The United States is not the only country with uniforms that match the surrounding environment, but Americans absolutely embrace camouflage much more than any other citizenry. On the streets of Los Angeles you will catch skateboarders roll down the beach boardwalks wearing a set of camo cutoffs. Every year young men take to the Rocky Mountains covered in Realtree camo jackets looking to bag their first buck. Major League Baseball even makes camouflage a part of every team’s uniform for a few games every year. Yes it is clear that Americans love our camouflage, but for one small portion of the country camouflage is more than an occasional fashion statement. All branches of our military wear camouflage “with the aim of confusing, misleading, or evading the enemy” according to the Department of Defense. In this article we will break down the differing patterns of camouflage throughout the history of the United States military.
American camouflage would not exist if it weren’t for the unsung heroes known as the camofleurs. After seeing the French military create effective camouflage with the help of French artists the United States followed suit creating the American Camouflage Corps in the US Army and the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps. Both units were filled with artists that applied the drab colors of animals hiding in nature to vehicles, buildings, and clothes during the back quarter of World War 1. Uncle Sam recruited women artists urging them to “experiment alone by applying house paint, in landscape colors, to big pieces of sailcloth or canvas … and see how clearly it can disappear”. Barry Faulkner, an accomplished American muralist, worked together with Sherry Fry to build a private network they called the camouflage society. This new privately built team banded together hell bent on camouflaging military weaponry and vehicles on the battlefield. With a membership of around 100 artists and architects, the society offered services to the government. The foundation of American camouflage is the undying patriotism of these couple hundred volunteers using their talents to provide protection for military men battling overseas. The history of camo is not complete without the acknowledgement of the original Camofleurs.
Camouflage for Women Artists. The Buffalo Enquirer (Buffalo, New York) November 12, 1917, p 4
American muralist Barry Faulkner (c1918), wearing camoufleur's patch
M1942 – “Frog Skin” Camouflage (1942)
Between WW1 and WW2 the US Army Corps of Engineers continued moving the camouflage process forward for the American military. In 1942, General Douglas MacArthur made an urgent request for 150,000 jungle camouflage uniforms to be issued to troops in the pacific theatre. The chosen pattern was designed by Norvell Gillespie, whose other achievements include being the garden editor for Better Homes and Garden and authoring the book “Sunset’s Popular Flower Book”. This is fitting because the M1942 pattern included a five color green and brown dapple or spot design to match the flora of pacific jungles plus the reverse of the uniform is a three color tan and brown to blend in with the beaches of the pacific. The United States Marine Corps used the M1942 uniforms most during the conflicts of WW2, but this pattern was also used sparingly by the Army. Perhaps the most notable variation of the frog skin is that which was used in the European theatre. This is because the German military had similar uniforms which ultimately resulted in an increased amount of friendly fire incidents.
U.S. Marines in M1942 camouflage go ashore at Tarawa, ca. 20-23 November, 1943
M1942 “Frog Skin” Pattern
Olive Drab (OG-107)
The next big change in the uniform of the American fighting force was the introduction of the Olive Drab work utility uniform in 1952. The early 1900’s garrison uniforms for the military included denim and suits, but the uniform board changed that starting in 1949 when they created the field and work clothing category for military uniforms. The first uniform applied to the services in this category is the all green OG-107 that was worn by each branch throughout the Korean War. The monochromatic symbol of the post WW2 military went through three different iterations prior to being retired in 1989. Most notably for many is the type III uniform worn by the cast of the great American series MASH. While the type I (1952 – 1963) would’ve been the only uniform actually worn by the cast in the Korean War all three types of the iconic cotton sateen utility uniform were used by the crew.
The cast of MASH with OG-107 uniforms
Olive drab uniforms in the Korean War
Vietnam Tiger Stripe
This particular camouflage is the most interesting in the history of American camouflage in my opinion. Why? Because this pattern concealed Special Forces throughout the vicious Vietnam war even though it was never an official pattern. Aside from the tiger stripe all uniforms are dictated by military leadership through orders. The original tiger stripe was actually another invention of the French who used the French lizard camouflage from 1947 through to the early 80’s. The Vietnamese Marine Corps used a variant of the French lizard camouflage that would match the foliage in their country. As the saying goes turnabout is fair play so United States Special Forces started wearing tiger stripe camo of their own both on and off duty. Being that this was an unofficial camouflage pattern many of the tiger stripe uniforms worn were made by local tailors. This would allow for service members to build something out that really blended in to a very specific environment more so than just that of a certain region. That is unless they were wearing blue jeans with their tiger stripe which would kill some of the concealment capabilities.
