Why Are Those Coveted Navy Pilot’s Shoes Brown, Not Black?

   Jerry Dixon in Columbus 2018

Ever wonder why, unlike all other U. S. Navy Officers, Naval aviators always wear brown, rather than the normal black shoes?  Well, FASF Aviation News Scout, and former U.S. Marine Corps Pilot, Jerry Dixon, (at Left) once again discovered another intriguing piece of U. S. Navy historical trivia.

The piece Jerry discovered was found on a U.S. Navy Aviation Blog site, appropriately enough called “The Brown Shoes Project!”  This story, which is indirectly, also a peek into U.S. Naval aviation itself, was written by retired USN Pilot, LCDR William Estes in his letter to Pat Francis:

“Naval aviation officially began 08 May 1911 with the first order of a “Flying Machine” from the Wright Brothers. (See the photo immediately below, of the U.S. Navy’s version of the Wright Flyer – Model B) This purchase also included aeronautical training of naval personnel who would become the first naval flight instructors who would be the founders in spearheading Naval aviation as we know it today.

Please keep in mind that our First Aero Squadron was also based here at Rockwell Field shortly before it moved back East to Texas, and then on to Columbus, NM, for its role in the Punitive Expedition.  The initial cadre of First Aero Squadron Pilots had been stationed at Rockwell field, as well.

Early photo of the U.S. Navy’s Model B of the Wright Flyer.

To train these future naval aviators in the new Wright Brother’s flying machine, Rockwell Army Airfield was commissioned to be the first U.S. Military Flying School.

Above is a 1914 aerial photograph of San Diego’s Rockwell Army Airfield, the nation’s first full-time Flight School. Although it is now called simply, North Island Naval Air Station, by its current sole occupant, the U.S. Navy.  You should notice that there are no runways in evidence.  This is because runways, as such, had not yet even been invented!

The new airfield was located on the northernmost island (see photo above) of the island chain in San Diego, California.  It was decided that it would be jointly shared with the Navy as the most suitable airfield site in the local area, an area chosen because the flying weather was some of the most consistently good flying weather to be found anywhere in the U.S.

In October 1935, the entire Rockwell Field facility was transferred to the Navy by presidential executive order of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The last Army units departed in 1939. Later, the Army Corps of Engineers was commissioned to dredge the channel immediately to its East, and to also fill in the island’s low areas, leveling the island chain’s surface. accordingly, the name “North Island” emerged as Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California.  See a current photo just below to see how it now appears.

2017: U.S. Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, California.  This photo is taken looking to the South.  The Bay, which was dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers, is to the left above.  The current U.S. Navy Submarine Station San Diego, is immediately out of this picture’s bottom, across the channel’s inlet to the Pacific Ocean, the the right above.

                         Memorial Commemorative Plaque at Rockwell/North Island NAS, San Diego, CA

                     First Aero Squadron personnel with their Burgess Model H No. 26 at North Island in 1915

Now, quoting Commander Estes: “Six commission officers were selected from the surface fleet as the first student Naval aviation aviator trainees to be taught by these naval flight instructors.

These pioneer naval aviator trainees coming from the surface fleet wore uniform low quarter, square-toed, black rough out leather shoes which served best on the coal-burning ships, which commonly produced great quantities of black soot from the ship’s stacks.

Arriving for duty at the North Island Air Field for training flights, the six students experienced a foreign environment of brown dust on the soft surface air field.  They found themselves being constantly required to remove the dust from their black shoes, which was irritating enough to cause them to look for a better alternative to this shoe cleaning nuisance.

In the midst of their training, while often times funding their own petrol expenses, the six discussed alternatives to their problem, deciding that brown shoes might serve best to solve their problem with seniors who were putting what they felt was too much into uniform appearances.  With that, all six decided that brown high top shoes with brown leggings was their solution. On a Saturday morning, the six located a cobbler shop on 32nd Street in San Diego, California whom they commissioned to produce same at a time and price they could live with.

Upon taking custody of their prize a short time later, the test of practical use of their new Brown Shoes and acceptance from their senior cadre members became a function of time.

Within a few days, the practicality of the Shoes of Brown proved to be an acceptable solution to the student aviators. The six then met to discuss how to bring about change of the uniform regulation to include the Brown Shoes and high top leggings as distinctive part of the aviators permanent uniform.

With some discussion on how to approach their proposal, they concluded that a petition to bring about change for a distinctive aviators uniform would best serve their plight.

A few days later, they met to compose a petition which would later be approved and endorsed by their seniors and forwarded to the Navy Bureau for consideration.

On 13 November 1913, the Navy Bureau signed approval to the uniform regulations to include The Shoes of Brown with Brown high top leggings as part of the permanent uniform for Naval Aerial Aviators.

U.S. Navy officers with Black Shoes.

