There are a few things in life that everyone has to do, eat, sleep, breath and use the head (or, the “bathroom” as it’s known to non-Navy folk). Some of these things we do without thinking others we need tools to help us. When you got to go, you got to go, but where do you go? The Seabees are there to help! With the Can Do! attitude that helps you do your job with the right equipment in the right places. They know the special tools needed and in what types of environments different heads work best.
Before we understand the different types of heads that the Seabees help build, it’s good to understand what we are talking about.
The head, the top, the front, you would think if anything toilets would be called the end, the back or even the bottom considering their use. So why then are toilets referred to as heads? The term head actually comes from early sailing ships in which the toilet area for the regular sailors was placed at the ‘head’ or bow of the ship. But why was it placed there? After all, if you are sailing into the wind and place the toilet at the head of the ship then the crew is going to get a lot more blow back than simply sea foam.
The reason it was placed there was based on how the ship moved through the water. Most vessels of the era could not sail directly into the wind. The winds came mostly across the rear of the ship placing the head essentially downwind. Additionally if placed somewhat above the water line, vents or slots cut near the floor level would allow normal wave action to wash out the facility.
That folks is how we get the word head as a synonymy for toilet, crapper, latrine and various other slang words.
Though the word ‘head’ comes from ship use, it is now widely used throughout the Navy, Marines, and the rest of the military and has even made its way into civilian use. If you say ‘head’ to anyone in the general population, toilet, will be one of the things people think of.
Now that we have a bit of history on the meaning of the word ‘head’ let’s learn a bit more about the different types there are and why they are used.
The easiest and quickest method of disposal is called the cat hole. Think of it as a litter box and just how a cat digs a hole and then covers it up, this method is used by individuals during short halts when troops are on a march.
If units are only stopping for a day or two or are waiting on better facilities to be built a straddle trench latrine is a good short term solution. Two to three trenches are dug about 2 feet apart. Each trench is 1 foot wide x 2.5 feet deep x 4 feet long and can accommodate two soldiers at one time. These latrines are uncovered trenches without a seat above, though boards maybe placed on the ground along both sides to provide better footing so that no one has the unfortunate experience of falling into the latrine, and to prevent crumbling or cave-in of sides. Excreta must be covered with soil after each use since the trenches are open to filth flies, thereby reducing the serviceable volume. Toilet paper, if the luxury is available, is placed on suitable holders and protected from bad weather by a tin can or other covering. The usual duration of these latrines is approximately one to three days.
Slightly longer lasting facilities that enable a bit more privacy and a bit less risk of falling in are mound and deep pit latrines. These heads improve upon the trench latrines by building walls and providing a two or four seat box on top with the added luxury of a seat. The edges around the box and hole are sealed with soil, and seat lids seal when closed to keep filth flies out. A mound latrine is simply the basic deep pit latrine built on top of a mound and is used when a high ground level or a rock formation near the ground surface prevents digging a deep pit. A dirt mound makes it possible to build a deep pit and still not extend it into the ground water or rock. The usual duration is between 33 to 35 days.
For longer lasting facilities and if the soil is too hard, rocky or frozen the infamous burn-out latrine will be used. To construct a burn-out latrine, an oil drum is used, and handles are welded to the sides of the half drum for easy carrying. A wooden seat with a fly-proof, self-closing lid is placed on top of the drum. Depending on circumstances he latrine is burned out either daily or when full by adding sufficient fuel to incinerate the fecal matter. A mixture of 1 quart (1 liter) of gasoline to 4 quarts (4 liters) of diesel oil is effective, but must be used with caution. If possible, have two sets of drums, one set for use while the other set is being burned clean. If the contents are not rendered dry and odorless by one burning, they should be burned again. Any remaining ash should be buried. These latrines can be constructed quickly and can last indefinitely. One of the few drawbacks though of the burn-outs is that just like other odors produced by the requirement of latrines; the smoke from the burn out announces its presence and is not healthy to those around it.
Another longer lasting alternative are the chemical toilets. These toilets are used in the field when federal, state, or local laws prohibit the use of other field latrines. These toilets are self-contained in that they have a holding tank with chemical additives to aid in decomposition of the waste and for odor control. The number of such facilities required is established by the surgeon or other medical authority. The facility must be cleaned daily, and the contents pumped out for disposal in a conventional sanitary waste water system. The frequency of emptying is determined by the demand for use of the device.
A latrine type, that acts most like a septic tank and can be connected to plumbing lines, is the force provider. These are containerized or palletized latrines that are part of the larger system. Wastewater from latrines, known as black water, is collected in 380-gal holding tanks beneath the latrines. These latrines must be pumped out periodically with a sewage vacuum truck. The length of use is only limited by the disposal area.
Depending on the needs of the unit and the location as well as population units might use one, two or all of the various head variations. Try one or try them all but know that when you go, the Seabees will be there to help!
Meet the Archivist: Ingi House
Ingi House is originally from Kansas where she got her B.A. in history from K.U. and M.L.S. from E.S.U. After working for the Dole Institute of Politics she moved to the East Coast. In D.C. she worked at the National Archives and Records Admiration and then at the Defense Acquisition University where she became a Certified Archivist. Her continued enjoyment of military history lead her to switching coasts and coming to work for the Seabee Museum where she is collection manager for the archives and records manager liaison