Category Archives: 19th Century US Navy

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.

See also:

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Child’s Play: Distinguishing Navy Uniforms from Middies


Naval-themed middies were very popular attire for women and children beginning around the turn of the 20th Century. How does one distinguish between a Middie and a Navy dress uniform?

A young woman wearing in the early 20th Century. Note the Ex-Apprentice mark located near the “V” of the neckline, similar to an authentic navy dress blue uniform. This can be very misleading to a novice collector.

I recently noticed an online auction for a naval uniform item that was listed as a World War II U.S. Navy enlisted man’s jumper. For the seller, it appeared to have the same characteristics of other similarly listed uniforms so guiding him (or her) to describe it as being the same as those. This is very common occurrence with online listings. An unsuspecting buyer could easily pull the trigger on this listing, thinking they were purchasing the item as described. Imagine the disappointment when they will most certainly learn that what they brought home wasn’t U.S. Navy uniform, but rather it was a middy.

Middies as a fashion statement
A middy (or middy blouse) was part of a popular fashion trend of the late 19th Century that continued on up through World War I, bringing the styling of the naval uniform to civilian attire to women and children’s apparel. Designs incorporated the “sailor collar and flap” (complete with the piping stripes), neckerchief and in many examples, rating badges. To the untrained eye, the garments look no different from their authentic counterparts.

 

 

U.S. Naval enlisted uniforms vary through the ages
While the overall naval enlisted uniforms design (theme) has been relatively unchanged since the mid-1800s, they have in reality, gone through several subtle iterations, easily confusing novice or new collectors. Along with the uniform variations, the insignia have transitioned considerably compelling even experienced naval collectors to seek informative sources to discern one uniform or rate from another.

In addition to the variations between the different eras of naval uniform and rate designs (which includes the various rate insignia heraldry), individual customization can factor into the mix of uniform deviation. Naval personnel even to this day try to find ways to make their uniform uniquely theirs in an effort to define their appearance as an individual. These customizations may fly in the face of uniform regulations or tap dance in the grey area of with individual interpretation. Another contributing factor is the unique nature of ship’s commanding officers possessing the ability to relax or modify the regulations to fit their command style. 

Several excellent publications are available that provide collectors with the ability to assess a uniform item and properly identify it…most of the time. Occasionally, uniform anomalies surface that clearly stand out and appear to deviate from the uniform regulations or known practices of the purported time period of the item. Fortunately, there are experts in online forums who are experienced with enough of the variances that can help to decipher the uniform attributes in an effort to guide the collector to the best conclusion as to the authenticity of the piece.Navy enlisted uniform basics – what to look for

I am certainly not an expert when it comes to navy uniforms however, through osmosis and reviewing the various reference materials, I am beginning to recognize the nuances and can provide some beginner-level guidance. If you’re just starting out with naval enlisted uniform collecting, I can provide some basic details on what to look for (I have included a few images from previous articles covering navy enlisted uniforms):

