by André B. Sobocinski
Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Historian
Naval Medical Research Center
March 26, 2019
In June 1951, the Navy shipped prototypes of its newly designed armored utility jacket to Korea where it would be worn by select Marine and Army combat units. After three months of assessing its value, Navy medical observers in theater concluded that this protective clothing was universally desired by combat troops, had a positive "psychological influence on morale" and minimized the risk of fatality.
The Navy was still perfecting the design when word of this "miraculous life saving device" spread across the combat theater leading to fervent requisitions from the services. By June 27, 1953 - the date of the Korean War cease-fire - the Navy had received a total of 121,000 orders from the Army and Marine Corps.
The armored utility jacket was the product and brainchild of the Naval Medical Field Research Laboratory (NMFRL) in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Founded August 30, 1943, through a joint agreement by Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, NMFRL was dedicated to "scientific research, development and testing pertinent and peculiar to the practice of amphibious medicine." The laboratory's proximity to amphibious personnel training under simulated battle conditions allowed for unique "frontline" evaluation of field-level conditions.
At its peak, the NMFRL was comprised of physicians, scientists, engineers and technicians organized into eight specific departments - Biophysics, Microbiology, Entomology, Body Armor and Wound Ballistics, Physiology, Biochemistry, Psychology, and Equipment Testing and Development.
Although body armor may have been the lab's most significant early achievement, over its three decades of existence its staff was actively engaged in everything from the investigation of UV light protection to the field evaluation of adenovirus vaccine to perfecting cold weather gear to studying heat stress casualties.
During the Vietnam War, NMFRL scientists devised a silicone-based ointment to prevent immersion foot, an incapacitating condition caused by overexposure to water. The Navy-led field studies revealed that the ointment prevented 75 percent of immersion foot cases in battlefield conditions. In 1966, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Wallace Greene would call the silicone ointment one of the most significant medical innovations of the war.
For years NMFRL investigated methods for controlling mosquito-based diseases. In the mid-1960s, the lab began experimenting with light-weight, wide-mesh netting treated with insect repellent for use in field tents. Out of this research came the development of the so-called anti-mosquito netting jacket or mosquito shirt. Like the field tents, the polyester-cotton jacket was treated with an insect repellent that produced a "vapor barrier" between the openings of the jacket's mesh fabric. Lab personnel successfully field tested the jacket in Alaska, Africa, Indonesia, Panama, Vietnam and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and found that it could protect the wearer for up to a thousand hours. The jacket would later become commercially available and released under an assortment of names (e.g. "bug jacket").
Despite the beneficial work conducted by NMFRL, medical leadership questioned the long-term value of the laboratory in the post-Vietnam era. Originally partly subsidized by the Marine Corps, BUMED would assume complete funding responsibility beginning in fiscal year 1972. Soon after, at the behest of BUMED, NMFRL was formally disestablished July 1, 1976, just short of its 33rd birthday.