The Original Desert Boot

Recently I played golf for the first time in Newport, and having lost my golf shoes in the move from NYC, played in desert boots. A good enough excuse to revisit this post we did back in 2011 honoring the death of the death of Nathan Clark, great-grandson of the founder of English shoe company Clark’s and inventor of the desert boot in 1947, who had died at the age of 94. The casual ankle-high boots found a place in the Ivy canon, as the following photos from the Yale-Harvard football game of 1960 illustrates. — CC

28 Comments on "The Original Desert Boot"

  1. Hackworth | July 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm |

    “Before we defeated the Desert Fox we defeated the desert.”

    Then they didn’t do it in Clarks desert boots, which were created in 1947.

    /nitpick

  2. Cambridge | July 7, 2011 at 8:04 pm |

    Great illustration!

  3. RoyRPlatt | July 8, 2011 at 7:08 am |

    As the elderly Colonel wearing an eye glass and a solar topee was probably a bumpf wallah who spent the war in Cairo, he might be excused for not being quite certain what was worn in the desert……someone should have asked him what was worn in the bar of Raffle’s Hotel or in the Officer’s Club in Cairo…..

  4. The Clark Desert Boot is, I believe, a post-WWII marketing creation and is not the same design that was actually worn by some units of the British army in North Africa. The closest currently available to the real deal is the Westly Richards “Vellie” which actually looks most similar to the Clarks “Trek” shoe.

    It can be seen and presumably purchased at their U.S. distributor’s site: http://www.westleyrichards.com/show/courteney_product_vellie.html .

    I believe the Vellie is actually made somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa and was presumably known to Brits who had served in the colonies before WWII.

    The Clarks Desert Boot was HUGE among East Coast high school boys in the mid-late 1960s.

  5. My dad started wearing them as soon as they were introduced in the U.S.– he still wears them (as do I). There’s a great discussion of them in Terence Stamp’s first volume of his autobiography, in which he talks about them in the context of transitioning from a rough boy to a stylishly mod bohemian (and the insole do still wear out/rot out).

  6. I used to have that Clark’s poster back in the 80s.

    Those desert boots were kinda hard to find in the US at that point. These days you can’t throw a stick without hitting some random fool wearing an imitation of a Clark’s desert boot.

  7. All,
    As the warm weather of 2019 is soon to depart us, I have a fair weather satorial question: Are desert boots considered a summer shoe?

  8. “the bar of Raffle’s Hotel ”
    Further nit picking: Raffles in Singapore was occupied by the Japanese
    beginning February 1942. I do not whether it remained open.

  9. Desert Boots a summer shoe?
    The crepe soles are treacherous on icey
    sidewalks as I learned when I lived in Chicago.

  10. According to my dad (he was prone to embellishing stories but I think I believe this one), he visited the Raffles Hotel bar with some fellow USAF officers sometime in the late 40’s. He ordered a Gibson, which the waiter did not know about. My dad explained that it was basically a gin martini with a cocktail onion instead of an olive.

    Of course something was lost in translation. The waiter returned with a martini glass filled with gin, vermouth and a tennis ball-sized raw onion. They all had a laugh. My dad drank down the gin and even ate the onion (as he would often do). He told the mortified waiter to put an olive in his future drinks, which seemed to provide him some relief.

    Over the years, my dad steadfastly refused to answer my queries about whether the waited was mortified by his own error or by my dad eating a raw onion in a fancy bar. “Quit trying to **** up the damn story,” he’d say.

    A few minutes later, another round of drinks showed up. Though not necessarily sad to see them arrive, the Americans told the waiter they hadn’t ordered them. “Those gentlemen paid for your drinks,” he said as he pointed across the bar to a tableful of British officers.

    “Thanks mates!” the Brits said in unison and held up their drinks in a toast. It was their way of thanking the US for joining them in re-taking Southeast Asia during WW II. The two tables became one and they ordered more rounds for each other until the bar shut down. It was another time.