  • Tags or labels
    Check the garment for a label or tag as a method to determine when the uniform was constructed. This can also apply for tailor made items, but consultation with experts should be required in order to nail down the tailor and any comparative details that could be used.
  • Rate insignia
    John Stacey’s book, United States Navy Rating Badges, and Marks, 1833-2008: A History of Our Sailors’ Rate and Rating Insignia is an invaluable tool to decipher the lengthy list of variations with insignia. Mr. Stacey possesses many decades of documentation and research that includes having delved deep into the Navy’s archives of uniform regulations, uniform contracts, and design specifications. Collectors are continuously reaching out to him with their discoveries of anomalies, providing feedback to add to his research and to provide material for the many revisions his book has been subjected to.
  • Distinguishing Marks
    Modern enlisted uniforms no longer employ these specialty insignia as the rates and ratings are firmly developed and managed by naval regulations. As the Navy began to mature and place a significant amount of management of the enlisted ranks (contrary to the previous era of conscription), leadership started to institute systems to allow specialization for these men. With that came a need to allow for recognition for these sailors to display their shipboard role on their uniform. To gain a better understanding of why and when these were implemented, again, refer to Stacey’s book.
  • Construction
    There are several types of materials that have been used throughout the years in the construction of enlisted navy uniforms. Keep in mind that there have been times when sailors would have multiple types of uniforms (blues, whites, undress, dress, working, etc.). Textile variants also play into determining the time-frame (heavy melton wool, weave, duck, canvas, etc.). If the collector is confused, consult the experts.
  • Embroidery and stitching
    Some early 20th century naval uniforms can be especially baffling. A few years ago, one in particular drew significant attention among collectors for its distinctive embellishments and custom embroidery. What was confusing (to a novice like me) was that every aspect of the uniform was so ornate and beautifully designed, unlike the conventional uniforms of the same period. Many collectors (including me) debated as to the authenticity and whether it was truly a uniform or perhaps a middy. As it turns out, it was a custom-tailored “liberty” uniform that is unauthorized for official wear, yet proudly worn ashore.

Research – a wise investment
Spending time to get familiar with some of these basics along with investing in reference materials will go a long way to prevent you from making costly mistakes. The flip-side of this situation is that educated buyers might even discover a piece that the seller has grossly undervalued (due to their own ignorance of naval uniform nuances) thereby providing the piece to be acquired at a bargain-basement price.

In the case of the seller with the middy eBay listing (mentioned above), I did make contact regarding the mistaken description for which I was politely thanked; the seller informing me that they would remove the auction and properly identify it when relisted.

Most middy rating badges are boatswains mates and quartermasters. Notice how disproportionate the crossed anchors are. Also note that the eagle is on odd pattern as compared to the authentic design. As for the red chevrons (on white uniform), they were discontinued after 1913 (source: eBay image)

Middy Rating Badges
In addition to the mis-identification of middy costumes and clothing as Navy uniforms, the rating badges that are stitched to the sleeves of these garments can also be improperly listed for sale online. To the unsuspecting or untrained eye, a middy badge could be seen as authentic. Middy rating insignia are often proportionally distorted from their authentic counterparts. In addition to the size variances (middies were made for children and women so their badges had to be smaller to be aesthetically appealing on smaller sleeves), the distinguishing marks are always sized disproportionately to the eagle and the chevrons. Also, pay attention to the way that the embroidery work was done. Most chevrons were sewn-on pieces of wool flannel (rather than directly embroidered to the base material).

 

Giving sellers the benefit of doubt, they may not be intentionally deceptive with their listings. I suspect that when they come across these badges, they truly believe that they are authentic and are merely adding them to their manifold-listings of online sales, not considering for a moment that the pieces are merely costume elements.

The Obscure War – Collecting the War of 1812


One of my hobbies – truth be told,  it is more than just a hobby for me – is genealogy research. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering facts and details pertaining to those of my ancestors who served in combat or just in uniform for this country. As with any research project, each piece of verifiable data opens the door for new, deeper research. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a stopping point once that occurs.

This banner depicts Commodore Perry in a long boat with enlisted sailors. Banner was produced as part of the Centennial celebration of the War of 1812 (source: Collection of Curator Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command).

Due to the recency of that time period, researching veterans who served in the twentieth century may seem to be an easy task when one considers the sheer volume of paperwork that can be created for or associated with an individual service member. If one has the time and resources available, it can be relatively easy to obtain all the records connecting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine to every aspect of their service during World War II or Korea. However, this becomes increasingly difficult as you seek details for those who served in earlier times.

Booms in militaria markets occur around significant anniversaries which propel history enthusiasts into seeking artifacts and objects from these events. On April 2, 2017, the United States began to mark the centennial of her entry into WW1  (the date is the anniversary of President Wilson’s request to Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany) which has ignited an interest in WWI militaria by existing and new militaria seekers, alike resulting in a significant spike in prices. The renewed interest is a repeat of another of the United States’ conflicts that occurred just a few years ago.