Navy SEALS wearing durable jeans and tiger stripe
Woodland Camo (M81 Woodland)
The successor to the iconic olive drab uniform was the woodland camo pattern that was introduced into the armed forces in 1981. In the late 40’s the Army Corps of Engineers built the predecessor to the M81 camo pattern in the Engineering Research & Development Laboratories (ERDL). This pattern was made for Special Forces who ended up preferring tiger stripe by a mile, so there was ultimately no real impact initially. The impact came in 1981 when the pattern from the ERDL camo was enlarged and blobs made more irregular. Vietnam was over, the US military was transitioning out of close range combat to move towards more long range conflicts. The increased irregularity along with larger pattern totally destroyed any kind of camouflaging up close, but was meant to be effective at longer distances. The M81 is made up of four colors: sand, brown, green, and black put together in a disruptive pattern which is meant to break up the outline of the user. The Navy still uses this pattern for some units, the Army for jungle applications, and it is commonly seen in American local police forces.
Army soldiers at infantry training
MARPAT – Woodland & Desert
In the early 2000’s all the military branches decided it was time to make branch specific camouflage patterns. MARPAT stands for Marine Pattern and was designed to replace the M81 camouflage being used since the 80’s in the Marine Corps. Two distinct patterns, woodland and desert, were created to use in different environments similar to the frog skin camouflage we touched on earlier. Marine Corps Captain Pete Mitchell stated "We want to be instantly recognized as a force to be reckoned with. We want them to see us coming a mile away in our new uniforms.” Which seems counterintuitive at the very least. The MARPAT design has been referred to as branding the battlefield because camouflage prior to this were meant to hide people. When first introduced a common rumor was the square design on the digi-cammies would make it hard for satellites to see Marines as they zoomed into the battlefield. That is not true. What is true is that MARPAT was the catalyst for change in every other branch of the military through the early 2000’s.
Marines in desert MARPAT during OEF
Airmen Battle Uniform
The first branch to follow the Marine Corp’s lead was the US Air Force. In 2004 they introduced the Airmen Battle Uniform which can be thought of as a digitized tiger stripe. The stripes on this uniform are earth tones of tan, grey, green, and blue. Ultimately, this pattern has proven quite ineffective especially when considering current conflicts. The ABU is not allowed to be used in the Middle East in order to keep airmen uniform to soldiers. To do this the Air Force switched over to the Operation Camouflage Pattern that is similar to what the Army wears. Also, the ABU’s cannot be worn in Asia because the excessive heat generated by the thick material.
ABU phased out in this Article from 445th Wing
Army Combat Uniform
The ACU was introduced shortly after the introduction of MARPAT. Utilizing three colors (desert sand, urban gray, and foliage green) the uniform board aimed to create a digitized camouflage that would work in a desert environment, woodland environment, and urban environment. These uniforms were deployed in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Originally the pattern used was the Universal Camouflage Pattern, but this was ultimately replaced with the use of MultiCam for Operation Enduring Freedom. MultiCam showed that the Army learned from the involvement of OIF because the pattern blended better with the urban environment where this war would be fought. Two more important additions for OEF was the addition of flame retardant materials and permethrin treated material that would help prevent the spread of insect-borne diseases.
Army crewman wearing Universal Camouflage ACU’s
Field testing of the “new” multicam
Navy Work Uniform
The last branch to adapt to the new age of digital camouflage was the Navy. The work uniform camouflage is codified as Area of Responsibility 1 (AOR1) and Area of Responsibility 2 (AOR 2) are the letter descriptors for the woodland and desert uniforms. What does distinguish the camouflage is the types, type II and III are for the Navy’s expeditionary units like the SEAL’s. The goal of the patterns is the increased success of missions along with survivability in combat operations.
Type III NWU’s