Category Archives: Insignia and Devices

Knowledge Versus Ignorance: Criticizing Displays of Historical Artifacts


I have a steadily growing respect for those who take the time to research, organize and arrange, transport and display their collections to share with an audience. Depending on the artifacts and the means of displaying, it takes an incredible amount of time to prepare for a public showing, ensuring that each piece or groupings of items are carefully organized and placed to convey the display’s central message or theme. Regardless of the measure of attention to detail one can employ in assembling a gathering of artifacts to display, mistakes can and often do get made.

Invariably, one can find historical inaccuracies with any re-telling or portrayal of an event, placement and descriptions of artifacts, despite the research and effort for meticulous representations. I have visited some of the finest museums that employ staff and volunteers with more than a hundred years of combined education and experience in researching and curating artifacts and yet they still can assemble displays with pieces that are incorrect. There have been times where I engaged with museum personnel in order to correct the issue, providing sources in an effort to back my assertions. In those instances, I have been thanked for the information and corrections were subsequently made while some times, I have been met with valid contradictory facts (though they have agreed with the information I provided) that support their reasons for decisions to keep the displays as established.

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

The above saying has many unfounded attributions (Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, etc.) and I chose not to provide a source as doing so is folly. However, the lack of a verifiable originator is as irrelevant as the sentiment is poignant. I take this saying to heart, especially when providing any measure of correction an expert in their field or vocation. To approach a museum curator, historian, educator or serious artifact collector with contrary facts that fly in the face of their efforts requires assured knowledge, facts and a tactfully respectful approach. Before I open my mouth, I want to be certain that my suspicions and thoughts are indeed correct.

The WWI Army uniform belonged to my great uncle who served as an artilleryman in France during the war.

Helmets from three of the combatant nations in the war are (left to right): French, U.S., German. The bayonet in the foreground is a French Lebel.

For nearly the entire month of September, my collection of World War I artifacts was publicly displayed at my state’s largest fair. I chose to select every piece that is related to the Great War and organize, arrange and display them to honor the centennial of the United States’ participation (along with U.S. military artifacts, I included the Canadian Forestry Corps pieces to honor my maternal great grandfather’s WWI service). Included in my display were many artifacts that I inherited from family members who served in that war along with pieces that I collected due to my specific interest in this very troubling era of modern U.S. history. Included within the exhibit were three original WWI uniforms; one, worn by my great uncle when he served in a US Army artillery regiment and the other two were U.S. Navy enlisted jumper tops, complete with rating badges. At the conclusion of the fair, I went to breakdown the display and retrieve my collection at which time, the coordinator handed personal notes from spectators and folks with questions or are in need of assistance with their own artifacts. Among the notes were two criticisms: one that didn’t agree with the placement of the placard that described the entire collection (he thought it should have been adjacent to my uncle’s uniform) while the other person took the time to point out the inaccuracies with the rating badges on the two WWI navy uniforms.

The two WWI uniforms that raised questions from an unknown critic. This display was called out for having the incorrect rating badges on the incorrect sleeves regardless of them being original and untouched from the veterans who wore them during the Great War.

“Your rates are on the wrong arm,” the expert began his note. “Crows face forward, ” he continued, “there are right arm ‘rates’ and left arm (ratings),” the unnamed critic stated. When I first read through his note, I stopped and looked over at the display (I hadn’t’ yet removed the arrangement of uniforms on their mannequins nor the arrangement of period-correct rating badges on the bottom of the case) and stared for a moment and re-read the note again. “What is he referring to?
I thought to myself. “Does he think that I sewed these badges on rather than the sailors who originally wore the uniforms?”

I have authored several articles regarding U.S. Navy rating badges (see below) and have been collecting them since I obtained my first one through advancement during my own service in the Navy when I was promoted to petty officer third class. A few years later, I inherited my maternal grandfather’s World War II uniforms that were complete and had his Ship’s Cook first class rating badges affixed to the left sleeves. In my collection are rating badges dating to 1905, post-1913, post-1922 and on up to the 1960s. I own several hundred badges including some of the rarest ratings that existed during these eras. In my collection are several uniforms from this same era (I don’t have anything dating from pre-1900…yet) and all of it has been thoroughly researched. Though some of my collecting colleagues would infer that I possess expert knowledge in this area, there are many who have far greater knowledge and experience researching the history of enlisted marks and whose published works I often reference. I concede that there is always someone with more knowledge in any given field of research and study. For this reason, I continued to ponder the unknown sender’s critical note.

