The Spirit of Tehachapi
February 29, 2020
I was looking through a book my husband and I put together about his Marine Corps experiences in the 30 years he gave to Uncle Sam from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. These were written when Dick Johnson who, with his brother, Warren, published the Tehachapi News. One day, Dick, also my former high school classmate, told me, "have 'Gracey' write some of his military experiences and I'll print them." If it were not for my good friend, Dick, my old high school buddy at THS, nothing would have ever been written for my husband's own memory book nor that of his family. Dick, Warren and my husband have joined their ancestors but those tales live on.
by CWO-4 Doyle D. Gracey, USMC Retired
I told my wife I wanted to write a tale about boots. She replied, "Boots?" Then without waiting for my reply, she said, "Oh well, Kipling wrote a poem about boots where he likens them to the tenor of war in that they go on and on. I guess you're entitled to your version without the British accent."
I think that if you looked in many of the closets across the country you would find a pair of military boots. Even those who profess to have no fond memories of the armed services and got rid of their uniforms, will hang onto their boots.
When I started out with the Marines in 1943 they wore a boot slightly different from the other branches of the service. We started out with farmer type high tops: boondockers being the name we gave them. They were made with the wrong side of the leather out and the smooth side next to your foot. It was said it would be more comfortable to the wearer. They became known as "rough outs." We had to shine them and do a good enough job to wear them for inspection in our work uniforms which we, at that time, called dungarees and later utilities. Anyone who has tried to shine the rough side of leather knows it takes a while to fill the surface enough to take a shine. About the time you have a good looking shine the boots are worn out.
Throughout the years we ended up going through four different styles of work boots. After the boondockers we were issued high tops with a leather cuff sewn to the top and a couple of straps sewn to them so one could cinch them up to keep out the bugs and weeds. They had big toes that stuck up and were clumsy to wear. They always put me in mind of the comic strip of that era, L'il Abner, who wore similar boots. They were ugly and the buckles were unhandy and awkward to fasten. Actually they were just a variation of our boondocker with an upper part sewn on. We didn't wear them long until another type footwear showed up. About 1945 we were introduced to the paratrooper boot which was about four inches higher than the boondocker but still had the rough side of the leather out. They were the boot of our choice; good and comfortable and good looking. They had a rubber and cord sole that would wear like iron with one exception; the island beaches with their outcroppings of solid coral would eat the soles right up with their razor like edges. God help the person who fell on one of these reefs for it would cut a man to pieces. These were also the first boots we had that were equipped with hooks and eyes for lacing. This could be accomplished in the dark with a little practice.
I recall that aboard ship we soon learned to put our boots where we could readily find them; preferable under our bunks. The bunks on the ships in those early days were thirteen high and this left limited floorspace for our footwear. One lesson learned quickly was to tie our bootlaces with some sort of a slip knot so when you found one boot you found them both. That way there was no fumbling in the dark when general quarters were sounded as the only light was the faint glow of the battle lamp in the hold. An occupational hazard for the troops aboard ship was the man who was stricken with sea sickness while on one of the upper bunks. The poor sucker who left his boots neatly beside the lower bunk could very well find it full of puke the next morning.
We wore our paratrooper boots until the Vietnam War when it became necessary to design something more suitable to the lousy climate over there. There was nylon or canvas uppers attached to the leather boot. They did not have the rubber and cord sole but were solid rubber. The canvas uppers afforded a small measure of ventilation while keeping the dirt, bugs and who knows what from getting inside. I, personally, did not care for this particular type boot as they didn't seem to support the ankle as did the paratrooper style. You can't please 'em all.
Somewhere, it ought to be mentioned that if a fighting man had no boots he wouldn't be doing much fighting. It was mandatory that everyone –officers and all – have two pair of boots; one in his field transport pack and the other that he wore daily. So, when we went over the side we had a pair on and a pair in our pack.
Since the coral extracted such a heavy toll on the boots it was not common for the Marines to be wearing footwear that was completely unserviceable. Since everything we ate, all articles of clothing, and ammunition had to be brought in by ship to shore operation, and sea lanes that were anything but consistent, we frequently did not have that which we desperately needed. What would, today, seem callous and ghoulish, was merely a reaction to necessity during war time. I speak of one incident out of many where a situation for the need of a pair of boots was solved by the living being served by the dead. I recall one Marine in particular, as he observed a dead comrade's feet protruding over a small overhanging ledge on the trail. He saw a new pair of boots not being used and lifted his own tattered pair to determine whether the size the dead Marine wore would match his own. It did. It's not insensitive or cruel; it's war.
In a lighter vein, I remember a Marine Corporal, Gary Kingman, who sat on his bunk night after night polishing his paratrooper style boots. They were the prettiest, most shiny things I have ever seen in boot wear. He never wore them; just polished them. One day a fellow by the name of Randolph stopped by and asked Kingman what he'd take for the boots. Randolph wanted to keep them for inspection only. Kingman said he'd let them go for forty dollars. I happened to know that they could be picked up at the quartermaster for twenty dollars but these were prime specimens; pre-shined.
Gary, the boot polisher, went to his locker and dragged out a boot box and one more boot. Randolph paid up and gladly left with his prize. He was stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and was headed back to the base.
We were a little bit surprised when he showed up again the next weekend with the boots and a disgruntled look on his face. It appears that Kingman had sold him two left boots and that for all of these weeks had been polishing first one and then the other left boots. Randolph demanded his forty bucks back and Kingman gladly paid. In fact, he had expected Randolph and fully intended to repay the money. Just a little humor in uniform. I wonder where in the hell the two rights boots were.