It was not a popular ruling, but it saved lives

Friday, November 27th, 2020

In the bitter cold of the Korean winter, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), sentries were having trouble staying alert:

It was cold enough to keep a man’s teeth chattering all night long — but Pritchard had learned a lesson earlier in the campaign. At first, every man had been issued a sleeping bag — and this had proved a mistake, fatal for a lot of Americans who could not resist the temptation to crawl in the bag, even on guard, and fall asleep.

The Chinese had learned the expensiveness of bugling and tootling their way into American lines. Now they came quietly, padding on rubber-soled feet. The only way for the outposts to have a chance was to issue only one arctic sleeping bag to each two men. This way, one man would be too miserable to go to sleep, and he would damn well see to it that his buddy didn’t sleep too long.

It was not a popular ruling, but it saved lives.


  1. Lu An Li says:

    Arctic sleeping bags had the flap over the zipper so that condensed moisture would not freeze and make it impossible for the troop to unzip the bag during an attack. Many GIs were found in their bag bayoneted or bashed to death without being able to get out of the bag.

  2. Kirk says:

    Lu An Li,

    I’ve heard that story, and I’m not at all sure that it’s true. One, freezing zippers weren’t the reason those flaps were on there–It was because of the cold that the zipper would let in. As well, you were supposed to use the snaps on the outer flap if there was a chance you’d need to get out of the bag quickly.

    The more likely explanation is that the guys who were killed in their sleeping bags were too exhausted and tired to react in a timely manner, and if they survived the experience, wanted to blame it on something other than their own failures.

    I don’t think that “old soldier’s story” actually passes the “makes sense” test.

  3. Paul from Canada says:

    Canadian troops early in the war came across the scene where US troops had been killed in their sleep, learned the lessons. In one of Norm Christie’s documentaries he walks the actual ground with a Canadian vet.

    They used old style wool blankets anyway, but some units continued to use them in the front line even when sleeping bags became available. But Kirk is right, it wasn’t the sleeping bags, it was that that they were either complacent or too exhausted, and in that particular incident, hadn’t even put out sentries, believing themselves in a “safe area far enough behind the lines”.

    THAT was the bigger lesson. Yes, it is easier to roll out of blankets (or in a modern context, a poncho and liner), than a sleeping bag in an emergency, but most important, never relax your security discipline.

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