As I started to dissect the message in an effort to lend a measure of credence or perhaps to give him some benefit of doubt, I analyzed his usage of terminology along with his stated “facts” as I attempted to understand his perspective. One term that he repeatedly misused was “rates.” Though the critic understood certain facts surrounding rating badges, he didn’t understand that there is a distinct difference between two very important terms: rate and rating (see: U.S. Navy Officer Ranks and Enlisted Rates – navy.mil). Sailors (and U.S. Navy collectors) don’t refer to the insignia worn on uniforms as “rates” but rather, rating badge.

The unknown critic pointed out that on my two WWI navy uniform tops, the rating badges were affixed to the left sleeve and that the eagle (universally referred to as a crow) was facing the the rear, vice forward as is seen on present-day uniforms. The inference being made is that the eagles on both badges, each affixed to their respective uniform’s left sleeves, are facing to the rear (the beak of the eagle is pointing towards”his” left wing).

In concert with the eagle’s directional facing, the critic suggested that there are rating badges (“rates”) for either the left or right arms. In the uniform regulations of 1886, specifications were made that established the eagle left-facing with its wings pointed horizontally to the sides. Also, the regulations specified that petty officers of the starboard watch were to wear rating badges on their right sleeves while the left sleeve was to be used for those assigned to the port watch. This arrangement of the rating badges remained in place until the publication of the U.S. Navy uniform regulations of January 25, 1913 called for a change in the location of rating badges so that the were no longer worn on the sleeves corresponding to assigned watches. Right arm badges were to signify men of the Seamen Branch; left arm rating badges were to be used by personnel of the Artificer Branch, Engine Room Force, and all other petty officers. The eagle continued to face left on all rating badges.

The last statement on the critic’s note, “1941 is when it all changed” is only partially correct as it disregards both the 1886 and 1913 regulations and focuses on the changes made just prior to World War II. Within the May 13, 1941 regulations it was specified that the eagle was to face to the left in the rates comprising the Seaman Branch: Boatswain Mate, Turret Captain, Signalman, Gunner’s Mate, Fire Controlman, Quartermaster, Mineman and Torpedoman’s Mate. All other rating badges (worn on the left sleeve) were to have an eagle facing to the right – or towards the front of the uniform. With the release of the navy uniform regulations of April 2,1949, the right arm rates were disestablished, moving all enlisted ratings to the left sleeve and the eagle’s beak pointed to the right wing.

Neither of the two WWI navy uniforms within my Great War display had rating badges from the Seaman Branch – one, an Electrician’s Mate 2/c (with a radio technician distinguishing mark) from the Artificer Branch and the other a Ship’s Cook 2/c was part of the Special Branch.

If the critic had left his contact information, I might have considered a gentle discussion to provide a better understanding of enlisted Navy rate and rating badge history along with authoritative references. Rather than to take offense at the man’s note, I can surmise that he cares about accuracy in displayed naval artifacts enough to correct me. However, his omission of his name, email or phone number might be more indicative of the equivalent of a blind grenade-toss at something he has great disdain for. Unfortunately, I will never know.

I feel compelled to offer my gratitude to this unknown person for giving me a reason to pause for a self-assessment as I strive for accuracy with my collecting, research, writing and displaying these treasure. His note also serves as a reminder for me to maintain humility when I observe historical inaccuracies and to always measure myself before opening my mouth or firing off an ill-informed message.

Related Veteran’s Collection Articles:

Reference:

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Backhanded Marks: Special Markings on 1930s and 40s Rating Badges


When visitors read the entirety of the articles published on The Veterans Collection, It may seem as though I favor Navy items with my militaria interest. Though all branches of the armed forces are represented within my collection, being a Navy veteran, I suppose that I pursue mostly what I know. Within the area of naval militaria, tend to prefer the enlisted uniforms above those from the officer ranks. An even deeper dive into what has been published on this site indicates my level of interest within the sphere of rating badge insignia.

This Fire Control Technician 1/c shows the script, “Liona,” the trademark of Lion Brothers on the reverse side.

