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This Month in AFMS History: 75th Anniversary of the first body armor suits delivered to Eighth Air Force

B-17 Flying Fortress radio operator Sgt. James Bothwell, smiles as he displays the back of the flak jacket that saved his life over Germany. He sustained only minor injuries. (U.S. Air Force photo)

B-17 Flying Fortress radio operator Sgt. James Bothwell, smiles as he displays the back of the flak jacket that saved his life over Germany. He sustained only minor injuries. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Brig. Gen. Malcolm C. Grow (left), designer of protective equipment for combat fliers, and Brig. Gen. Leon Johnson (right) look over a modified vest and new helmet worn by Staff Sgt. Ambrous T. Hansen (center), a gunner on a B-24 Liberator. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Brig. Gen. Malcolm C. Grow (left), designer of protective equipment for combat fliers, and Brig. Gen. Leon Johnson (right) look over a modified vest and new helmet worn by Staff Sgt. Ambrous T. Hansen (center), a gunner on a B-24 Liberator. (U.S. Air Force photo)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- During World War II, small fragments of high-explosive shells traveling at relatively low velocities caused the majority of bomber air and ground crew casualties. Col. Malcom C. Grow, the 8th Army Air Force surgeon who would go on to become the first U.S. Air Force Surgeon General, pioneered the use of body armor to protect fliers from these injuries.

Adding protective armor to planes made them too heavy. Grow realized that armoring the flight crews themselves would add protection without overburdening the aircraft, and set out to design armored suits for aircrews. In March 1943, Grow delivered twelve body armor suites for testing in actual combat situations.

Grow reasoned that wearing armor would not hinder crew movement since they did not move around much during flight. Preliminary testing of armor proved so favorable that Lt. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, the 8th Air Force commander, approved procurement for testing. By Jan. 1, 1944, 13,500 suits had been produced.

Commonly referred to by fliers as a “flak vest” or “flak suit,” the two-piece protective wear covered the chest, abdomen, groin, and back, at a weight of only 16 pounds. It consisted of an armored vest worn over the uniform, and an apron section that hung from the vest’s bottom. In an emergency, fliers could quickly discard the entire ensemble by pulling a single red-colored strap. Pilots and copilots typically wore less armor than the rest of the crew. The Airmen called the armored helmet the “Grow Helmet” for the colonel’s work to create it.

Body armor saved lives. An 8th Air Force study found that body armor prevented approximately 74 percent of wounds in protected areas. Once adopted in World War II, body armor reduced the rate of wounds sustained by aircrews on missions by 60 percent. Besides saving lives, body armor boosted aircrew morale during stressful missions over enemy territory.