After Air & Space came out with its Carrier: City at Sea collector’s edition in 2019, I opened a letter from Kevin O’Brien, a Navy veteran whose first tour began in 1979 aboard USS Nimitz as an electronics technician. Despite having written dozens of articles about aircraft carriers, I’d never been on one at sea. I worried he’d tell me what I’d done wrong. Instead, he pointed out what I hadn’t done.
“I was disappointed you focused almost exclusively on the temporary, visiting air wing and flight operations,” he wrote, “with virtually no attention to the ‘black shoes’ ”—the ship’s company of several thousand sailors. “Black shoes ARE the carrier, and the brown shoes that return to a land base after a deployment are visitors. It’s too bad this doesn’t seem to be understood or appreciated.”
Duly chastened, I embarked last month on USS Gerald R. Ford while it moored for maintenance at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, and later flew by C-2A Greyhound 100 miles offshore to USS George H.W. Bush. My purpose was to immerse myself in what happened beyond the flight deck and hangar bay, and to ask the sailors if life aboard a carrier is shoe-color blind.
The term “brown shoe” dates to 1913, when Naval aviators adopted brown leather shoes to hide an airfield’s dust, while sailors on ships with plenty of tar and coal wore black shoes. In 1976 the requirement to wear brown shoes was struck from regulations, but a petition by aviators revived them in 1986, when the Navy’s All Hands magazine declared “Brown Shoes Are Back.” Today only pilots wear brown exclusively, but the U.S. Naval Institute reminds its 86,000 Twitter followers that “shoe color marks a cultural divide,” and each December 4 emphasizes the distinction with Wear Brown Shoes Day.
Everyone I met on Bush acknowledged the difference between airmen and seamen and are well aware of the different communities in a crew of 3,200 peopleat the time I was aboard (up to 2,500 more when the full air wing is deployed). But few dwell on the separation between black and brown shoes. Rating and rank are more important. And all say that despite a low-key rivalry between different traditions and uniforms, it never distracts from the common goal to launch and recover aircraft safely and effectively.
Aboard Bush, Assistant First Lieutenant Jesse Gazur says that as boatswain mates, helmsmen, and navigators, “black-shoes steer the ship and find the winds.” Reactor Officer Captain Jim Von St. Paul calls his 500 black-shoe sailors “the life blood of the ship. Without them the ship would have no steam to launch aircraft, no lights, no water to drink.”
As command master chief (CMC) aboard Bush, black-shoe Ronald Glass is the most senior of the ship’s 400 chief petty officers, and fills one of the ship’s top three roles alongside its commanding and executive officers. “I don’t think there’s a clash of cultures, brown shoes versus black, there are microclimates,” he says. “In any organization you have tribes, people flock to communities even in their off-time. You work in Weapons and you gravitate toward people in Weapons.”
O’Brien probably says it best. “Take away the ship’s company and the ship is useless, dead, missing its eyes and ears or its ability to move or operate its built-in defenses. But when it comes to fighting a common enemy, we fight back to back. Brown shoes, we maybe say that with a wink. Sailors are sailors and we’re brothers and sisters.”