During 2012, several states and the U.S. Navy initiated commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (formally declared by Congress on June 18, 1812) and the year-long recognition of this monumental conflict between the United States and Great Britain. This war has seemingly been a mere footnote when taught in American schools, exceedingly overshadowed by the War for Independence or the War between the States, and very little documentation is available for research when compared to other more popular conflicts.

My ancestral history has confirmed that several lines in my family are early settlers of what became the United States. So far, I have been able to locate documentation verifying that three of my ancestors fought in support of the struggle for Independence. Several generations downstream from them shows an even more significant amount of family taking up arms during the Civil War. The documentation that is available in print and online is incredible when it comes to researching either of these two wars. But what about the conflicts in between – the War of 1812 in particular?

By chance, I was able to locate two veterans (family members) who fought in this 32-month long war with England. The strange thing about it is that one fought for the “enemy” and the other for the United States. Even more strange was that they met on the field of battle with the American being taken captive and subsequently guarded by the British soldier. At some point, the two became more than cordial enemies and the American POW’s escape was benefited by that friendship. Years later, the two veterans would meet (after the British veteran immigrated to North America) and the one-time adversaries would become neighbors. The American veteran would ultimately marry the former Brit’s daughter, forever linking the two families.

One of the pistols used by William Henry Harrison during his service in the War of 1812.

While researching the War of 1812 can be difficult for genealogists, collecting authentic militaria of the conflict poses an even greater challenge. Very little remains in existence and, of that, even less is in private hands making it next to impossible for individual collectors to obtain without paying exorbitant prices or being taken by unscrupulous sellers (or both).

To say that uniforms from the period are scarce is putting it very mildly. The ravages of time exact their toll on the natural fibers of the cloth (wool, cotton) and the suppleness of leather, making anything that survived to present day an extremely delicate item. Hardware such as buttons and buckles are more likely to be available and while less expensive than a tunic or uniform, they will still be somewhat pricey.

I have resigned myself to the idea that owning any militaria item from the first 100 years of our nation’s existence is out of the question choosing instead to marvel at the collections that are available within the confines of museums.

Navy Cracker Jacks: No Toy Surprise


Today marks the 241st anniversary of the founding of the United States Navy. What better way to celebrate and honor the best branch of the U.S. armed forces than to discuss this service’s enlisted uniforms?

In writing this blog, I am (happily and willingly) forced to expand my knowledge in a great many areas of military history that I otherwise would have overlooked. As I embark on a new article, I am presented with the opportunity to delve into learning about uniform details and nuances that I’d previously had little or no exposure to. One aspect of this post has finds me diving into uncharted territory (for me).

The uniforms of the United States Navy, particularly the enlisted version, has maintained relative consistency in its design for more than 160 years. From the bell-bottom trousers and the collar flap to the various trim and appointments, today’s modern design has remained consistent with the original, functional aspects of those early uniforms.

Leaning against a flag-draped table, this sailor’s uniform trouser-buttons are clearly visible and show the 7-button configuration (source: Library of Congress).

Leaning against a flag-draped table, this sailor’s uniform trouser-buttons are clearly visible and show the 7-button configuration (source: Library of Congress).

This Civil War-vintage tin type photograph shows a sailor wearing his dress blue jumper, blue neckerchief, and flat hat (source: Library of Congress).

This Civil War-vintage tin type photograph shows a sailor wearing his dress blue jumper, blue neckerchief, and flat hat (source: Library of Congress).

Today’s jumper blouse design was incorporated with the collar flap which was used as a protective cover to protect it from the grease or powder normally worn by seamen to hold hair in place during the twenty years prior to the start of the Civil War.