This change carried itself through World War II to 1944 while logistically, the brown shoes were not in production due to priority war efforts. However, in stock supply would be issued and the wearing of same was still authorized. At the end of the war in 1945, production of brown shoes was again continued and issued until July 1976.

Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., USN, was a two term CNO from 01 Jul 1970 to 01 Jul 1974. An Admiral from the surface navy (Black Shoe) had a desire for significant change within the Navy and its policies. With that, one of his initiatives was to end an era of Naval Aviation with the removal of the Brown Shoes from the Navy.

With the stage set, at midnight on July 1, 1976, the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations), by instruction to Naval Uniform Department of NMPC (Naval Military Personnel Command), ended an era in tradition of naval aviation distinction and pride. “A Naval Aviation tradition came to an end when Brown Shoes were stricken from the Officer’s and Chief’s uniforms. The tradition distinguished the Brown Shoe Navy of the Aviators from the Black Shoes of the Surface Officers.”

U. S. Naval Aviator, a Commander, in Khaki Uniform – but with an aviator’s traditikonal Brown Shoes

In September 1979, I was assigned to TRARON Ten as a T-2B/C “Buckeye” flight instructor (The Dirty 100) at NAS (Naval Air Station) Pensacola, Florida. With my keen interest in history, I began initiatives to resurrect The Shoes of Brown as part of the permanent uniform for Naval Aviation in the same spirit as those in lead who first set the initiative.

With several cross-country flights to the Naval Archives at NMPC in Washington DC, I researched for the original aviators petition in an effort to author, in kind, the same which would be reborn at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, the Cradle of Naval Aviation.

Receptive and in support of the Brown Shoes initiatives, Captain Jude J. Lahr, USN, Commodore, Training Air Wing 6, gave the “Thumbs Up with a Sierra Hotel” for same.

With that, I drafted a petition which was headed by and reads: “RESURRECTION OF THE BROWN SHOES – WHEREAS, In the course of history of Naval Aviation, the “SHOES OF BROWN”, first adopted in November 1913, have held a position of revered, cherished esteem in the hearts of all those associated with Naval Air, second only to the “WINGS OF GOLD”, and – WHEREAS, in the course of human events it becomes necessary to recognize an overwhelming desire to return the esprit of heritage amongst the cadre of AIRDALES (The affectionate name Navy personnel use to describe their Pilots and aviation support crews), now – THEREFORE, let the feelings be known that we the undersigned, all duly designated NAVAL AVIATORS, NAVAL FLIGHT OFFICERS, FLIGHT SURGEONS and FLIGHT PHYSIOLOGIST, do hereby affix our signatures and designators to this petition calling for the immediate change to the Naval Uniform Regulations which would allow the “SHOES OF BROWN” to once again take their rightful position below the “WINGS OF GOLD.

The first and most fitting to sign was Captain Jude J. Lahr, USN followed by senior CNET cadre members to include Captain Robert L. Rasmussen, USN, parent Command­ing Officers (NASP, NASC, NAMI, NAMRL) and other command seniors, mid-grades and juniors alike and was unanimously received and signed as presented.

Numerous requests from commands throughout the United States, foreign ashore activities and carriers on the line requested the petition be sent them for signing via telephone, message and post mail.

Upon completion of my shore tour, I was then assigned to USS MIDWAY (CV-41). I continued initiatives with the Brown Shoes petition after receiving a “SH” approval from Commanding Officer, Captain Charles R. McGrail, Jr., USN.  After an overwhelming receptive Carrier Air Wing 5 and ships company cadre, Captain McGrail later signed out the petition in Red with “forwarded Most Strongly Recommending Approval” to the CNO/NMPC on commands letterhead stationery with a personal note.

LCDR William Estes, USN Retired Aviator and Resident of Salzburg, Austria, “Flew West” on October 12, 2013.  A memorial was held in his honor at Pensacola NAS, FL.

 Following my 2.5 year Midway tour, I returned to Training Air Wing 6 as a T-2C Buckeye flight instructor with TRARON Ten.  On the morning of 12 Sep 85, while airborne on a APM/Spin Hop with a student, I received a UHF radio call from the squadron duty officer (SDO) to “BUSTER” return to base with no explanation. On return to squadron spaces to meet with the SDO, the Skipper escorted me to his office where he moments later received a telephone call from SECNAV, The Honorable John F. Lehman, Jr. (a Tailhooker himself) who congratulated me as being the spearhead in Resurrecting the Brown Shoes back to the “AIRDALES” (affectionate name given by the Navy to its aviation crew members) of U. S. Naval Aviation.  SECNAV (Secretary of the Navy) Lehman informed me that he was going to announce that month, the return of the Brown Shoes at the 1985 TAILHOOK Convention and that he wanted to personally authorize me to be The First to wear the “Coveted Shoes of Brown” before his announcement.”

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