Budd Co. from Philadelphia, the Crosby and the Bosset Corporations from New York, the Columbian Enameling and Stamping Co. from Terre Haute, Indiana, Worchester Pressed Steel from Worchester, Massachusetts, the Benjamin Electric Co. out of Des Plaines, Illinois and the Sparks Withington Company from Jackson, Michigan.

Yes, the helmet shells were pressed and stamped into bowls on E. Michigan Avenue in what is now the Commercial Exchange building.

Ten shoe manufacturing companies refitted their production lines into producing helmet liners, then shipped them by rail to the Ford factory in Philly to be painted, assembled and shipped overseas.

Like Robert Hadfield had in 1915, the leaders of American industries figured it out. Helmets have been improved ever since and are now used widely by law enforcement, sports enthusiasts, the medical community, and the military. St. Paul, Minnesota’s 3M Company uses Kevlar and Twaron to make lightweight ballistic helmets for today’s soldiers in the US Army, Navy and Marine Corp. that can help protect against concussive shock waves from explosions.

While putting this story together I visited the Michigan Military History Museum in Grass Lake where I saw the WWII helmet donated by Sperry Sparks, grandson of Cap Sparks.

Steve Richar wore a steel combat helmet in Okinawa in 1978 while firing mortars. “My helmet had a lining but didn’t keep out much sound,” he said. This Marine Veteran’s workdays today begin and end in the same brick building where Brodie shells were once stamped from steel. The personal traits Steve learned as a US Marine has helped him succeed at the Commercial Exchange. He comes to work every day, he comes on time, and does his job without complaint. You might recognize him as the man who gives the buildings brass entrance doors their weekly military shine.