Carter's Cutlery Commentaries
Military Myths and Misconceptions # 1
1. The AAF Parachutist's Machete.
"The OSS issued "survival machetes".
One of the most exotic appearing U.S. military knives of all is depicted by Howard Cole as an "OSS Survival Machete." It is also sometimes referred to as an OSS bolo. I shall analyze this item in detail in order to deflate a myth proffered by half-baked "researchers" and other baloney peddlers.
First, it is readily apparent that this item is a true bolo not a machete. The instructions packed with it state this explicitly.HIS BLADE IS NEW! TREAT IT WITH CARE!
INSTRUCTIONS ON CARE AND SHARPENING OF FINE KNIFE BLADES
This knife is a duplicate of a Philippine Bolo. The blade is made of fine cutlery steel.
(The rest is on care and sharpening.)
CRUVER MFG. CO.
There are no markings on the knife itself. It is very obviously a machine made item and its injection molded plastic hilt and phosphate finished blade would not pass anywhere for a native Filipino product.
But this knife was obviously ordered by someone who had experience on tropical service in the Far East and knew that a machete would not serve for cutting the hardwood and bamboo of that area. The instructions packed with the knife confirm this.
"It should be remembered that many tropic woods are extremely hard and will turn the edge of the knife if it is too sharp or fine."
Though it is a bit light, this knife was designed by someone who knew bolos, and is a good well-balanced item. (Due to their rarity, this is the only one of all the items I own that I have not cut anything heavier than a cardboard box with.) The grips are large enough for a European hand in contrast to most tool-weapons of the Philippines I have hefted.
The application of functional analysis makes it readily apparent that this bolo is too light for steady work. It is a camping implement, not an intrenching tool. Nor is it a weapon. The scabbard only fits the waist belt thus proving it is not for use in combat for in that case it would have been adapted to fit an arms belt.
Next, the term survival. During World War II this term simply was not used officially to designate this category of equipment. It was designated as Rescue by the Navy or as Emergency Sustenance by the Army Air Force and was designed and developed under the auspices of flight surgeons responsible for the well being of aviators both aloft and on the earth or sea.
There have been several speculations about the origin of these bolo knives. The most plausible is that they were made for the members of the 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments of the U.S. Army, which were raised after the fall of the Philippines from native Filipinos living in the U.S. These units did have a distinct pattern bolo but it was not this. It resembled more closely an M 1909 bolo. This one is now well known.
A more far-fetched tale is that they were made up for slipping into the Philippines to arm the native resistance. This plastic-handled knife and its leather machine stitched sheath would never pass the scrutiny of the stupidest Japanese guard as being a native product. Nor would the leather scabbard last in tropical conditions more than a few weeks anyway. Scabbards in the Philippines and in Indonesia are made of wood. So much for the resistance story! Why risk submarines and life and limb smuggling in such items when any bush blacksmith can make a serviceable bolo anyway?
In fact, the OSS never operated anywhere near the Philippines. The resistance there was run by regulars and others directly under Douglas MacArthur's Southwest Pacific Area Theatre command. The OSS intelligence operations were not under theatre commands. Their operatives worked under direct orders from Washington. MacArthur would not let the OSS operate in his theatre area and set up his own subversion and intelligence systems. By the time the OSS came "out east" to China in late 1943 the Allied Intelligence Bureau had been operating out of Australia since early 1942. The OSS was not needed in the South West Pacific Area and their unconventional ways were not to MacArthur’s taste. He won his war his way too! And finally his troops were partial to Australian procured little machetes and other local "Jungle Knives."
The only tropical theatre in which U.S. combat forces were operating in mid 1942 other than the Southwest Pacific Area was in the China- Burma-India Theatre. Indeed the OSS did have operations there but they did not arrive until long past 1942 when the knives had been already ordered.
Finally, the biggest question of all. Why OSS? Americans are avid readers of detective thrillers and spy romances. Witness the popularity of James Bond. It matters little if there is any connection, however, tenuous with reality. Tales real and apocryphal abound of the daring exploits of commandos, rangers, guerillas, and OSS men. Thus anything associated with any of these appeals immediately to the romantically minded. Unfortunately such associations also bring out the mercenarily minded. Anything that can be attributed to special troops or spies automatically, it seems, takes on an increased desirability and therefore an increased market value. Such myths take on more force when there is no readily available documentation to refute them.
