Black Shoes and Brown Shoes: Beyond the Flight Deck of an Aircraft Carrier

In a floating city of several thousand people, there’s a lot to do beside just flying airplanes.

Seaman Matthew Kortie of the USS George H.W. Bush Deck Department stands watch as signalman during a weekly replenishment at sea. An aircraft carrier’s Supply Department may do more than a dozen jobs, including paying and feeding sailors, managing repair parts, equipping its medical and dental staffs, and running barbershops, convenience stores, and its own version of a Starbucks. (US NAVY/HILLARY BECKE)
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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 people at 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.”

In 1776 the U.S. Continental Navy required a black shoe and a blue cloth uniform for its seamen aboard ships. In 1913, Navy lieutenants training as aviators at North Island, California, adapted the Marine field uniform they’d seen the prior year at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, consisting of a brown boot, leather legging (puttee), and khaki. Aviators training at Naval Station Pensacola, Florida in 1914 furthered the tradition. (NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND)
USS Gerald R. Ford under construction in 2012 at Huntington Ingalls Industries-Newport News, Virginia. Carriers may have as many as 25 decks, numbered to indicate their level relative to the hangar bay. USS Bush only has three decks that allow walking the ship's 1,092-foot length in a straight line. The journey is often interrupted by bulkheads or off-limits zones such as the nuclear reactors, so a short trip may require a disorienting sequence of steep climbs and descents, as well as stepping over dozens of knee-knocking hatches through wildly different zones of temperature, humidity, noise, and hazard. (US NAVY/RICKY THOMPSON)
Electronics Technician Kevin O’Brien on USS Nimitz in 1979, resting in Repair Locker 76 between fire damage-control drills. Twelve years later, O’Brien had risen to chief warrant officer as a Mustang, slang for climbing from enlisted service to a commission. (COURTESY KEVIN O’BRIEN)
A damage-control drill aboard USS George H.W. Bush in 2020, with sailors using a thermal imager to detect hotspots. Sailors participate in regular general quarters damage-control drills, wearing anti-flash hoods and gloves in fire-retardant fabric as the first layer beneath protective gear. (US NAVY/STEVEN EDGAR)
Seaman Hector Martinez Luis paints the forecastle (or fo’c’sle), in Black Shoe Country aboard USS George H.W. Bush in April 2021. The girder over his shoulder is a bridge crane to position the anchor chain within the fo’c’sle. When not housing the ship’s anchor, Black Shoe Country is set aside for ceremony, but its deck also contains a pair of painted footsteps where a sailor must stand for a disciplinary action called a Captain’s Mast; two of the ship's black-shoe sailors are attorneys. (US NAVY/RYAN PITT)
The carrier’s anchor chain runs 1,080 feet, with each link weighing 350 pounds. In April 2019, a team of black-shoe sailors on Ford heave a short section onto a wildcat, a mushroom-like gear that spins to help guide the chain into a deep pit below the forecastle. Sailors of a carrier’s deck department also operate its rigid inflatable boats (RIBs). (US NAVY/RYAN SEELBACH)
A piper serving as boatswain’s mate aboard the carrier USS Carl Vinson. Boatswain Mates are the oldest and most common rating for black-shoes in the U.S. Navy. Aboard the USS Bush the Boatswain Mate of the Watch pipes sailors awake at 06:00 and to bed at 22:00 hours—after the chaplain’s message, and in between a seemingly constant series of announcements and orders broadcast over the "one main circuit," or 1MC, to every nook of the ship. (US NAVY/REFUGIO CARRILLO)
A brass Boatswain Mate pipe. A sailor may customize and carry the same pipe throughout their career, after which it becomes an heirloom. Aboard USS Bush, BMCS Edmundo Brantes, the deck department’s leading chief petty officer, encourages Navy tradition by teaching his sailors the special Hooyah! cheer that distinguishes them in all-hands events, such as the ship’s damage-control Olympics. Boatswain Mates learn macramé to fashion a lanyard to carry their pipe. (COURTESY WORTHPOINT)
