During the Vietnam War, the United States Navy SEALs, a highly trained and elite special operations force, earned a fearsome reputation among the Viet Cong army. They were known as “the men with green faces” because of the eerie green camouflage face paint they applied during their daring operations. However, they were not just the men with green faces; they were also known for something unexpected – their blue jeans.
In stark contrast to the conventional Marine Corps, the Navy SEALs operating in Vietnam operated under their own set of rules. They had their own intelligence networks, managed and deployed their personnel, and even handpicked their equipment. It was not unusual to see SEALs equipped with formidable weapons like the Stoner modular weapon system and wearing distinctive “Coral Boots.” One former Vietnam SEAL, Roger Hayden, succinctly described the SEAL uniform in Vietnam, saying, “You would see guys with Coral Boots on, with their Levi’s and their Rolex watch. You could pick out a [SEAL] in a heartbeat.”
What set these SEALs apart was their preference for American-made Levi’s 501 and 505 denim jeans instead of the standard issue dungarees. This choice was particularly prominent during the late 1970s and early 1971. Levi’s denim jeans offered superior durability in the harsh jungle climate, providing better protection against leeches, mosquitoes, and other pests, especially when worn with pantyhose underneath. There were even accounts of soldiers customizing their Levi’s jeans by sewing on extra pockets made from camouflage fabric.
Camouflage expert Hardy Blechman, from the streetwear brand Maharishi, noted that he had seen SEALs wearing Levi’s and occasionally spotted Levi’s jeans with camouflage or ERDL (Engineer Research and Development Laboratory) cargo pockets attached to them. Members on the US Militaria forum also shared their experiences, with one individual named SEAL76 mentioning, “I wore Levis [sic] 501s with pockets from ERDL blouse sewn on. I tucked the jacket/blouse into my jeans.”
A passage from the book ‘Men in Green Faces’ by former SEAL Gene Wentz described a typical SEAL loadout during Vietnam, including camo tops, Levi’s 501 or camo bottoms, jungle boots, insect repellent, first-aid kits, UDT SEAL life jackets, knives, UDT emergency flares, and, of course, green and black face paint.
Retired Captain Rick Woolard, who commanded two SEAL platoons in Vietnam, explained that while he found Levi’s jeans less comfortable and functional than jungle cammies, he didn’t object to his men wearing them. New jeans were initially stiff, and SEALs preferred well-broken-in pairs. Woolard suggested that blue jeans were more about style than practicality, much like bandanas, beards, and long hair.
During their six to nine-month tours, SEALs typically received a few sets of standard attire, known as cammies. Importantly, Levi’s had no official involvement in SEALs wearing their jeans; they were a private-purchase item. Levi’s historian Tracey Panek mentioned that Levi Strauss & Co. sold products at PX stores on military bases, making it possible for SEALs to purchase them on base. However, in some cases, like SEALs stationed on Sea Float, a Mobile Advanced Tactical Support Base on the river Song Cau Lon in Vietnam, Levi’s were difficult to obtain.
Jonathan Cheung, the former Head of Global Design at Levi’s, pointed out that he had seen images of Special Forces operators wearing Levi’s, which didn’t surprise him. He suggested that the button fly on Levi’s jeans might be more reliable than a zipper in combat situations, as dirt could cause zipper malfunctions. However, opinions varied on this issue, with some arguing that a zipper-free design meant less noise, while others, like Roger Hayden, favored zippers because they kept leeches at bay. In Gene Wentz’s book, he argued in favor of button flies due to their quietness.
A user named Spike, an avid collector of Vietnam-era military combat gear on the US Militaria forum, shed light on the SEALs’ preference for Levi’s. He explained, “At some point, some SEAL decided that Levi’s would be a better choice for pants that could take the abuse that SEALs routinely dealt with. Every platoon would tell the new guys going over, this is what worked, this is what didn’t. Levi’s were a bit of a fashion statement, as SEALs were the only guys in Vietnam using them in a combat environment.”
In the midst of a deadly conflict that reshaped the landscape of warfare, Levi’s jeans became more than just utilitarian clothing for SEALs. They became a symbol of status and even a fashion statement, highlighting the unique and unconventional nature of this elite military force.
Some tips on selecting good jeans:
- Quality jeans are all about the touch. They’re crafted from a robust, heavier denim that not only looks but also feels luxurious. When you’re out shopping, make sure to feel the fabric. In general, unless you’re looking for summer jeans, steer clear of lightweight denim (anything under 12 ounces) as it tends to indicate lower quality. If you can’t find the denim weight on the label, don’t hesitate to ask a salesperson. For online shoppers, check the detailed product description for fabric weight information, which is usually categorized as “light,” “medium,” or “heavy.”
- Keep in mind, heavier denim might feel a bit stiff initially, but it will soften with wear. However, if patience isn’t your strong suit, you can speed up the process by soaking your jeans in a mixture of vinegar and hot water.
- Pay close attention to the stitching on a pair of jeans, especially around the hems, pockets, and side seams. Look for a sturdy, heavy stitch that won’t give in to stress. Double-stitching (two closely spaced rows) and chain-stitching (resembling chain links) are both signs of meticulous craftsmanship, but a single row of thick, durable thread will suffice.
- To assess durability, gently stretch the jeans at the seams. If you notice threads pulling apart, it’s a sign of poor construction. For online shoppers, make use of the zoom feature to inspect stitching details.
- If you’re all about form-fitting comfort, consider stretch denim. Check the label for the percentage of Lycra or Spandex in the fabric; aim for a maximum of 2 percent. While stretch jeans are designed to provide flexibility, excessive stretch can lead to premature wear and sagging. As a rule of thumb, 1 percent offers a hint of comfort, while 2 percent means a more giving fabric. If you’re in between sizes, opt for the smaller size, as stretch jeans tend to loosen with wear.
- Certain design elements and materials can also signal quality. Look for copper buttons and rivets; they indicate a well-constructed product. However, beware of imitations. Some knock-off brands mimic the style of designer jeans, so prioritize material quality over design details. If the information isn’t readily available, exercise caution.
- Designer jeans may be the cream of the crop, but they often come with a hefty price tag. Instead of breaking the bank, use them as a benchmark for quality. Try on a few pairs, even if you don’t plan to buy them. This will give you a sense of what high-quality denim feels like. It’s tempting, of course, but armed with this knowledge, you can shop for quality mid-range labels, like Levi’s and 5.11, which offer both iconic style and tactical features.
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