A Short Talk With Chief Petty Officers – 1918

If you have read the blog for any length of time, you are probably aware that I collect Blue Jackets manuals. Ever since I was issued my first one in 1972, I have found that this little blue instruction manual has been a great way to understand the training and expectations of sailors through the last hundred plus years when it was first written by Lt. Ridley McLean. McLean rose to the rank of Captain by 1918 and was still instrumental in writing the instructions and determining the content.

Recently a friend sent me a package with some submarine warfare books and in the package was a very rare 1918 Bluejackets Manual in pretty good condition. My earliest one up to that point was in the nineteen thirties so this was indeed a blessing. I have taken some time examining the sections and there are many differences between this one and even the World War 2 version. I was reminded as I looked though some notes that it would have been the same one issued to my Grandfather Mac when he joined during the First World War.

An interesting section of the book that is not present in modern day versions was a section in the back for Chief Petty Officers titled “A Short Talk With Chief Petty Officers”

In this section, the author recognizes that the technical proficiency of the Chief community is one of the hallmarks of their ratings. This section would be a general guide for Chiefs since their various fields of expertise were growing so diversely. As experts in their field, they were encouraged to continue to seek out training using their technical and training materials. Josephus Daniels was the Secretary of the Navy and for all of his faults, he was a strong proponent of training and continuous improvement of all ranks and rates.

In paragraph 3, the author specifically addresses the new Chiefs that had entered the community. In 1918, the growth of the Navy was rapid and widespread to meet the demands of the growing fleet that was coming into being. Prior to that time, the seasoning of a man could take a more natural course and his knowledge and skill would be developed over a longer curve. But this was different. The Navy needed men to become leaders quickly and the traditions of the Navy could be left on the pier if this was not done well.

Here are some samples of the advice:

“ This Short Talk to Chief Petty Officers’ will, of course, be more directly applicable to those who are just coming up for their rate than to those who have held the rate for a long time; for Chief Petty Officers off any length of service should be familiar with the duties and responsibilities of their position. However, as the same honor, dignity and demeanor are required of all chief petty officers. It is hoped that this “talk” will be of some values even to those who are already rated chief petty officers, by giving them the point of view of their senior officers, by telling them how their senior officers regard them how they desire to treat them, and on the other hand, what degree of proficiency and what general demeanor they expect of them.”

Now as someone who became a Chief Petty Officer once upon a time, I have to tell you that I was really paying attention when I read those words. In my day (which was not all that long ago but certainly not yesterday, Chiefs knew very well what their role was in the ships, boats or stations they served in. But before I say anything else, let me continue with what the BJM author said in 1918.

“Take your own particular case for example. It is quite possible that you entered the service a few years ago an inexperienced and irresponsible boy, without any knowledge of the Navy, of discipline, and probably without any knowledge of the special branch or specialty, in which you are now to become a chief petty officer.”

Well, to be fair, that pretty much sums up the story for most of us that enlisted in the Navy at a young age. The next few paragraphs discuss the way a man becomes a sailor and eventually a petty officer. The discipline and learning are important to the individual that strives to become more. Little by little, you gain more responsibility including some level of responsibility for small groups of other sailors. You have to learn about leadership by observing both good and bad leaders. If you are really good at your rating and you can acquire those leadership skills that are effective, the day comes when you become a Chief.

This statement from 1918 has not changed in the hundred plus years since it was written:

“The change from petty officer first class to chief petty officer probably carries with it a greater change in status than any other promotion in your whole career. Your uniform changes, your quarters and method of living change; the treatment afforded to you by your senior officers changes… Along with these changes comes a very great change in your responsibilities as well as the absolute necessity for a different point of view. If you forget the changes of this nature, you altogether fail in your duties to the Government.”

Yeah, no pressure there. But he ramps it up even more in the next paragraph.

“The position of chief petty officer is one of special honor. It shows that not only have you served successfully, but that our service has met with the commendation of your seniors, that you are proficient, trustworthy and reliable. The uniform of a chief petty officer shows therefore not only that you are serving honorably now, but that you have served honorably for years, and have by your own successful effort risen to the top of the petty officers in your own branch. See to it that your entire demeanor is such as to elevate your standing of the uniform which you now wear. Make your life and your actions both on board ship and on shore such as to increase rather than to decrease the difference between the bluejacket’s uniform and that of the chief petty officer.”

For anyone who has never been a Chief, that last paragraph may seem a bit undemocratic and elitist. To be honest, I have known a few former sailors who probably felt that way. But it’s only when you put on the hat and see why this is a bedrock principle for the Navy’s chain of command that you truly understand. You are now part of one of the world’s most unique band of leaders. You represent every other Chief that came before you, served side by side with you in the mess, and will serve in the future.

There were times when I was a Chief that I made decisions that seemed soul crushing. But it was the very process of becoming a Chief and the special obligation I carried that made it possible to get up the next morning and so it all over again.

I am going to end with a summary of his “Talk” because having read it, I think it is still valid today.

  1. You have a position in which you must have expert knowledge of every detail that applies to your branch of the profession.
  2. Your duties in training and instructing men of lower ranks are even more important than your duties in connection with the material.
  3. Your conduct must be entirely above reproach, and your daily life such as to set an example from both a personal and as a professional point of view.
  4. Whatever may be your special branch, always bear in mind the military side of the life. Comply strictly with the military formalities of military life and require the same of your juniors.
  5. Yours is a position of honor and responsibility. Do your work from a sense of duty. Be thorough in all you do, and require of your subordinates thoroughness and military exactitude.

In later years, we would gain something called the Chief’s Creed. N matter what it is called, it is the North Star for professionalism. When I look at the world we live in, I honestly wish we had a few more Chiefs.

Chief Mac

One thought on “A Short Talk With Chief Petty Officers – 1918

  1. Fine straight Salute to you Chief Mac. We definitely could use some knowledgeable Chiefs to Nip-It-In-The-Bud with all the immaturity and lack of ownership in this Country.


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