A Lot of History From a GI Military Canteen

By Major Van Harl

Coastal Artillery Corps Military Canteen. surrounded by Milwaukee Nail & Waukesha Spike.
Coastal Artillery Corps Military Canteen. flanked by a Milwaukee Nail & Waukesha Spike.
Major Van Harl USAF Ret
Major Van Harl USAF Ret

Wisconsin –-(Ammoland.com)- When you watch an old “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 or 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 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_Island_Arsenal) .

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 gold in the middle of combat.

Prior to the invention of airplanes and rocket propelled weapons to protect the US coast line, a system of artillery units was established along our coast 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 deploying 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, the USS Oklahoma.

This French cannon was mounted on rail cars, towed as close to the Germans lines as possible and then fired up to 17 miles down range on to selected German targets. The problem was the 53rd’s railroad rifle could only move on established railroad tracks and the German Air Force knew just where the tracks were. So the 53rd Artillery Regiment had to sneak up on the enemy, fire 30, 1000 pound artillery shells and then get the hell out of Dodge before the Red Baron and other German flyers found 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. In my search I came across 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, 53rd for the 53rd Artillery Regiment and C.A.C. for the pre-war Coastal Artillery Corps. A lot of US history in one used canteen I got for $1.99 at a Goodwill Store.

While doing research I learned about R.I.A. and the many and varied items the US Army manufactures there to support our Nation in time of need. R.I.A. also has one of the oldest Army Museums.

Wars do not just happen and they surely do not happen without logistics. The best soldier in the world is extremely ineffective without the needed weapons, ammo and field gear. The problem is the type of field gear needed is not found on the shelves of sporting goods stores.

Field gear that can meet the demands of soldiers in combat has to be designed, developed and tested to ensure that the equipment can in fact hold up to the hard destructive use of land based fighting or on board a ship of war.

Just because the US military has designed a great piece of field gear that will help a Marine fight more effectively does not mean it will get manufactured with the quality needed and demanded by those who fight for our country. Many a manufacturing contractor down through the ages of warfare has lied and cheated the government when they signed on to provide well made gear for the troops. Civilian contractors and uniformed supply officers have gone to jail for cheating their superiors. Yes, they may be punished but it is the front line troop who really suffers.

R.I.A. was established by the US Army to develop and produce the highest quality military weapons and gear possible. Canteens made for WWI were sound enough and of the lasting quality that these canteens manufactured in 1917 saw service in WWII and the Korean War. Some of the WWI gear made at R.I.A. found its way to Vietnam. Not because our 1960’s military was cheap and used old, outdated gear, but because some of that WWI gear was still very serviceable.

During the Civil War R.I.A. was use as a Confederate P.O.W. camp. There is a Confederate Cemeteries on that island that is maintained by the US Army. One of my family members who served in a Virginian Cavalry unit was interned there, died there and was buried there deliberately under an incorrect name. It took my sister over three years to get his name corrected on his headstone.

I need to go to R.I.A. to see our Nation’s history, to see where they currently make the best combat gear in the world, to see my relative’s grave and perhaps to return my WWI canteen to its origin. Who knows maybe it will make it into the R.I.A. museum.

If you get the chance to buy used GI canteens I strongly suggest you take advantage. Hard times are coming and you will have to carry your own water. You need something that will hold up under hard and damaging pressure of crisis living. Armies around the world use American designed and manufactured canteens and this started at Rock Island Arsenal (www.usagria.army.mil/default.aspx).

A history lesson for only $1.99, now go check your attic and the local garage sales.

Major Van Harl USAF Ret.

[email protected]

About Major Van Harl USAF Ret.:Major Van E. Harl USAF Ret., a career Police Officer in the U.S. Air Force was born in Burlington, Iowa, USA, in 1955. He was the Deputy Chief of police at two Air Force Bases and the Commander of Law Enforcement Operations at another. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Infantry School.  A retired Colorado Ranger and currently is an Auxiliary Police Officer with the Cudahy PD in Milwaukee County, WI.  His efforts now are directed at church campus safely and security training.  He believes “evil hates organization.”  [email protected]

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Charlie Durham

What a wonderful article! Thank you so much. My father was a WWII vet in Europe, had his old canteen when I was a kid, wish I had it now.. Thanks again

Scott Pierce

A great article about the importance of history and the uses of the knowledge obtained… similarly I have possession of a canteen and cup from WWll inscribed with 13 South Pacific islands. The history is those were battles fought and beachheads made by an American soldier, the stories that were told of those 37 months that man survived before arriving in Japan and then returning stateside are important as many can’t or won’t remember. Seriously some people will recall some such as the New Herbredies, Guaducanal, New Zealand, New Guinea, Luzon in the Philippines or even New Caledonian. Maybe not… Read more »

Greg Odum

Major Van Harl, we were stationed at Chanute AFB together. This is Greg Odum. Thanks for the article and history lesson. I’m going to try to go to R I A this summer when I travel cross country.