Ask the Chief

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.

The Look

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.

Happy Birthday Chiefs.

Chief Mac

10 thoughts on “Ask the Chief

  1. Mac, I was at your initiation and pinning ceremony. I was stationed at TTF during this time (APR 1984 to JAN 1988; attending MK-118 UWFCS “C” school, then staff instructor)

    1. Holy cow!!! Very small world. Still do not like the memory of truth serum. Ot was somehow worse than the truth serum I ingested at my Crossing the Line ceremony… yuch!!!

      What a great day though

  2. A very appropriate salute to the backbone of any successful command. Well done!

    1. Thanks Skipper. The Chief’s Mess was a great resource for many of us. I was blessed after I became a CWO to have some very worthy men at my side.


  3. I remember that time well especially helping to put together a “Smurfette” costume! I think it went into the trash after the initiation!

    1. The costume did not make it through the day… thankfully they had waste bags waiting for us. I felt so proud to have you by my side. I still do.

  4. Had my initiation in Naples in 79. Had to run down to the port and get a live octopus and a duck to carry and introduce all day. My Italian landlord didn’t quite understand the whole thing but enjoyed the next day octopus salad. The duck made it to the end of the week and was a prized gift to the egg lady.

  5. Your comment about the day you became a Chief Petty Officer being “one of my most memorable days” really brought home a memory. Many years ago, while at a party, somebody ask me what the most memorable day of my life was. Without hesitation I said “the day I was designated Qualified in Submarines, but right behind it was the day I made Chief”. Unknown to me my wife was right behind me, listening to every word. Needless to say she wanted to remind me of the day we were married and, a few years later, the birth of our son. I guess I earned redemption as we are approaching our 55th. Keep up the great work – you help keep our memories alive!

  6. As a young sailor my Div CPO asked me what were my plans for a career. I told him that I am staying in the Navy and will someday become a Chief. He passed on some words I will always remember his words “If you Have to TELL someone that you are a CHIEF PETTY OFFICER, you have #$%*ed UP!” the anchors on your collar are all that’s needed.

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