Piping and stars were added to the flap while the flat hat (affectionately referred to in the 20th century as the “Donald Duck hat”) became a standard uniform item during this period. In the late 1880s, the white hat (or “dixie cup”) was introduced, essentially solidifying the current configuration we see today. Prior to World War II, the blue cuffs were dropped from the white uniform and the flap was switched to all white with blue stars. By 1962, the flat hat was gone.

A collector colleague steered me to an online auction listing for an absolutely stunning Civil War-era white (with blue trim) U.S. Navy cracker jack uniform. Constructed from linen, these white uniforms were hard pressed to survive the rigors of shipboard use, let alone 1.5 centuries. Examples such as these are extremely rare and carry considerable price tags.

Since I’ve been collecting, I have seen a handful of late nineteenth century Navy uniforms listed at auction. While most of them are blue wool, I have seen a smattering of dress whites.

With the arrival of the twentieth century, the Navy expanded its fleet and global reach requiring increase of manning. That expansion means that collectors today have greater opportunity (and to pay lower prices) to locate period examples. These later uniforms were constructed using better materials in order to perform better in the harsh, mechanized and considerably dirty shipboard climate. Blue uniforms were constructed from heavy wool while linen was dropped in favor of cotton-based canvas material for the whites.

I have the privilege of owning this 1905-1913 coxswain dress white uniform. Note the blue wool cuffs and collar flap and the three-stripe white piping affixed. The flap also has two white stars directly embroidered to each corner.

I have the privilege of owning this 1905-1913 coxswain dress white uniform. Note the blue wool cuffs and collar flap and the three-stripe white piping affixed. The flap also has two white stars directly embroidered to each corner.

Today’s enlisted dress uniforms while representative of the pre-Civil War origins, they are quite sanitary and less desirable for collectors. Gone is the heavy wool for the dress blues. The dress whites are polyester, also called “certified navy twill” or CNT. One saving grace is that the white Dixie cup hats are virtually unchanged since their introduction, making them nearly non-distinguishable from early examples.

Happy birthday to all of those who served before me and since my time in uniform. Happy birthday to my shipmates and happy birthday to the United States Navy!

See other U.S. Navy Uniform Topics:

 

Navy Enlisted Ratings Eliminated: What are the Impacts on Sailors and Collectors?


Until last week, I have been reluctant with this blog to delve into matters that touch on politics (my first politically-focused article was published yesterday – as of writing this article). The subject of this article has me approaching the line of demarcation (between politics and collecting) and I believe that I was able to keep the content weighted heavily in facts with a slight peppering of opinion interspersed between them as I began to address my concerns regarding the highly controversial decision (that is the central theme of this post) that was announced last week. This blog has a decent following and the stats indicate that a lot of people are searching for information pertaining to Navy ratings and badges (and discovering this site) leaving me soliciting readers to be heard by commenting after you finish reading the post.

With four articles written (see list below) about United States Navy Ratings and Rating Badges, I didn’t see myself delving back into this subject quite so soon. With recently announced changes to the Navy’s enlisted rates and rating structure – a complete overhaul – I am compelled to dive into the subject from my perspectives both as a veteran sailor and a collector.

From the moment that the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the Masterchief Petty officer  of the Navy (MCPON) announced that the Navy would be dissolving the 241-year-old tradition of identifying enlisted personnel by their job title (known in the Navy as “rating”), the uproar from veterans, retirees and active duty personnel was instantaneous and deafening. There is no doubt that if you were paying attention to social media on September 29, 2016 you most-likely saw someone lamenting the impending changes and their outrage directed towards the navy leadership for even considering the idea, let alone moving ahead with implementation of a plan to disestablish a tried, true and loved tradition.

