Two of the sunglasses most regularly worn by soldiers during the Vietnam War were Original Pilots by American Optical and Ray-Ban Aviators – extraordinarily, both of these models are not only still in circulation today but remain best-sellers, worn by millions of people around the world. Here’s why these options were so popular.
American Optical: Original Pilot
One of the world’s preeminent eyewear brands, American Optical, was founded in 1833 and began supplying sunglasses to the American military in the 1950s – and continues to be manufactured to rigid military specifications. For example, during the Vietnam war-era, the Original Pilot model from American Optical was widely worn by soldiers on the ground, taking part in the conflict.
This classic design features slightly oversized, thin metal teardrop-shaped frames and a distinctive double bridge and provides great eye coverage, appreciated by Vietnam-era soldiers. These sunglasses are also highly durable and tough – they continue to be manufactured by American Optical, with an updated design that’s just as high-quality as the original.
Another model of sunglasses widely worn by Vietnam-era soldiers was the Ray-Ban Aviator. This eyewear was originally created for pilots in the American Air Force, and when General Douglas MacArthur was photographed wearing them during World War II, their status was solidified.
Regular appearances in blockbuster Hollywood movies since then have helped Ray-Ban’s Aviator model to retain the top spot as the most popular sunglasses in the world – not least of which was 1986’s Top Gun, with Tom Cruise wearing a pair in his starring role as an American fighter pilot.
What Were the Requirements for Sunglasses in the Vietnam War?
The conditions varied widely in the conflict, meaning that sunglasses needed to be highly versatile, extremely robust, and provide superior performance. For example, humidity in the jungle could cause condensation on lenses, and the harsh sunlight out in the open made UV damage to the eyes a significant risk.
This is why soldiers so widely wore the above eyewear during the Vietnam War – each option is robust, features larger lenses for greater eye protection, and has a design that promotes good airflow.
What Sunglasses Were Worn in the Vietnam War Film Apocalypse Now?
The critically acclaimed movie released in 1979 is an epic war movie that translates Joseph Conrad’s earlier novel Heart of Darkness into a Vietnam setting. The film has become a classic that resonated with audiences through the decades, featuring a cast of unforgettable and often tragic characters.
The movie was lauded for its realistic depiction of the horrors of the Vietnam War and conflict in general. This authenticity is in evidence even in the smallest details: for example, the character Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, wears a pair of Vietnam-era style American Optical Original Pilot Sunglasses, mentioned above, which soldiers had widely worn at the time. Laurence Fishbourne, who made his acting debut in the film, also wore this model of sunglasses for his role in the movie.
Are the Sunglasses Worn by Military Personnel in the Field Today?
While soldiers working in specific circumstances or performing certain roles, such as sniper, or troops working in conditions where snow glare is an issue, are likely able to wear a wide range of sunglasses as necessary, the military usually restricts the use of sunglasses worn in formation or indoors.
As well as Ray-Ban and American Optical, the other most popular sunglasses brands worn by soldiers include Oakley, Under Armor, Skullerz, and Wiley.
Vietnam-War Era Sunglasses: Final Thoughts
Over the years, Eyewear brands like Ray-Ban and American Optical have developed eyewear specifically with the needs of military personnel in mind. As a result, aviators and Original Pilot models were regularly worn by soldiers on the field in the Vietnam War due to their high-performing design specifications and durability. This, combined with these sunglasses’ frequent appearances in hit movies over the decades, has helped cement their status as iconic.