29 April 2017

USAF N-3B Snorkel Parka

This iconic jacket is the grandfather of fur hood winter coats everywhere.

By In Style 8 min read

My fascination with American military clothing has pushed me down another rabbit-hole. My newest acquisition is an original issued specimen of one of the most legendary winter coats the United States ever developed: An N-3B snorkel parka from 1957.

Around the Second World War the American army realized they needed more functional clothing; cold-weather clothing was not well-developed yet. Pilots wore leather jackets that looked amazing, but were often nog warm enough during flights. And ground personnel had it even worse, on aircraft carriers and army bases in snowy climates the normal coats just weren’t warm enough to let them stay outside for very long. The N series of winter jackets, also called parkas, was created to fill that need. The official classification of “JACKET,FLYING, MAN’S, EXTREME COLD WEATHER” gives you an idea of the problem they were trying to solve.

The inspiration for the N line came from the indigenous Inuit people, who were extremely experienced in surviving the bitter colds. They used animal furs in their clothing around their head and wrists, because the fur was a natural barrier against the wind and cold. This feature was copied to the N parkas, using fur around the hood to protect the soldier’s faces. This hood, the precursor to all modern winter coats that have fur around the hood, was designed so it could be zipped up all the way to the eyes. This way a soldier could be protected from the elements, leaving just a slit through which to see. This led to the nickname ‘snorkel parka’. No one could argue against the effectiveness of this – with an N parka worn over their uniform, soldiers were able to survive temperatures of -50 Celcius.

It wasn’t just the fur that made these parkas so warm. Nylon, at the time a very modern fabric, was used as the outer shell material to stop wind and rain in their tracks. The parka got special handwarmer pockets and a wind flap that could be fastened over the zipper. Of the N parkas, the N-3 was the full-length variant (as opposed to the waist-length N-2) with an attached hood. This was the parka that would ultimately evolve into the N-3B parka, the variant that the US airforce would issue as their standard cold weather gear during the ’50s.

The N-3B was used for decades by the American military, which means that for a while they were quite easy to find in army surplus stores. Slowly, the snorkel parka became an icon in mainstream society too. Many modern winter jackets were inspired by the original design of the N-3B or one of its predecessors, basically making it the grandfather of the fur hood winter coat. The N-3B is theoretically still an active design – the military specifications were last updated in 2003 in the MIL-DTL-6279M spec – but the military has long since replaced the N-3B with more modern jackets for issue to its troops. Some producers of the military N-3B like Alpha Industries have switched to making the same parka for civilian use.

The iconic status of the N-3B has also made it hard to find an original one. Unworn, mint examples of the early snorkel parka models change ownerships for small fortunes in the military collector community – it’s not uncommon to see Japanese collectors paying $1000 for a pristine parka. But luckily, the later model years don’t have the same collector’s value and damage to the coat will make the price sink very fast.

My search for an N-3B got off to a rough start. Because this was US issued gear, the mainstay of N-3Bs are available in the United States. You can find them on eBay, but then you have to deal with shipping and customs – which can easily add up to double the cost of the parka, as it’s not a small object to ship. After a few months I ended up finding an N-3B on Belgian eBay. It’s a ’50s model, which is early and theoretically more expensive, but also quite worn – bringing the price of the parka down to an affordable 80 euros.

This parka was made by Albert Turner & Co according to the label, a well-known producer of military clothing and one of the known producers of the airforce N-3B. The military spec this parka was built to is 6279C – every change to the spec bumped the letter up, so this was the third version produced. Because there’s no DSA (Defense Supply Agency) number on the label – an identification code for producer and production year – we know that this parka must have been produced before 1962, the year the introduced the DSA. The black label agrees with this, as the modern white label was introduced around the same time as the DSA. Cross-referencing sites from military collectors such as this one lead me to believe a 6279C Albert Turner parka would have been produced in 1957.

Interesting details you can find on some used military clothing are the little personal touches the original owner applied while he was wearing it. For example, there are many N-3B parkas with reflective strips stitched on by their owners, to make the ground personnel more visible during nighttime operations. This parka, on the other hand, has a handwritten name on the inside, just beneath the label. It’s impossible to read the name – maybe ‘Berielke’ or ‘Braiche’? Either way, the owner was in the USAF – United States Air Force – which is not much of a surprise since these parkas were issued to the USAF.

The value of early models isn’t just higher because of their rarity, but also because the producers in later years started to cheap out on the construction. The 6279C has an exterior shell made of 100% nylon and uses a 60% wool / 40% cotton mix for the filling, with real fur for the hood. Later coats would use a cheap nylon/cotton mix for the shell and polyester for the filling, with synthetic fur on the hood – from a time when synthetic fur was a brand new concepts and their first versions of it were terrible.

Another remarkable feature of the early nylon is that it was still very new and few producers had long-term experience with it yet. The nylon used for the production of early N-3B coats were very susceptible to discoloration, with the green pigments slowly turning purple over time. This happened even faster if the parka was exposed to great amounts of UV light, possibly turning large swaths of the parka purple over time. For air force personnel this purple effect became a status symbol. Wearing a ‘salty’ parka, as it was called, meant that they had been in the air force for a long time. My parka also has purple discolorations, though it’s limited to a few spots here and there.

There are other details on this parka that did not make it to the later model years. One very prominent one is the original U.S. Air Force logo on the left sleeve, heavily faded but still visible. Another detail is the brand zippers they used, which was still the American brand Crown for this model. As with many Made in the USA products, the domestic Crown zippers were replaced by cheap foreign imports – detrimental to quality, according to collectors. In fact, Crowns are considered such a must-have part of the early models that the Japanese brand Buzz Rickson’s – a firm specialized in making perfect replicas of military clothing – spent a fortune to build a machine that can make exact copies of Crown zippers.

While the parka is still in decent shape, it’s still a 60 year old coat which has been worn by its owner. There are many signs of repair, and some modifications to the sleeves so they would fit someone with slightly larger arms than the average American male the parka was designed for. A few other signs of damage I had repaired by my tailor, but I’m still missing both a fur for the hood and the buttons that hold the windflap closed. Sourcing those buttons is a quest in itself – if you see what people pay for mint parkas, you can imagine what they’d pay for parts to repair those parkas. I don’t think I’ll be finding original ones anytime soon. Still, I’m pretty sure definitely kitted out to survive anything the coming winter wants to throw at me with this N-3B!

(Original post in Dutch)

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