From Utah Beach to Kabul: How Army gear changed since D-Day

The basics are the same: A uniform, a helmet, boots, a rucksack, and a rifle. But that's about the only similarities between what a D-Day soldier and one in Afghanistan took into combat.

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A comparison of the 'battle rattle' of a D-Day Army soldier and a 2014 Army soldier. U.S. Army

At a distance, the two soldiers look pretty much the same. But up close, the parallels fall away as what was new and cutting edge in 1944 looks almost impossibly simple by comparison in 2014.

Today is June 6, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, perhaps the most important day in the history of American warfare. On that day, more than 150,000 American, British, and Canadian combatants stormed a 60-mile stretch of the beaches of Normandy over 24 hours, setting in motion the eventual liberation of France and allied victory over Germany in the European theater of World War II.

The price, of course, was painful. On D-Day alone, 2,499 Americans died, along with 1,914 from other Allied nations, according to England's D-Day Museum. Leading the charge for the Americans was the Army's "Big Red One," the famous, and oft-chronicled, 1st Infantry Division.

Winning World War II, of course, was hardly the end of the American combat experience in general, or for the 1st Infantry Division. Since 1944, American soldiers have fought and died in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and many other places. And over the years, the basics have stayed the same: A soldier goes into the battlefield with a uniform, a helmet, boots, a rucksack, and a rifle.

But that's about where the similarities end.

In the run up to the D-Day anniversary, CNET wanted to see just how the gear, equipment, and weaponry of a US Army soldier who assaulted one of the Normandy beaches differed from one who is fighting today in Afghanistan. Thanks to the Army, which provided CNET with the above graphic, it's easy to see just how much things have changed for the individual soldier over the last 70 years.

To begin with, according to the graphic, the D-Day soldier, for the most part, was outfitted with nine basic items plus rations.

By comparison, today's soldier is sent into the field with 16 items plus meals. And while many of 2014's soldier's items are in the same categories (a rifle, for example) as his or her 1944 predecessors, 70 years of progress have without question upgraded the power, protectiveness and complexity of all that gear.

The 'battle rattle'

There's probably no 100 percent definitive list of what D-Day soldiers went into battle with, given the vagaries of different units, commanders, and even personal choice. The same may well be true today. But the Army's graphic probably spells it out as much as possible.

For starters, the D-Day solder wore a simple steel helmet.

Add to that an M-1943 combat field uniform, a combat belt with ammunition pouches, and an M 42 entrenching tool with a folding handle.

The soldier would have also had a first-aid pouch complete with Carlisle Field bandages, and would have carried a one-quart M1910 canteen.

For a weapon, the soldier would have had an M1 .30 caliber carbine, and an M3 fighting knife, as well as 100 rounds in 10-round magazines. He or she would have had standard combat service boots, and laced khaki canvas leggings. For food, it would have been K-Rations opened with a P-38 can opener.

Today's Army soldier has a much more modern set up, known informally as "battle rattle."

The basics begin with an Army combat helmet, with an attached nape pad that's designed to better protect soldiers' necks, and a fire-resistant Army combat uniform, mountain combat boots, combat gloves, ballistic eye protection, and a set of knee and elbow pads.

For a rifle, today's soldier carries an M4 carbine that can be in either semi-automatic or 3-round burst mode, and which can be outfitted with a grenade launcher or a laser range finder with digital compass that helps provide range and direction to a target. He or she carries 210 round in 30-round magazines.

There's also an M9 semi-automatic, double-action pistol that carries 15 rounds.

Like the D-Day soldier, today's Army combatant carries a first-aid kit, in this case known as "Improved," which includes a field dressing and tourniquet. Instead of relying on a canteen, the soldier wears a 3-quart hydration system on his or her back, along with a combined rucksack/vest system known as a MOLLE.

Short for modular lightweight load-carrying equipment system, the MOLLE is designed to carry everything from food to eye protection, a GPS locator, and even the first-aid kit.

On top of the helmet, or "clay beret," the soldier wears a PVS 14 night vision goggles set, and attached to the uniform, there's a multi-band intra- and inter-team radio for communicating with their unit or with command. The radio can send and receive images from the battlefield, as well as topographical maps, and other important command and control information.

The radio is augmented by a GPS locator and pedometer dead-reckoning system that uses 5 Earth-orbiting satellites to determine a soldier's location relative to their unit or their objective.

Finally, today's soldier carries 1st Strike MREs, or meals ready to eat.

 

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