But why this association in particular with the OSS and not one of the other special services? There are two false lines of reasoning that can lead to such a conclusion and they are not mutually exclusive. The first line goes like this. A) All OSS items are unmarked. B) Therefore, all unmarked items are OSS How about mops and brooms? Tent poles? Enough said!
The second line of reasoning goes like this. A.) Uncle Fred was in the OSS B.) Therefore, anything Uncle Fred souvenir’ed was OSS issue. (This argument works much better when the stuff is discovered after Uncle Fred's demise.) That is, if he really cared to begin with and was not senile when interrogated fifty years on.
OSS personnel did operate behind the lines in North Burma but so did regular members of the British and U.S. Army. The OSS assigned Americans wore the same clothing and used the same equipment as did the regular U.S. and British formations.
Further the indigenous cutting tool-weapons of North Burma where the OSS troops were to operate were and are the Kukri of the Gurkhas and the Dah of the Kachins and Karens. Many are the photos of G.l.s wearing kukris. General Merrill of the Marauders wore one. There are also many photos of M-1942s in use and even one of an Engineer machete. It appears obvious that if the OSS actually did procure this knife then some of the OSS members should have been portrayed wearing it. In its own way it is a distinctive as the native kukris and dahs, which are worn proudly by their owners.
It is true that in Europe the OSS did send undercover agents behind the enemy lines in disguise. But can you imagine a G.I. trying to pass as a native of Burma? Errol Flynn movies aside, it can't be done, even an American of oriental descent couldn't do it. In the ethnic patchwork of North Burma where there are such groups ranging from almost naked Naga Headhunters to Oxford educated Anglo-Burmans, every ethnic group has its own ways of moving, speaking, and living, and one misstep could give one away. (This happened several times in Europe where the people are all of the same racial stock. Remember the scene in the Great Escape movie.)
If this bolo knife is not OSS then what is it? And why is it unmarked? That answer is simple. Recall the controversy during the war about the markings on the blades of M-3 trench knives and the belief that the markings set up stress in the blades, which weakened them? I believe that the thought could have been the exact same here. The thin lightly tempered blade of this bolo is simply not well adapted to stamping. Or simpler yet, the customer did not specify markings. There are enough unmarked attributed items to make this very plausible.
A part of the solution to the puzzle was furnished me in 1981 by D. E. Henry when he gave me some information from the Collins & Company Edge Tool Register. This is a unique set of documents. They are a double-paged set of register books in which are entered in numerical-chronological order all the Collins patterns. These are the definitive factory records of what and who was involved in the initial order for any of their machetes and other tools. On page 169 of the third volume is the very item we are discussing.
Paratroop Machete No. 1253, Order E6476D, Feb. 2, 1943, Crover (sic) Mfg. Co.
This information gives us a whole new set of facts. One, Cruver was the contractor, not the maker. (A simple misspelling.) Two, Collins was the maker of the blade. Only as they did not have molding machinery, they could not have made the handles.
This knife was developed for use in the CBI theatre where the Hump airlift was just becoming organized under the AAF and the China National Aviation Corporation.
The correct answer is indicated in the Personal Equipment Officers' Manual of 1945. This is a manual for training those responsible for this materiel and for instructing aviation personnel in survival techniques.
KIT, EMERGENCY SUSTENANCE, TYPE E-10
(Information only-kits not available.) This kit was never standardized [wrong.-C.R.] and cannot be ordered. It was designed for use in India and the two hundred fifty, which were assembled, are now in that area. ...It is notable that it was designed with the collaboration of an officer sent from the CBI theatre specifically to obtain such a kit.
The officer referred to was sent in late 1944 and helped to revise the kit. The kit had been originally developed in Sept-Oct 1942 and standardized in November of that year.
Here, finally is the answer as to why the AAF parachutist's machete was designed. The E-10 ESK was intended for tropical land areas. Meanwhile in the Southwest Pacific Area where the Fifth Air Force supported MacArthur, the greatest number of flights were over water and the Over-Water kits were issued there. Except over New Guinea there were few instances of jungle crash landings. Pilots preferred to ditch in the ocean where they had a better chance of being recovered.
The AAF designer, whoever he was, knew that American patterns of machetes were not suitable for the Asian mainland where the Tenth Air Force was operating. They could not cut the "tropical hard wood", as could a bolo. For this kit, intended for aerial dropping, there were no size constraints as there were with the individual kits attached to the parachutes. Thus the parachutist's machete is almost Theatre-specific.