  11. As to the knockoffs..It was actually the Wallabee that first became popularly replicated in the 1970’s at a far lower price than Clark’s, but the soles separated very rapidly with the bad adhesives. They improved over time but the trend was playing out and that’s when the Chukka boot copycat began to fill shelves with a few color variations including a dark chocolate version. The soles held, but wore through rapidly and the bottom insides were just a paper lining (no foam inserts then), so a pair of Scholl’s pads were useful. None could come close to the real thing, but Clark’s prices were getting pretty stiff in the face of hungry wolves. Yet they held on while the duplicaters moved to something else. Window displays were always nicely done.

  12. MacMcConnell | October 28, 2020 at 3:21 pm |

    whiskeydent
    Great story. My father was a P-38 pilot in the Pacific. WWII warriors have the best stories. As a kid when my father would have his friends over for late night poker I would sneak out of bed and listen from the top of the stairs. Always amazed.

  13. whiskeydent | October 28, 2020 at 5:02 pm |

    Mac
    Again according to my dad, he was about to get assigned to P-38’s when they decided he was too tall at 6’2″. Instead, he got stuck training people to fly B-25’s and never got in the war. I have some doubts about this tale, as its hard to believe a pilot got switched from a hot rod fighter to a wallowing bomber by chance. Regardless, he flew more than his share in Korea, the Cold War, and Indochina.

  14. My uncle was a career Air Force officer and piloted P-47Ns on Okinawa at the end of the war, F-86s in Korea, then F-100Ds in Vietnam where he became a vice wing commander. Ended his career flying F-4 Phantoms. His favorite tour was at RAF Wethersfield (England) during the late-50s and early-60s when he commanded a squadron of F-100s.

    He never spoke about his combat experiences but he did write a few of them down towards the end of his life. Had some very interesting stories about his shenanigans when not in the cockpit. There was a certain type of masculinity that came out of the World War II generation.

  15. MacMcConnell | October 28, 2020 at 9:52 pm |

    whiskeydent
    B-52 is impressive, ever walked through one? My father was a jet jock when there were very few, when they learned out of books. He and my mom were stationed in occupation Japan, I have an older sister born there.
    He later trained jet pilots. He would say if a pilot wasn’t crazy they didn’t get fighters. But, we all know that after the war they only kept the good pilots and assigned them to the hardware available.
    My father flew in WWII, Korea and very very very early Nam. Was only shot down once over Manila.

  16. Cuff Shooter | October 29, 2020 at 7:58 am |

    “There was a certain type of masculinity that came out of the World War II generation.”

    The masculine swagger that comes with knowing you don’t ever have to prove anything to anyone, ever again.

  17. Worn adn liked ‘desert boots’ as a youngster. In my later youth, in the 1980s, I don’t think they were considered very ‘Ivy’. We were in the midst of a more old-school revival and it was all Topsiders, bucks, Duck shoes and penny loafers.

  18. MacMcConnell

    The B-52 is impressive and quite spacious at least in the cockpit. The navigator and radar operator sit in a smaller forebay behind and below the cockpit; bailing out for those two would have been a frightening experience with the only way out through a hatch that leads to the belly of the aircraft. I was in a B-17 once and was surprised how cramped it is for such a relatively large aircraft.

    Maintenance was poor and spare-parts scarce in the Air Corps/Air Force immediately after the war, but you’re right about available hardware. Often times squadrons needed to cannibalize parts from other aircraft to make some airworthy so pilots could get flying time. Parts made from rubber like fuel lines and gaskets were the biggest problem. They lost a lot of pilots and aircraft due to poor maintenance right after the war and the only time my uncle had to bail-out during his ~30-year Air Force career was when the engine on his P-47 caught fire over Okinawa due to a fuel leak.

  19. whiskeydent | October 29, 2020 at 8:46 am |

    Mac
    There are a lot of parallels here. To answer your B-52 question first, yes I think, at a British War Museum branch in Duxford (amazing place). Dr. Strangelove showed it better.

    My parents did Japanese occupation too; he had a funny story about drinking supposedly number one sake with the mayor (illegal fraternization!) that turned out to be a very, very painful number three.