For me, collecting rating badges amounts to a walk through history. As one can select virtually any current rating and begin to trace its roots of development back to the beginning of the naval service. With my own rating, I constructed such a lineage – a family tree of sorts – that resulted in what is today the Operations Specialist (see: Tracking U.S. Navy Specialties: The History of Radarmen). The designs of the rating badges themselves have been taken through a progression that commenced with sailors hand-embroidering their own directly from an ink-stamped fabric pattern to today’s mass-produced (and quite sterile, in my honest opinion) rating badges (see: Navy Enlisted Ratings Eliminated: What are the Impacts on Sailors and Collectors?). Though I have spent a bit of effort researching and sharing my results in this collecting focus, a recent question submitted to our Contact US form revealed that there is still more to share in regards to rating badges that will help collectors, family members (who, like me, inherited pieces from a veteran relative) and folks who are simply interested in navy uniform history.

 “As I was flipping through my father’s uniform patches, I noticed that the woman who embroidered them had also embroidered her name on the back (and) I was wondering if anyone else had noticed that?”

While all of the articles that are published here have dealt with what appears on the front, I have yet to deal with the information that appears on the reverse of many rating badges. With markings applied in different manners (chain stitched, woven or ink-stamped) and with varying information, the meaning of some of the information is self-evident while others are rather cryptic leaving collectors to only speculate as to who applied them and why.

For a few years leading up to World War II extending to well in the 1960s, many rating badges were marked on their reverse sides (though a larger percentage of them were manufactured with blank backs). One expert, John A. Stacey, a preeminent U.S. Navy rating researcher and collector has narrowed down many of the embroidered details and provided the details in his book, U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885-1982.

Perhaps the best way to approach the marks is to group them by the two types of marks: Manufacturers and Dates.

Manufacturers:
While this list indicates a handful of rating badge suppliers, in reality there were countless manufacturers providing the Navy with millions or rating badges though the large majority left their work unmarked. Some of the manufacturers’ marks that I have on rating badges within my own collection (indicated below with bold) are the more commonly found varieties. Two of the marks (“C” and the anchor symbol) remain a mystery as their origins or, perhaps what the marks represented. While I do own a confirmed GEMSCO rating badge, it was manufactured in the early post-war years and lacks a physical embroidered mark (it is sealed in the branded cellophane). The wartime GEMSCO, Danecraft and Vanguard marked badges are embroidered in similar fashion to the Liona-marked badge (seen in the first image shown above).

  • “B (with a year)” – Blumberg Brothers (of New York)
  • “Danecraft” – Danecraft, Inc., Providence, RI.
  • “GEMSCO” – General Merchandising Co., Milford, CT.
  • Liona”Lion Brothers, Baltimore, MD. (pre-war Lion Brothers badges had the Liona on both sides of the V of the chevron (one is mirrored – reversed)
  • “NYEC” – New York Emblem Company
  • “N Y” – Possibly the New York Emblem Company but not definitively known.
  • “Vanguard” – Vanguard Inc. of New York. Current supplier of rating badges for the U.S. Navy.
  • “C” – Unknown manufacturer
  • Marked with an anchor symbol – Unknown manufacturer

 

Besides the maker’s marks being embroidered onto the backs of badges, collectors may also find ratings with what appears to be dates affixed in various locations.

There is debate among collectors regarding what the date information refers to. While preeminent rating researcher John Stacey has determined that the four digits mark the date that the badge was made. Other prominent collectors with years of experience believe that the date pertains to the year that the contract was awarded (by the Navy Department) for the manufacturing of the badge. If it is a contract date, it is possible that it also coincides with the manufacturing date. However, it could have been made within the contract year or in those that follow. It is not precisely known when the dates began to be applied to rating badges but I have seen some (displayed in others’ collections) dated as early as 1936. Embroidered dates are consistently located in a few places on the reverse sides of these 1930s-40s rating badges.

Dates:

  • Stitched; Top Chevron (located in the “V”)
  • Stitched; Lower Chevron (left of “V”)
  • Woven – “BeVo*” style.
  • Ink stamped – Locations of the date stamp placement can vary widely from directly on the back of the chevrons, above or below the eagle or even directly upon the backing of the embroidery.

While I have several hundred rating badges, the majority of them with back embroidery carry the Liona markings. The earliest date mark that I have is from 1941 and I only have one or two of the C and Anchor marked-badges. I will always be on the lookout for other rating badges with these specialized markings but only if what is on the front aligns with what I collect.

