Throughout the 19th century, the United States Army wore blue jackets or blouses on the battlefield as well as on the parade ground. Only during the end of the century did the United States follow the lead of Great Britain and other European powers and adopt “khaki” as a summer uniform for use in the American West. Yet, even during the Spanish-American War, many units went off to Cuba wearing blue wool blouses and jackets.
Actual camouflage was still nearly half a century away, and it was only in 1940 that the Army Corps of Engineers began to experiment with camouflage.
The first true pattern was known as the “frog” pattern, as it was created with the help of a horticulturist and gardening editor at Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The pattern featured rounded shapes – and had two faces, one that was green for spring and summer, and one that was brown for fall and early winter. While it was issued briefly to some soldiers during the Normandy campaign in northern France, it was removed from service due to the fact that there were fears it too closely resembled the camouflage in use with Nazi Germany’s Waffen SS units.
However, the “frog” camouflage was widely issued in the Pacific – but even then there was a serious issue. The U.S. Army opted to produce a single-piece jumpsuit, which proved too ill-suited to the hot jungle conditions of the Pacific. The United States Marine Corps adopted it as a two-piece utility suit, which proved adequate. The pattern was soon imitated by many foreign armies after the war.
After World War II efforts were made to develop a new camouflage pattern using patterns of “leaves and twigs” with mixed results. Often known simply as the Leaf pattern, it was developed by the U.S. Army’s Engineer Research & Development Laboratories (ERDL) but it wasn’t used until the Vietnam War when it was employed by elite reconnaissance and special operations forces in early 1967.
Two versions of ERDL were originally developed – and both featured four colors printed in an interlocking pattern that included black “branches” along with a mix of mid-green “leaf” highlights and brown colors. The brown-dominant version was unofficially known as the “highland” variant, while the green-dominant version was “lowland.”
The Marine Corps adopted the green “Lowland” version as standard issue in South Vietnam in 1968. While the U.S. Army also issued the pattern to special operators, after the withdrawal of the U.S. military from Vietnam in 1973 the Army no longer issued camouflage except in unique cases. However, the 1st Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment, tested the ERDL-leaf pattern when the unit was stationed in Germany. The pattern was then further tested by units of the 1st and 2nd Ranger Battalions as well as the 82nd Airborne Division.
ERDL was widely copied and used by the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, as well as by Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand. The Philippines and Singapore among the other nations that also adopted a version of camouflage that was widely based on the ERDL, and today a similar pattern is used by the Czech Armed Forces as the “Woodland pattern vz. 95.”
The Battle Dress Uniform
In 1981 with the adoption of the Battle Dress Uniform, the U.S. Armed Forces again considered the need for camouflage, and ERDL was refined and reintroduced as the “woodland pattern.” Because the four-color, high contrast disruptive pattern was nearly identical to the highland ERDL, this has led to some confusion as to when it was first adopted. However, the woodland pattern differed in that it is printed from an enlargement of the original while the borders of the splotches were all reconfigured to make the pattern less regular. Unlike ERDL, woodland camo does not repeat at all horizontally across the width of the bolt, but it does repeat vertically. It has a higher contrast that makes it more effective at distance, which reflects the shift in tactical focus of the United States military that moved from the extreme close-range fighting seen in the Vietnam War to one that would be at far longer ranges in a potential war in Europe.
The woodland pattern has also been dubbed as the “M81 pattern” – based on its year of introduction – but that was never an official military designation for the camouflage.
Unlike prior patterns such as “frog” or “tiger stripe,” which were not widely employed across the military, woodland camo was the first true camouflage to be adopted by all U.S. military branches of service. M81 camo was also used throughout the law enforcement community.
Woodland camo first saw use in the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada where it is widely employed by the members of the United States Marine Corps, while some Army units were also seen using it. The m81 camo was seen in the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, codenamed “Operation Just Cause.” This m81 camo pattern of camouflage remained in use throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
However, because of U.S. actions in Iraq and Somalia and later Afghanistan, it was largely overshadowed by the Desert Battle Dress Uniform (DBDU), a six-color camouflage pattern designed for arid-environments, which earned the nickname “chocolate chip” pattern for its resemblance to cookie dough; and later the Desert Camouflage Uniform (BDU)
Both the M81 woodland pattern and BDU were replaced by the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), a digital pattern that was chosen after laboratory and field tests showed it to be ideal for multiple environments. However, UCP proved inadequate for nearly every terrain and it has been replaced by the Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP), which is used with the current Army Combat Uniform (ACU).
While the actual patterns and shapes are different, it easy to see how the OCP has been strongly influenced by the ERDL/M81 woodland pattern camouflage – proving that maybe you shouldn’t mess with a good thing.
The Legacy of Woodland Camo
As with the ERDL, woodland camo proved so effective – or at least seemingly so – that more than two dozen countries around the world adopted a variation. The Russian TTsKO (tryokhtsvetnaya kamuflirovannaya odezdha) was a copy of the ERDL/M81 woodland that was used briefly following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
M81 woodland camo is a military example that evokes the old saying that “good artists borrow, great artists steal” – and in the case of camouflage while it was designed to conceal a soldier it has been seen in use around the world, and is still unlikely to fade into the trees anytime soon.
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