Three words that echo the tradition of Chief Petty Officer in the history of the United States Navy are “Ask the Chief”.
The Chief was the one of the first real authority figures that many of us knew when we entered the Navy. Dressed in our dungarees and standing at attention on the grinder, many of us felt the eyes of the approaching Chief long before we heard his resounding voice. You didn’t dare look directly at those probing eyes because quick learning taught any man that looking into those eyes directly was like looking into the very pits of hell. Those eye would be looking for every stray piece of lint or frayed material, every scratch on the brass belt buckle as well as a perfect gig line, and and facial feature that would betray fear or smugness. Either earned a special response from an all too sharp tongue.
From the earliest days, you learned what the look was like. With one very rare exception, I never knew a Chief to get Physical with anyone. They just didn’t really have to. It wasn’t until I later developed my own version of “The Look” that I understood what was behind it. There are very few ways to fully describe it other than seeing it. But the closest I can thing of is this:
” I can’t believe that you have the unmitigated gall to do something that incredibly stupid and try and screw up my perfect world. Do you have any idea just how close you are to ceasing to exist as a human being right now you unqualified piece of whale dung? How dare you make me get this upset? I hoped you kissed your girlfriend goodbye the last time you saw her because I am going to mess you up so bad you won’t be able to kiss your own ass when I am finished with you.”
Or something like that.
Technically, this is the Navy’s informal description of a Chief:
The earliest known use of the term “chief petty officer” dates back to 1776 onboard Continental Navy Ship Alfred, when the title “chief cook” was conferred upon cook’s mate Jacob Wasbie. This was an informal designation that noted Wasbie as the foremost ship’s cook, but was not officially recognized nor consistently used throughout the Navy.
The chief petty officer, as recognized today, was officially established 1 April 1893, when the rank “petty officer first class” was shifted to “chief petty officer.” This originally encompassed nine ratings (occupational specialties): chief master-at-arms, chief boatswain’s mate, chief quartermaster, chief gunner’s mate, chief machinist, chief carpenter’s mate, chief yeoman, apothecary, and band master. Chief petty officer could be either an acting (temporary) appointment, designated as AA, or a permanent appointment, designated as PA. The Career Compensation Act of 1949 created an E-7 grade that standardized pay for all chief petty officers, regardless of acting or permanent status. Acting status for chief petty officers was not eliminated until 1965. A 1958 amendment to the Career Compensation Act added two new pay grades, senior chief (E-8) and master chief (E-9), and created six new rating titles.
Today, there are three chief petty officer ranks: chief petty officer, senior chief petty officer, and master chief petty officer. Chiefs are recognized for exemplary technical expertise within their rating, superior administrative skills, and strong leadership ability. Most importantly, chiefs bridge the gap between officers and enlisted personnel, acting as supervisors as well as advocates for their Sailors.
The day I became a Chief Petty Officer will always stand out as one of my most memorable days. There was a fairly large group of us and I knew nearly all of the men who would be initiated with me. The lead up to the initiation had included a fair amount of hazing and harassment. Our day of initiation began at about 0430 as we assembled in the gym with our PT gear on. Then a rousing run around the base stopping at the Base Commanding Officer’s house to serenade he and his lovely bride at 0500 with songs about how wonderful Chief’s were. We had a hearty breakfast of unspeakable sea faring delights and then off to the days activities. My outfit, carefully selected by my sponsor, was that of Smurfett. That included a body suit, a white frock and blue makeup over most of my exposed body. And a blonde wig.
The outfit and the blue coloring did not fair well over the next few hours. The ceremonial hazing was pretty traditional and a fair amount of puking was involved at one point. When it was over, we had been tried and found both wanting and acquitted at the same time. No one died. But we were all changed forever. The shower before the pinning ceremony was one of the best showers I have ever enjoyed.
When we emerged, our loved ones and fellow Chiefs were waiting. It was an incredible moment of pride and joy. There was a reading of the Chief’s Creed and an explanation of what had just happened. One thing was clear. We had been completely transformed and were almost ready for the new assignments we were about to undertake.
The Chief stands in the gap between success and failure. Being promoted and initiated does not make a perfect person. Far from it. It just makes some of us better able to be the person we were meant to be. Some still failed. But on the whole, being a part of the Chief’s Mess was and is one of my greatest achievements. I thank each and every good Chief that was there for me before, during and after the time I was part of the community.