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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

If You’re a Soldier, How to Care for Your Feet in Winter

January 2024

When I came across an article, “Walking a Mile in A Soldier’s Boots…” about trench foot, I knew I’d heard of it. I didn’t know about the boots developed over a century ago to help prevent it. I’m sure we now think of trench foot as a problem of the historic past. Today I think of the Ukrainian and Russian soldiers fighting in Ukrainian winters. If you’re a soldier, how do you care for your feet in winter? Do you have dry socks? Dry boots? If I were able to ask any one of these soldiers that question, would they laugh at me? Probably. They’d probably also ask me for some dry socks and a pair of dry books.

What were, or perhaps still are, the causes of trench foot? The main ones are wet and dirty feet. When in a war zone, no one takes a shower every day or even once a week. It was a major issue in World War I and probably all other wars in history in cold winter climates.

During World War I, when men were in the trenches, they walked in rain, in mud, in snow, broke through thin ice to the puddles beneath. All guaranteed wet feet, which, unattended, led to trench foot. Each man was required to check the feet of his buddy each day. They rubbed their buddy’s feet with whale oil, still in common use during the early twentieth century.

The boots soldiers wore during World War I look like my Topsiders with a higher top, in other words, a Blucher boot. Topsiders are like loafers but good for the deck of a sailboat. General Pershing saw the problem and ordered the development of better footwear.

Neither Topsiders nor Blucher boots are the least bit desirable for the Aleutians either. The sailors of World War II complained about their boots, rightfully so. They literally fell apart on their feet. Perhaps those fighting in the Aleutians were the only soldiers and Navy men subjected to trench foot during World War II.

I live in Alaska, where we do not have central heating in our house or my study. I grew up in New England and New York with central heat, sometimes with fireplaces as well. We had central heat and a fireplace when we lived in Kansas. I had neither in Scotland or western Oregon. As I said, we do not have central heat in our home here, but we have a wonderful woodstove in the house. That’s thirty-eight years, almost half my life, with room-by-room heaters, wood fires, or both. Space heaters, even a woodstove, gives a colder room than central heat because the floor is always cold.

Except for four years in Colorado and one in eastern Oregon’s desert, I’ve lived in humid areas with hot, damp summers and cold, wet winters. I remember one place I lived where I put a shilling in whenever I wanted the heat to work. I don’t remember how long the heat lasted on one shilling, but I always had my stash.  

I go for a walk or a cross-country ski almost every day in winter. On the occasional day, I come home with wet shoes and wet wool socks. Of course, my feet are then cold. However, I have the good fortune of taking these wet items off, drying my feet, and putting on a pair of socks and warm sheepskin slippers. I am aware of my luxury and the fact that no soldier has that. Slippers? What are those?

Why did I mention the war in the Aleutian Islands, which most people don’t even know about? It was the only time that World War II arrived in North America. When I read Brian Garfield’s The Thousand-Mile War, I was astounded at my ignorance of the Aleutians and their wartime role. Garfield reported at least one ship where the Navy men and soldiers on board thought they were going to the South Pacific with the appropriately issued clothing. Imagine landing in the Aleutians in summer temperatures of 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit or in winter with temperatures of 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Not exactly weather for cotton clothes. They also did not have the proper boots. I remember reading that trench foot was an issue. I also remember reading that it was so foggy a man could not see twenty feet in front of him. A soldier might think ‘Is that a Japanese soldier I should shoot? Is that someone from my platoon? And my CO wants me to think about whether my feet are wet or dry?’

A friend of mine, once stationed in mainland Alaska during the Cold War, said he was stationed at Adak for a nine-month rotation, during which time the sun came out for half a day. Half a day in nine months. The standing joke among wives was when her soldier wasn’t being a good husband, she might say, “I hope they send you to Adak!”

This story reminds me I’ll have a story about whale oil coming up, coupled with thoughts about Astoria’s Fisher Poets Gathering, probably on my March 1 blog of Personal Thoughts.

My reason for blogs about Flashbacks comes from having written The Night Orion Fell (2012, and available through and The Soul of My Soldier (Familius, 2015).

The idea and some of the information on trench foot came from, and Brian Garfield’s The Thousand-Mile War.

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