The Brown Shoes Project

March 17, 2021

On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops pushed into South Korea, beginning a three-year conflict. Technically, the Korean War was never an official war; President Truman called it a “police action,” and Congress did not issue a formal declaration of war. Additionally, the Korean War never formally ended; no peace treaty was ever signed by South Korea, and the country did not agree to the 1953 armistice. Although almost 2 million citizens served in the three-year conflict, the Korean War never resonated with the American public; the US military censored most coverage of the conflict. Without a clear-cut victory, veterans returned to a different social climate than those of WWII.  Today in the United States, the Korean War has been dubbed “The Forgotten War” due to the lack of public attention compared to more well-known conflicts like World War II and the Vietnam War.

Burdette “Lou” Ives was born in Alhambra, California, and entered the Navy at age 17. Two years later, he earned his “wings” as an Aviation Midshipman and became a Navy flier in the VF-781 fighter squadron during the Korean War. Ives noticed a fellow squadron member corresponding with his own WWII squadron mates, and the inspiration for the Brown Shoes Project was born. After the war, he began corresponding with the VF-781 troops, collecting stories and photos, making copies of their Christmas cards, and keeping the group in touch with one another.  Ives flew 129 combat missions over North Korea and left active duty in 1953, staying in the reserves until 1959. He attended seven undergraduate schools until he earned enough credits to apply to the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he received his only degree in a Master’s in Business Administration. Ives and his wife remained in the Piedmont area for the next 30 years, where he continued working in management and consulting.

The Brown Shoes Project, coined for the brown shoes naval aviators wore, began as an unorganized collection of memorabilia in Ives’ home. Initially, the materials sent to him were from other members of his squadron; however, it soon expanded to include naval academy graduates, enlisted troops, and any others who went through flight training. In 1992, Ives met Pat Francis, a photographer and graphic artist, at an Albemarle County property tax meeting where Francis became interested in the project and volunteered her assistance. It took Francis a year alone to organize the memoirs and photographs from the 100 different individuals Ives had gathered histories from; while organizing, she would come across names of other veterans she took upon herself to contact for histories and photographs. Thanks to her efforts, an additional 300 histories and memoirs were added to the Brown Shoes Project. As they became more involved in the project, Francis and Ives realized the stories and memories of the veterans would remain unknown unless they were put into a more accessible form.

Ives’ professional experience with resource management and organization and Francis’ proficiency in editing and graphic arts helped establish the project; by 1998, the team needed to think about funding. Ives reached out to the University of Virginia Alumni Association and received approval from the association to include the project under their §501(c) (3) organiza­tion to receive tax-deductible contributions and sponsorship under the Alumni Fund. With official sponsorship from the University of Virginia Alumni Association, the project took off. Francis gathered more narratives and photos by corresponding with veterans, editing their texts, and enhancing old photos. Ives recorded their donations and expenses, located veteran addresses, and sent formal requests to individual, corporate, and foundation donors. The project was too extensive to reproduce in hard-copy; it expanded over 3,000 pages of narratives and photos. Francis and Ives developed 350 copies of double-CD sets and mailed them to all contributors, donors, and libraries across the nation, including the University of Virginia Navy ROTC Library in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. A website was developed for the project with even more stories and photos, www.thebrownshoes.org, which still receives updates and new histories.

Work on the Brown Shoes Project continues to this day. Now 92, Ives resides in an apartment at Lake Prince Woods, a continuing care retirement community in Suffolk, Virginia. Ives and his wife relocated to Suffolk in 2015 when their children recommended the community to them to be closer to family. “It was the perfect setup for Elinor and I,” said Ives. “Our cottage was almost identical to our Charlottesville home; it was like moving into the same house only in a different city.” After his wife’s passing in 2019, Ives downsized to an apartment at Lake Prince Woods. Outside the door of his apartment hangs a photo of the plane Ives flew in Korea he himself drew. The walls are covered in memorabilia and photos; binders full of personal narratives and original photos from his fellow squadron mates take up his home office. Ives and Francis never received any compensation for the decades of work put into The Brown Shoes Project; any donations or royalties went back into the project to continue the work. “Everyone knows about World War II and Vietnam, but Korea is a mystery,” said Ives. “There is a whole generation the historians forgot to write about. I’m glad Pat and I were able to capture their memory.”

Lake Prince Woods is a residential retirement community offering a range of different lifestyle choices.  Located in Suffolk, Virginia, the community is nestled among 172 acres of woods bordering Lake Prince.  As a continuing care retirement community, Lake Prince Woods offers residential living, assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing care, and Lake Prince At Home, a home health agency. To learn more, visit our website at www.lakeprincewoods.org.