This also tells us why they are so scarce. Originally needing only 250 or so the Personal Equipment Laboratory at Wright Field simply did not order very many. But there were enough scattered around for then to be issued at the P.E.O. training school near Orlando and to be used in the illustrations of other kits. I estimate three gross were made. Not many more.
The final puzzle to solve is what to call this knife or better yet, what did the Army Air Force call it? There have been various nomenclatures.
US Army Specification 94-40422-A June 4, 1943, which superseded the original dated October 8, 1942, states:
A-2. The following Army Air Forces Drawings form a part of this specification:
43E10628 Knife Assembly-; 16 inch Utility Sheath, Hand.
One may legitimately ask, I thought the relevant kit was the E-10? [The E-2 was for the Arctic.] True but because the E-10 specification40493 was never "published"; that is, sent to the Government Printing Office to be included in the US Government Catalog as a public document, we must fit together some more pieces of the puzzle. Thus, a copy of 40493 was never filed by GPO and thus it was not sent to the Printed Archives Branch of the National Archives when the GPO collection was sent there. This is not to say Specification 40493 was not printed for it was, by the Wright Field printing facility. Simply no copy was ever sent to the GPO, so no copy is a matter of public record.
Nor can I find one in the Federal Record Center files from Wright Field. The Specification 94-40422-A shows Wright Field printers’ marks not G.P.O.
By 1944 the emergency sustenance and rescue equipment developments were being coordinated through the Air-Sea Rescue Agency, originally formed in the OSS and later assigned to the Coast Guard. Today only a few boxes of records repose in the Coast Guard files in the National Archives.
In 1945 the Air-Sea Rescue Agency published the Air-Sea Rescue Equipment Guide. This is a complete catalog of all the current items which were intended for what we call today Survival. Everything from rations to rafts. The manual has three main parts. A section on pyrotechnics, a section on Navy issue and a section of Army Air Force (AAF) issue.
Every available current kit has every component listed and illustrated.
Quotes from the Guide are quite informative. The notation "C.F.E." listed under the stock number means that the item was "Contractor Furnished Equipment", that is, it was not stocked centrally by the AAF and issued as an item to restock the kit nor was it intended to be centrally stocked as an item of individual equipment.
Though in later years kits were broken up and the bolos issued individually while in the field or in training such issue was local only and no central accountability was maintained. The end item was the complete kit, not its components. Some were stocked but not all.
Stock No. None
Drawing No. 43E 10628.
One 16-inch blade machete with sheath is contained in the E-2, E-8, and E-10 kits. (P 43)
Kit Item Quantity Stock No. Specification
E-2 Knife, 1 No.43E10628machete,(16-inch)with sheath
Availability 28 October 1944 1,320 (P 71)
E-8 Knife, 2 No. 43E 10628machete, (16-inch)with sheath
Availability October 1944 (P 72)
The E-2, E-8 and E-12 kits are limited standard, the E-10s are gone and the E-14 is standard. All are detailed except the E-14 and E-10; one is too new and the other is gone.
The 18-inch machete listed for the E-12 could be an M1942; more likely it is the special order AAF 18-inch Collins No. 37.
Some further remarks are necessary to understand the procurement of the bolo. Emergency Sustenance Kits were procured by the AAF and stocked as complete units. Thus in cases of shortages during assembly or during local repackaging all sorts of suitable items were often substituted for the prescribed items.
If an included item was to be of a Government Issue pattern it was furnished upon request to the contractors and the necessary forms made out to account for it. Keeping in mind the relatively insignificant numbers of kits procured, in relation to the numbers of individual arms or individual aircraft, it is no wonder that items such as hand axes and fishing tackle were not procured in huge quantities and stocked for separate issue. A complete ESK was an expendable item and the main problem in stocking it was to prevent pilfering of the rations, pocketknives, and other useful items contained therein. Thus one stock number sufficed for a full kit and one for an empty kit container. It was too much hassle to account for fish hooks when whole aircraft and their crews were being written off every day.
Due to the lack of sufficiently distinctive official AAF nomenclature for the "KNIFE, MACHETE, 16-inch blade, with sheath" I conclude for lack of a better name that the use of "AAF parachutist's machete" is apropos and distinctive enough, so long as it is spelled in lower case and regarded as a nickname not as official.
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Copyright 2005 Carter Rila