The year is 1945 and U.S. forces are taking back Philippine Islands from the Japanese.
Lt. Col. Henry Mucci and his 133 Rangers are staging a daring rescue of allied POWs at the Cabanatuan prison camp. Mucci checks his watch; it's time. At 1700 hours on January 30, the Rangers step off from their staging area at Platero. At 1745 hours, they reach their checkpoint at the Pampanga River and split into the two elements for the impending raid.
At 1800 hours, a P-61 Black Widow takes off from Lingayen Field. At 1855 hours, the pilot cuts the engines over the prison camp, drops altitude, and restarts his engines to produce loud backfires and simulate a crippled plane. He circles the camp at low altitude, continuously cutting and restarting his engines and causing an aerial spectacle for the next 20 minutes. This distraction turns the attention of the Japanese soldiers skyward and allows the Rangers to crawl undetected through the low grass leading up to the camp and take their positions for the raid. At 1944 hours, Lt. John Murphy and his support by fire element open up on the Japanese guard towers with a murderous crescendo of gunfire that signals the start of the raid.
The raid at Cabanatuan is just one example of the necessity for precise timing and synchronization in military operations. Before the advent of timepieces, the rising of the sun often served as a method of synchronization, with attacks occurring at first light. Although pocket watches were becoming more popular and commonplace in the late 1800s, they were not standard-issue in the military. The history of U.S. Military watches begins in the trenches of WWI.
The British Army experimented with the idea of a wrist watch a few decades before WWI in the Boer War, but the need for a timepiece worn on the wrist became more apparent in the trenches. During the war, officers would often signal the start of a synchronized charge against an enemy trench with the blow of a whistle. The timing of these attacks was crucial, with some being miles long. Holding a whistle in one hand and a pistol in the other, fumbling with a pocket watch just wasn't practical.
As a quick-fix solution, metal lugs were soldered on and leather or canvas straps were fashioned to convert a pocket watch to a wristwatch. Trench watches, as they were known, were generally made of chrome plate or solid silver to prevent rusting in the damp trenches. The crystals that covered the face of the watches were made of vulnerable glass. Officers with a bit more money would fit their watches with a protective metal cage called a shrapnel guard to prevent damage to the crystal.
Three examples of trench watches with shrapnel guards (photo from hodinkee.com)
By America's entry into the war in 1917, many doughboys headed for the western front were issued wristwatches. American watch companies like Waltham and Elgin provided the timepieces which were rushed into service. Because of the haste, only some of the watches were marked "ORD" (U.S. Ordnance).
The development of military wristwatches continued in the inter-war period. Following military specifications, Swiss manufacturer Longines released the A-7 pilot's watch for the Army Air Corps. Though new technology allowed watches to be made smaller while maintaining high levels of accuracy, the A-7 was oversized and resembled a canted pocket watch. Designed to be worn on the outside of a flight jacket, the watch's large size made it more legible for pilots who could check the time with a quick glance without having to remove their hands from the controls.
The A-7 featured a single-button chronograph integrated into the onion-shaped crown. (photo from wornandwound.com)
By WWII, the military wristwatch had evolved into something more recognizable today in the form of the "field watch." The most notable of these was the A-11 (though this refers to a mil-spec production standard and not a specific model name). The Army required the watch to be water or dustproof, resistant to extreme temperatures, powered by a hacking (stoppable for synchronization) 15-jewel minimum movement (jewels are used to reduce friction on the gears of a mechanical watch) with a power reserve of 30-56 hours and accuracy of +/-30 seconds per day, and feature a black dial with white numerals and markings.
Though they were primarily issued to the Air Corps, A-11 watches also found themselves on wrists of infantry and other ground-based troops. American watch manufacturers Waltham, Elgin, and Bulova produced watches to A-11 specifications in such large quantities that it has been given the nickname "The Watch That Won The War". Similar to A-11 specification, watches produced under the "Ordnance Department" specification utilized a sub-seconds register and were intended specifically for ground troops.
An A-11 spec Bulova (photo by User STR via MWRFoum)
An Ordnance Department spec Elgin (photo from emedals.com)
By the Vietnam War, watches were becoming more specialized. Radioactive paint illuminated the hands and indices of a watch, allowing it to be read in the dark. Dive watches provided exceptional underwater performance at previously unheard of depths, and rotating bezels allowed for timing or the tracking of multiple time zones.
The MIL-W-3818 wrist watch specification saw minor changes throughout the war, but the general guidelines remained the same. Watches featured a parkerized stainless steel case, a black dial, white numerals and indices, hands with green luminescent paint, an acrylic crystal, and a 17-jewel movement with hacking, 36 hours of power reserve, and an accuracy of +/-30 seconds per day. Manufacturers Benrus, Hamilton, Marathon and Altus produced watches for the military under this specification.
The Benrus DTU-2A/P was the first watch produced to MIL-W-3818B spec. (photo from 60clicks.com)
Increasingly, service members were buying their own watches from the PX for use in combat. The Glycine Airman was the first watch capable of tracking multiple time zones via a rotating 24-hour bezel. Because of this feature, it became immensely popular with pilots who crossed multiple time zones in a single day. This popularity extended to military pilots who famously purchased Airman watches from PX's in Southeast Asia and wore them into combat.
An unnamed captain returns from a sortie and gives a thumbs up with a Glycine Airman on his left wrist. (photo from wornandwound.com)
Although Rolex was not the luxury brand that it is today, the Swiss-made precision tool watches still came at a considerable cost in the 1960's. On August 13, 1969, Army Specialist Alex P. Saunders purchased a Rolex Submariner 5513 from the PX at Quan Loi, Vietnam. Saunders paid $234.50 ($1,638.23 adjusted for inflation in 2020) which he recalls, "…was a whole month's take home for a Buck Sergeant at the time." The next day, Saunders went out on a mission with his 5-man MACV-SOG Recon Team.
Upon helicopter infil, Saunders and his team came under heavy enemy fire. "During things going on, I had my watch band popped off and I lost the Rolex for a while. I remember digging around in the brush looking for it while we were in contact," Saunders recalls. "I also remember catching hell from the other guys in my unit. In retrospect, maybe I should have paid a little more attention to the bad guys and less to my investment in the Rolex. Years later, not so much." Today, a Rolex Submariner 5513 sells for an average of $12,000 with exceptional examples fetching as much as $35,000.
Saunders wearing his Rolex in Vietnam. (photo from QualityTyme.net)
These days, most service members are seen wearing personally bought Casio G-Shocks which are famous for their affordability and durability. The Suunto Core and GPS watches have also become increasingly popular with ground troops. However, many service members may be surprised to learn that the military still has mil-spec wristwatches available through the GSA Global Supply Catalog. Issued more commonly during the 1990's, Marathon wristwatches are Swiss-made and can be purchased by unit supply clerks to be issued to formations. Of course, with the proliferation of affordable watches like G-Shocks and military budget limitations, these watches are rarely ordered and issued in the 21st century.
Since WWI, personal timekeeping has been a necessary function in the U.S. Military. Horological technology has evolved through the 20th century making accurate timekeeping available to the masses in the form of affordable, battery-powered quartz watches. Despite the more commonplace use of smartphones and smartwatches to tell the time, the humble wrist watch continues to be a mainstay in the formations of the U.S. Military. Just don't expect that digital G-Shock you bought at the PX to be worth thousands of dollars in 50 years.