See also:

 

* BeVo weave is a machine-woven process developed in the early 1800s by a Frenchman named Jacquard. The manufacturing process  used a roll of material that was fed into a weaving machine synchronously as a card strip (that had a series of holes forming the design pattern used as a guide) was fed in. The mechanical elements would extract the information from the card and weave the design into the base material. In the late 19th and early 20th century, European military uniforms were adorned with rank and insgnia manufactured using this process. “BeVo” is a combination of words (“Be” from the German word for partnership: beteiligung and Vo from vorsteher: derived from the merging of two German firms –  Lucas Vorsteher and Ewald Vorsteher).

Affordable, Quick and Easy Display and Storage for Your Collection


Sadly, many collectors spend more time acquiring items and less organizing and displaying their pieces, leaving them to sit in bags or boxes, tucked away (source: All Experts.com).

One of the challenges for collectors of militaria, besides trying to find space for storage, is the art of showcasing and displaying these precious artifacts.

Sadly, many collectors spend more time acquiring items and less organizing and displaying their pieces, leaving them to sit in bags or boxes, tucked away (source: All Experts.com).

Most collectors lack the expansive spaces to construct elaborate display cases that allow for propping up mannequins and life-sized dioramas. I’d imagine that the average militaria enthusiast is very similar to me in that their collection consists predominantly of small items. The lion’s share of my assemblage is made up of shoulder sleeve insignia (ArmyNavyMarine Corps and US Army Air Force), navy enlisted rank insignia (crows) and several, various naval devices, among many other pieces which include medals, ribbons and ribbon bars and a few other pins and devices.

One of the most popular display and storage tools that collectors employ are the inexpensive and easily storable two-sided boxes known as Riker cases or mounts. These simple cases are available in a wide array of sizes and dimensions providing collectors with the ability to both store and display smaller pieces, laying them flat against a cushioned polyester fill material.

The simplistic yet functional aspects of Riker cases and mounts provide collectors with the ability to display large numbers of pieces held firmly in place (source: Cowan Auctions).

For the display of items like medals, especially vintage pieces that have become delicate due to decades of decay, placing them in a shadow box with their planchets hanging from the ribbon suspension only serves to accelerate deterioration of the threads of the ribbon. With a Riker case, the medal lays flat and is held in place, keeping the load of the medal firmly against the polyester fill material.

Displaying patches, such as these Vietnam War-era pocket suspended pieces, is easy (source: Beezman | Wehrmacht Awards).

One added benefit of incorporating Riker mounts into your collection storage and display plans is security and theft prevention. If you intend to show your collection in a public forum, sticky fingers are invariably going to find their way to your displays. Leaving valuable patches, medals or pins sitting on a tabletop only guarantees that you will have to replace something. Leaving your precious items displayed inside a Riker case offers your audience easy viewing yet shields you from suffering loss. Due to the case’s diminutive sizes and flat dimensions, they are easily transported between home and the show.

One downside to using Riker cases for your display is that they tend to be rather bland and ordinary, and lack the ability to hang on a wall or prop up on table. Fortunately for collectors there are crafty entrepreneurs who recognize a need for something more stylish that addresses these deficiencies. Home-Museum.com offers these beautiful yet subtle hand crafted wood frames that wrap around Rikers, providing a touch of sophistication.

This Riker case contains a nice collection of WWI Imperial German medals and decorations. The collector added a more decorative backing material to add some character to the display (source: Mike Huxley | Pickelhaubes.com).

Bear in mind that while some Rikers incorporate glass (instead of plexiglass), it more than likely lacks UV protection for the contents. Exercise caution when hanging or displaying your Riker-mounted collection, protecting the valuable pieces from the damaging effects of light.

Enlisted Aviators: Naval Aviation Pilots and Insignia


One of collectors’ most sought-after rating badges from the World War II-era (and prior), the Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP).

In the past six months, news stories centered on the increasing pilot-shortage issues faced by the United States Air Force have been frequently published in the media ranging from the Military and Air Force Times to mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times and Fox News. With the severe cuts made to the armed forces in the last decade combined with retirements and a vibrant aviation industry, luring aviators from their Air Force careers to more financially lucrative civilian jobs, the stick and rudder vacancies are mounting leaving leadership to think creatively in order to fill the empty seats.