Nuclear Electrician’s Mate Wyatt Jenny performs maintenance on a de-energized hi-volt shore power box in the Reactor Department of George H.W. Bush in September 2018. Despite producing 400,000 gallons of fresh water per day and hundreds of gallons of steam for each catapult launch, most of the work by the nearly 500 sailors in the reactor department is invisible to other crew members. With their work area off-limits to most sailors, and because they are bound by non-disclosure agreements as to specifications and capabilities, carrier captains make an extra effort to recognize nuclear sailors in the ship’s newsletter and in shipboard announcements. (US NAVY/JOSEPH E. MONTEMARANO)
Aboard USS Ford, Quartermaster Carl John Caidic plots a navigation course on a paper chart in the pilot house in January 2021. The boatswains and quartermasters are black-shoe Navy, standing watch on the carrier bridge and helping to collect navigation and weather data, which are kept in both paper and electronic formats for multiple redundancy to ensure that failure of a single system doesn’t leave the carrier vulnerable. For each type of aircraft being launched, the carrier must achieve a headwind using a combination of environmental conditions, its own power and maneuvering. (US NAVY/JACKSON ADKINS)
A combat support ship pulls alongside USS George H.W. Bush in March 2018. At least once per week while the carrier is underway, it connects by hose to receive 1.5 million gallons of JP-5 aviation fuel, and to take on food and replacement parts by helicopter in a sequence known as vertical replenishment. Supply Officer (SUPPO) CDR Anthony P. Bannister manages 13 supply divisions that serve a combined 20,000 meals each day, counting regular hour servings plus midnight rations or “mid-rats.” Between meals, vending machines take in $60,000 per month that sailors spend on energy drinks alone. At any given time the carrier stores $1 million to $5 million in food, and its shelves draw down a $20 million annual budget for ship parts, plus $200 to $300 million for aviation parts. In return, the ships send back any repairable aviation parts, called carcasses, to Boeing or Lockheed for repair, and offload waste from food service. (US NAVY/MARIO COTO)
About 100 miles off Florida’s coast in June 2021, the USS Gerald R. Ford undergoes full-ship shock trials to simulate an enemy attack. Three 40,000-pound underwater explosions are conducted in ever-closer proximity to the ship while sailors brace in their compartments or in repair lockers and conduct damage-control exercises. The US Geological Survey measured the blasts as comparable to a 3.9 magnitude earthquake. (US NAVY/NOVALEE MANZELLA)
Sailors brace for impact during a full-ship shock trial explosion near USS Gerald R. Ford in June 2021, keeping their mouth open and muscles relaxed to absorb the energy. (US NAVY/ANGEL THUY JASKULOSKI)
Chief Navy diver Don Aker, part of the USS Ford Medical Department, performs a magic trick during a talent show in its hangar bay in August 2021, hosted by the Junior Enlisted Association. Aboard USS Bush, CDR Mike Kaselis, senior medical officer (SMO), manages a staff of 42 including a family doctor and surgeon. Kaselis helps the black-shoe sailors meet their twice-yearly physical assessment. The Bush also has five dental staff, who often tend the teeth of sailors who consume excessive amounts of energy drink. (US NAVY/JACKSON ADKINS)
The black-shoe sailors of a carrier’s Weapons Department operate the ship’s self-defenses, including the Sea Sparrow Surface Missile and the Close-In Weapons System, seen here as its rounds are loaded in July 2021. (US NAVY/ZACHARY MELVIN)
Author Roger A. Mola in a scuttle, a round hatch between decks that can be sealed to contain flooding or fire. Before embarking on a carrier, visitors are warned that a scuttle’s circumference is 53 inches and that “Naval aircraft and hips [sic] are designed for the typical age and physiological characteristics of active duty Sailors and Officers.” (US NAVY/LTJG BENJAMIN R. “BEAU” NICKERSON)
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