The most distinctive uniform item worn by air cavalrymen in Vietnam was the Cav hat. This tradition is believed to have been originated in early 1964 by LTC John B. Stockton (Commander of 3/17 Cavalry) at Fort Benning, Georgia. The hat was adopted in an effort to increase esprit de corps in the new air cavalry squadron and was meant to emulate the look of the 1876 pattern campaign hat worn by cavalry troopers long ago. Once units deployed to Vietnam, the custom slowly spread to other air cavalry units, and by the cessation of hostilities, virtually all air cav (and some ground cav) units had adopted the Cav hat.
The Cav Hat was a private purchase item that cost a wallet-stretching $29 in 1972. It was most often supplied by the Stetson Hat Company. Because Stetson supplied most of the hats, the name "Stetson" became interchangeable with Cav hat. Several Asian suppliers provided "knock off" copies, but the quality of workmanship was greatly inferior to that of the Stetson.
While unit commanders did not mandate the wearing of the hats, there was considerable peer pressure to conform, and most troopers quickly added the Cav hat to their wardrobes. Just as World War 11 paratroopers were fond of their jump suits, wearing them long after issue had ceased, so too did the Cav hat instill fierce pride and loyalty in the units where it was worn. Most air cavalry veterans interviewed by the author proudly cherish their Cav hats today.
Because the hats were delivered from the manufacturer in the U.S. there was an understandably long turnaround time between ordering and delivery. In some units, members were killed in action or MEDEVACed to the United States before the arrival of their hats. Thus, current unit members sometimes accepted hats meant for departed comrades.
Stetsons were constructed of a high grade fur felt with an interior leather sweatband and a silk hat ribbon around the base of the crown. The manufacturer provided a black leather chin strap, which also held the hat cord in place. The type of hat cord worn varied according to rank, as follows: general officers, all gold braid; officers, gold and black intertwined braid; warrant officers, silver and black intertwined braid; enlisted men, yellow wool or nylon.
The cord was a copy of the acorn-ended 1899 pattern, worn on the 1885 pattern campaign hat. Members of B-2/17 Cav further garnished their Cav hats with the addition of a beaded "Indian" hat band and feather, D-3/5 Cav appears to be the only unit that wore gray Cav hats. When D-3/5 Cav exchanged designations with C-3/17 Cav in 1971, C-3/17 carried on the Light Horse tradition of gray Cav hats.
On the Cav hat, most officers and warrant officers wore some combination of officer rank insignia and crossed cavalry sabers. There were instances in which several troops of different squadrons wore the distinctive red and white background trimming-commonly referred to as a jump wing oval-on the front of the cav hat. This oval was authorized for 1/17 Cav, a non-air cavalry squadron of the 82nd Airborne Division, located at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The Cav hat was remarkably durable and was easily cleaned of dirt and lint by buffing with a shoe brush. In several units, a "wetting down" ceremony was conducted, during which the newbies were accepted as members of the troop. Before they could wear their hats, however, they were required to "chug-a-lug" a hatful of cold beer. There are several instances in which air cavalrymen, after being shot down, raced back into their burning aircraft to save their precious Cav hats.
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Last update 6 April 1997