Not since World War II has the Air Force turned to the enlisted ranks to source candidates to pilot aircraft. In 2016, USAF leadership commenced a program to begin training (E-5 and up) enlisted drone pilots in an effort to free up experienced officers for candidacy as manned aircraft aviators. Leadership announced an expansion of the enlisted drone pilot program in January.

Utilizing enlisted personnel is certainly not a new idea for sourcing military aviator candidates. Both the Army and the Navy trained non-commissioned and petty officers as aviators prior to the United States’ entry into World War I. In fact, the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps (the predecessor to the Flying Service which would become the Army Air Corps) was already engaged in training non-officer personnel as early as 1912, graduating the qualified men as Flying Sergeants. Similarly, the Navy graduated seven petty officers and two Marine Corps sergeants in 1916, launching the program that would evolve into the Naval Aviation Pilot rating.

Throughout WWI, enlisted pilot training continued for the Navy with flyers in ratings (Quartermaster and Machinist’s Mate) designated as aviators. A significant number of the enlisted aviators were offered and accepted commissions as naval officers while a few continued serving and flying as petty officers. In the years after the 1918 Armistice, the Bureau of Navigation (the command responsible for managing and training personnel) issued a policy that would incorporate enlisted and warrant officers as a standard practice for flight training. In a March 12, 1924 Bureau of Navigation Circular, the Navy officially established the rating of Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP) for for Chief Petty Officers. As the program continued, the Navy expanded the NAP rating for first class petty officers in September of 1927.

With World War II in full swing and the shift from ship-to-ship fighting became secondary to over-the-horizon, aviation-based offensive tactics expanded the need for pilots exponentially. The Bureau of Navigation further expanded the ratings for NAP to include second and third class petty officers. During World War II, at least 2,200 NAPs earned their wings (according to Bluejackets.com). By 1948 when Congress discontinued the training program for enlisted naval aviation pilots, nearly 3,800 enlisted sailors had completed the training program since it was established. Though there would be no new NAPs  following  April 2, 1948, those existing in the rating who continued to serve on active duty, also maintained their rating and flight status in dwindling numbers. On January. 31, 1981, the last Navy enlisted pilot, ACCM Robert Jones (who had been designated in 1947) retired, closing the book on the  NAP rating and insignia.

One of the most sought-after rating badges from the World War II-era is seemingly the Naval Aviation Pilot due to the decidedly high listing prices (some reaching upwards of $400). Whether people are actually paying these amounts is more difficult to determine.

The NAP rating badge consists of the Naval Aviator wings centered beneath the eagle and above the petty officer chevrons (and beneath the CPO arc).  When the mark was established in 1924, the thread-color specification for the winged insignia was gold (or yellow) to match the Naval Aviator gold wing device. In the Bureau of Personnel circular of 12 July 1944, the color of the mark was changed to align it with the all other rating badges (i.e. white thread on dress blues and blue thread on whites).

Aside from the color change of the mark, there are two design differences with the wings. Prior to World War II, the wings had a curved (some collectors call them “drooped”) appearance. Speculation among the collecting community suggest that the straight wing (that matches the appearance of the officer’s metal device) began making its way onto badges after 1942. In John Stacy’s invaluable resource, U.S. Navy Rating Badges, Specialty Marks & Distinguishing Marks 1885 -1982, the author references suggestions that the curved wing rating badge was used by naval personnel and the curved wing was adopted by Coast Guard NAPs, however provides a caveat that no supporting evidence exists.

I have seven NAP rating badges and photographed each to show both consistency and variation across the same era. All of these are from the 1940s – perhaps all are from WWII.

John Stacey’s referenced comments made by the last NAP, ACCM Robert Jones regarding the different colored wing marks in the rating badges. The “white ones,” Jones commented, ” were (found in) small stores, gold were PX” referring the sources of the different badges. Further comments made by Jones (in Stacey’s book) state that Jones was authorized to wear either the gold or white (colored) rating badge on his dress (blue) uniform when he attained his designation as an AP1/c.

Besides the winged insignia of the NAP, a specialist rating mark was also used for the Aviation Pilot rating. Originally established in 1942 for the Transport Airman rating, the “V” centered in a diamond insignia was re-purposed for the Aviation Pilot ratings for chief, first and second class petty officers from 1948 until it was disestablished in 1962 (BuPers Notice 1440, dated 29 December 1961; effective 1 March 1962).