    He did some of the early bombing missions from Japan to Korea in an A-26. He later transferred to Korea and did many more. He had an eerie story about strafing Chinese soldier running across a frozen river on a clear, full-moon night. At the right angle, they showed up in relief.

    He also managed to get shot down on a Friday, the 13th. I actually confirmed the date in his military records, but the rest of his story about it being his 13th mission, at 1300 hours, and getting hit at 1,300 feet is, um, questionable. The story’s 13’s increased with the scotch.

    He flew B-47’s with SAC and was the wing’s Deputy Chief of Ops, the hot seat during an ORI. He passed his and got his full bird.

    Finally, he flew 150 missions out of Thailand in an A-1 as the commander of a special ops wing October 69′-’70. They did NOT bomb the Ho Chi Min Trail in Laos nearly every single day. He did NOT deal with a crew of brave, crazy pilots whose call sign was the Ravens and who were technically employed by US AID. He did NOT dress in a sharp tan poplin suit (something has to be about clothes) to discuss strategy with our ambassador to Laos in a Bangkok hotel bar. His wing DID rescue downed pilots and won a presidential unit citation for a particularly hairy one.

  20. whiskeydent | October 29, 2020 at 8:48 am |

    soldiers, dammit.

  21. whiskeydent

    Your father and my uncle were in Vietnam during the same time. He was vice wing commander of the 35th TFW out of Phan Rang and flew 216 close air support missions. Chuck Yeager was a wing commander of B-57s that rotated a squadron into Phan Rang at that time. When my uncle volunteered to SE Asia, his preferences were: 1) F-4s, 2) F-100s, and 3) A-1s. They had a billet as the deputy of operations of the 35th TFW and he took it. And yes, Yeager’s B-57s did NOT fly interdiction missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. They did look sharp in their tropical khakis though.

  22. whiskeydent | October 29, 2020 at 9:14 am |

    He should’ve thanked his lucky stars for not getting an F-4 ride. They went down in droves. I watched a doc that explained how their smoke trails made it easy to target them.

  23. whiskeydent

    You’re probably right but they lost their fair share of F-100 pilots too. You are spot on with the F-4 – my uncle described them as a “big smoker” with an exhaust that could be spotted miles and miles away. What really pushed him into the F-100 was the long waitlist in colonel assignments for F-4s in SE Asia.

  24. whiskeydent | October 29, 2020 at 9:27 pm |

    The F-100 didn’t match up well with the more maneuverable Soviet Migs. The F-4 was only slightly better. Hell, the Phantom originally didn’t even have a machine gun of any kind. The Air Force had decided that all dog fights would be with missiles. They forgot to tell the Russians.

  25. Dogfighting wasn’t the F-100’s role at that time although an F-100 did notch the first American (and, the F-100’s only) air-to-air victory against a MiG-17 in 1965. F-100’s earned its stripes by providing close air support of the ground forces, hence the high number of combat sorties during a pilot’s tour. The F-4 was our first-line air superiority fighter at the time and the best we had. And yes, the first F-4 variants were delivered to the US Navy without cannons – their doctrine stressed missile combat at the time – but the USAF wised-up by first adding a gun pod, then an integrated 20mm cannon in later variants so they could actually hassle with MiGs.

  26. whiskeydent | October 30, 2020 at 9:52 pm |

    Jay

    I thought the originals delivered to USAF were also sans machine guns. I stand corrected.

  27. whiskeydent

    Kudos to your father who flew A-1s in SE Asia – those were tough missions rescuing downed crews often behind enemy lines or other denied territory. Definitely not easy…

  28. whiskeydent | November 1, 2020 at 5:47 pm |

    Jay

    Go read up about the Ravens to learn about “not easy.” These guys flew down the narrow path between courage and crazy.

    They were forward air controllers in Laos and flew single-engine Cessnas just above the jungle canopy trying to spot enemy troops or trucks. To mark a target, they literally dropped a flare out the window of the plane. The pilot was usually joined by a Laotian Hmong who served as a spotter.

    They were detached from the USAF for plausible deniability and wore all sorts of garb and weapons. To say they were merely colorful sells them short.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*