Soldiers in combat often find themselves trudging through dense forests or arid deserts, or climbing up mountains in weather conditions ranging from steamy hot to icy cold. In such situations the type of military boot they have been issued will play a key role in their individual survival, not to mention their effectiveness in battle. While this seems logical, it was not fully acknowledged by the American military until World War II (1939–45), when it was recognized that standard-issue leather boots were not suitable for all soldiers in all combat situations.
For centuries soldiers have worn military boots. Often such footwear covered half the leg, running all the way up to the knee, permitting the wearer to tuck in his trousers. A solidly built military boot was preferable to a common shoe, yet the importance of proper footwear for all soldiers went unacknowledged. For example, during the War of 1812 (1812–15), boots were issued only to generals and general staff officers, and not to common foot soldiers. In the American Civil War (1861–65), Union army artillerymen and cavalrymen (those fighting for the North) were issued boots while infantrymen, the soldiers most likely to spend long amounts of time marching, were issued only shoes.
Eventually, military boots became more than status symbols worn by officers but denied infantrymen. Military boots were soon worn by all military men. While military boot styles evolved across the decades, they always were standardized. Some were knee-length, while others only reached the ankle; they were laced, made of leather, and either black or dark brown.
The realization that inadequate clothing directly translated to increased casualties evolved from experiences in World War II battles. During the campaign to take the Aleutian Islands, located 1,200 miles from the Alaskan Peninsula, from the Japanese, the majority of noncombat casualties resulted from inadequate clothing and over-exposure to the cold climate. Trench foot, which resembles frostbite and is a direct result of exposure to the elements, also became a common problem among American soldiers. In the final phases of the campaign, soldiers were supplied with more appropriate cold-weather clothing, which included the substitution of insulated arctic shoes for leather boots.
In the decades after World War II, different types of military boots were designed for different terrain as wars have brought American soldiers into the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of the Middle East. In 1965 fast-drying nonleather boots with nylon uppers were issued to soldiers heading off to Vietnam. Latter-day military boots feature ripple soles: soles that look like teeth and allow the boot to more firmly grip the terrain. They also include removable inner soles.
The attention the military gave to boot styles brought the footwear to the attention of the public around World War II. Military boots called bluchers became especially popular with young civilian, or non-military, men in the 1940s. Bluchers were heavy-soled, black leather, laced shoes; they looked like thick-soled, clunky oxfords. Bluchers were worn on college campuses across the United States and Europe. By the twenty-first century all types of military boots and shoes were sold on the commercial marketplace and remained favorite styles for young people.
Cureton, Charles. The U.S. Marine Corps: The Illustrated History of the American Soldier, His Uniform and His Equipment. London, England: Greenhill Books, 1997.
Quartermaster General of the Army. U.S. Army Uniforms and Equipment, 1889. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Troiani, Don, Earl J. Coates, and Michael J. McAfee. Don Troiani's Regiments and Uniforms of the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002.