Resources:

125 years of Deckplate Leadership: Chief Petty Officers of the U.S. Navy


This is just a random selection of my CPO rating badges. A few of these date from WWII and still others are more contemporary, dating from the 1960s and 70s.

As I set out to write this article (I began writing the draft more than two weeks ago), I wasn’t consciously considering the timing of its publishing. Once I began to lay out the pertinent facts, it occurred to me that I needed to push the publishing date ahead by a few days (the originally scheduled date was the 5th). Hopefully my readers will follow this story through to the end to fully understand the historical significance of (what is known to most Americans as April Fools Day) April 1st.

In the decade that I served as a bluejacket; an enlisted sailor, I spent nearly seven of those years aboard ships (where else does real a sailor serve?). Regardless of where I served, my life was positively impacted by men who had the experience, knowledge and zeal for shaping the lives of young sailors in an effort to build cohesive and efficient teams that breathed life into the ships of our nation’s fleets. Like no other branch in the armed forces, the Navy’s senior enlisted leadership is set apart from seamen and petty officers which is visibly apparent, especially when the dress uniforms are worn.

CPO rating badges 1893-94 (image source: US Militaria Forum).

From the establishment of the CPO rating, their dress uniforms were very similar to those of naval officers (source: Naval History and Heritage Command).

Though there are earlier references to Chief Boatswain’s Mate, Chief Gunner’s Mate, and Chief Quartermaster or Signal Quartermaster (as described in General Order 36 of May 16, 1864 – effective July 1, 1864), the rating of Chief Petty Officer would not be truly established until April 1, 1893 when all petty officer ratings (and their pay) were officially set apart. One could argue that chiefs were effectively established on January 8, 1885, when the Navy classed all enlisted personnel as first, second, or third class for petty officers, and as Seaman first, second, or third class for non-petty officers, however at that time chiefs were positions rather than rated personnel.

With the official establishment of CPOs, these senior petty officers were effectively set apart from the lower ratings of petty officers. These sailors were the experts in their fields and it was expected of them to both train and lead their assigned subordinate and junior personnel. Officers also had expectations of the CPOs in their assigned divisions; as experts in these specialty fields, they would also be responsible for providing advice as well as being the conduit between the wardroom and the bluejackets.

For an officer to look back on their career and not see the importance of the role their first chief petty officer played when they were learning the ropes as a young division officer would be a gross oversight. The division CPO advises and guides and a bond of trust is created between the two that lasts a lifetime. At the end of the war (and close to the end of his career) Admiral Halsey participated in a ceremony to honor those who served. The following story was relayed by an author and WWII war correspondent in a subsequent book which illustrates the relationship between the CPO and the junior officer:

“At the end of World War II, all the towns and cities across the country were looking for a Home town boy makes good person to celebrate the victory with. Los Angeles chose Admiral Halsey, whom it was rumored had done quite well. The ceremony was held on the steps of the LA county courthouse, and at the end of it when Halsey was leaving, they had a line of sideboys. They were active duty and retired Chief Petty Officers that had been brought in from all over the country. As he walked through the ranks, my uncle walked apace on the outside. As Halsey approached one old CPO that my uncle described as being older than God, my uncle saw them wink at each other.

Later, at a cocktail party, my uncle had the opportunity to have a chat with the great Admiral. He commented on the wink between Halsey and this old Chief, and asked Halsey if he would mind explaining it. Halsey looked at me uncle very seriously, and said this: ‘That man was my Chief when I was an Ensign, and no one before or after taught me as much about ships or men as he did. You civilians don’t understand. You go down to Long Beach, and you see those battleships sitting there, and you think that they float on the water, don’t you?’ My uncle replied, ‘Yes sir, I guess they do.’ ‘ You are wrong,’ replied Halsey, ‘they are carried to sea on the backs of those Chief Petty Officers!'” – John Reese as told to his nephew, ATCS(AC) Jack Reese, USN (Ret.)

While other U.S. Armed Forces branches’ senior enlisted members possess similar leadership and authority, the role of the CPO is different. Unlike the other branches, the CPO is not a non-commissioned officer – the Navy does not have non-coms (as the Army, Marines and Air Force have with their enlisted leaders), though to some, the differences may be merely a technicality (consider that the two are separately called out in the NCO/PO handbook). Within the Army and Marines, the NCO (albeit, “junior”) status is attained at the paygrade of E-4 (corporal) and within the Air Force, an NCO begins with E-5 (Staff Sergeant). In the Navy, petty officer third class (E-4) commences the junior enlisted leadership status.

To the Navy novice, the uniform of the CPO is scarcely different from that of the naval officer though the subtleties are readily distinguishable. Prior to April 1, 1893, the uniform of a “chief” was essentially the same as that of a first class petty officer; sack coat style uniform. After the CPO rating was established, along with structural changes to all enlisted ratings (pay, rates), all petty officers and enlisted (non-chiefs) wore the same uniform. A new CPO rating badge was created that included three arcs over three chevrons with the distinguishing mark positioned inside. This design was similar to the rating badges that were worn by pre-1893 master-at-arms (MAA) first class petty officers. In the following year, the Navy adopted new designs for badges for all ratings that are still in use (albeit with some gradual design tweaks and the addition of two ratings above CPO: Senior Chief and Master Chief petty officers).

Mass Communications Specialist, SN Dakota Rayburn of the USS John C. Stennis wrote in his article, A look back at the history of naval uniforms (published June 20, 2016, Kitsap Sun)”On April 1, 1893, the Navy had grown large and complex enough to necessitate the creation of the chief petty officer to help manage increasingly specialized rates. A chief still worked closely with enlisted personnel but also held managerial roles. That combination (eventually) required them to replace their white Dixie cup covers with the hard-billed combination covers and have durable working uniforms and service and dress uniforms similar to the commissioned officers’ to reflect their status.”

Until the establishment of the CPO rating, first class petty officer MAAs, in addition to the sack coat uniform were already wearing a blue cap that incorporated a rigid visor (or “bill” as noted by MCSN Rayburn). Affixed to the front of this cap was a unique device (resembling a large version of a gold uniform button) that bore the image of an eagle perched upon the shank of a horizontal anchor. Surrounding this design are thirteen stars, located just inside the circumference’s edge. This device and cap combination continued in use for CPOs after the ratings was officially established. Meanwhile, first class petty officers adopted the uniform that was consistent with junior enlisted personnel.

The 1897 CPO cap device was the first official metal insignia designed for chief petty officers. This device was worn at the front of the combination cover and rotated slightly counter-clockwise so that the U.S.N. appeared to be level (image source: Quarterdeck.corg).

By 1897, a new design for chief petty officer caps was approved, “CPO hat devices were first mentioned in the 1897 Navy Uniform Regulations and described the device as ‘The device shall be the letters U. S. N. in silver upon a gilt foul anchor,’ according to quarterdeck.org. The orientation of the silver letters was affixed rotated slightly so that when properly attached to the cap (positioned with the top of the anchor pointed towards 10-o’clock), the letters appear to be horizontal. In the years and decades to follow, the device would see changes ranging from the design of the anchor chain, how the chain was fouled around the anchor, the orientation of the U. S. N., the attachment devices, and finally with the addition of stars for the senior and then master chief petty officer ratings.

Besides the design variations that were the product of uniform regulation changes, the devices were also impacted by the individual manufacturers and suppliers of the devices. Some pieces were constructed from precious metals (such as sterling silver and gold) in different combinations. Many of these deviations are very minute and therefore create scarcities and thus influence values among collectors of CPO devices.

Until a few months ago, my collection of CPO items consisted of a handful of rating badges, a half-dozen World War II-era uniform jackets (dress blues, whites and khaki) and a few combination caps with devices. I recently acquired four CPO cap devices that date from the first half of the 20th Century, the earliest piece originating from the first decade. Although I do collect Navy items, these haven’t been on my list of active pursuit.

The number of CPO rating badges in my collection expanded a bit a few months ago and I am still getting my arms around what came into my collection (along with hundreds rating badges ranging in eras from WWII to the mid-1970s) that include ratings that existed for brief periods, mirroring the rapid development of naval technology and the specialists that would support or operate the associated equipment. Most of the badges are third, second and first class petty officers but there are a few CPO badges that I was quite happy to add into the fold.

Happy 125th to my CPO brethren on this significant milestone in the history of the United States Navy that you have all played such a significant role.

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