Who Cares About 241 Years of Tradition?
Aside from the current leadership, most all sailors care about the preservation of vaunted and successful customs and traditions that set the Navy apart from the other branches of the armed forces. In the earliest days of the naval service, rated sailors have been called by their job titles – specifically, boatswains’ mates (pronounced, “bosun’s” mates) have been so called since 1775. It is a matter of pride to be known by the work that is performed. I remember when I advanced to Operations Specialist, Third Class (“OS3”), it was a matter of pride. No longer was I known as a Seaman and, not just a petty officer, but that I had attained the rating and rate; the culmination of performing my duties; getting qualified on every aspect of my job that was possible, studying and achieving proficiency. This mentality continues and builds as sailors advance through the pay-grades, evolving into an expert that subordinates and seniors alike learn to depend upon. Despite the job title or function, the sailors in each of these ratings own considerable pride in being referred to by their rating. To have that all stripped away and be known only as “petty officer (third, second, first) class” systematically removes sailors’ pride. If I was still serving, instead of being OS1 (Operations Specialist First Class), I would just be “Petty Officer” with an innocuous (hidden) designation; “B440.”

When the Continental Navy began in 1775, there were officers and men and two designated ratings of enlisted men. Once the hostilities ended, Congress agreed that there was no longer a need for a navy, voting to disband it in 1785.

  • Armorer – In use in 1775; established 1797;
  • Boatswain’s Mate – In use in 1775; established 1797

The new nation experienced renewed aggression from England and tensions grew between the United States and France compelling the government to take action, passing the Naval Act of 1794 to build six warships (known as the original “Six Frigates“). By 1797, the Navy began to establish an enlisted rating structure, solidifying the tradition and practice that was in place until last week. In addition to the boatswains mate and armorer, the newly established rates at that time were:

  • Boy
  • Carpenter’s Mate
  • Cockswain (sic)
  • Cook
  • Cooper
  • Gunner’s Mate
  • Master-at-Arms
  • Master’s Mate
  • Midshipman
  • Ordinary Seaman
  • Quarter Gunner
  • Sailmaker’s Mate
  • Seaman
  • Steward
  • Yeoman of the Gunroom

As the Navy changed operational procedures and modernized throughout its existence, so did the enlisted rating structure. It wasn’t until 1841 when the Navy established insignia for rated sailors. The design called for an eagle facing left (from the wearer’s perspective) with wings pointed down, while perched on a fouled anchor. It was to be worn half way between the elbow and shoulder on the front of the sleeve. Rated Petty officers in the following wore the badges on their right sleeve:

  • Boatswain’s Mates
  • Gunner’s Mates
  • Carpenter’s Mates
  • Masters at Arms
  • Ship’s Stewards
  • Ship’s Cooks

…while the following petty officers wore the badge on their left uniform sleeve:

  • Quarter Masters
  • Quarter Gunners
  • Captains of the Forecastle
  • Captains of Tops
  • Captains of the Afterguard
  • Armorers, Coopers
  • Ship’s Corporals
  • Captains of the Hold

In the following years (through the Civil War and beyond), the Navy continued to mature the rating badges by adding specialty marks (symbols that represented the sailor’s job). By the mid 1880s, the manufacture of petty officer marks were contracted to private companies, alleviating the need for the petty officers to hand-embroider them. The transition from sail to steam created the need to create new ratings to meet the rapidly changing technological advances. Navigation, communication and gunnery improved and sailors specialize creating new specialties. The Navy adapted and so did the sailors as they took pride in their jobs and uniforms.

For another century and a half, sailors have not only identified themselves by the mark on their sleeve during their careers, their passion and loyalty towards their rating continues throughout their lives. Though veterans of other branches might hold their specialty in high regard long after their service, it doesn’t compare to that of the Navy veteran. One glance at any veteran-memorabilia catalog reveals what sailors demand – t-shirts, polo shirts, ball caps, vehicle decals and challenge coins emblazoned with rating insignia.

his rating, Operations Specialist, Second Class (OS2) has been discontinued and is now known as a "B440." The Navy has yet to decide the fate of the rating badges and insignia.

This rating, Operations Specialist, Second Class (OS2) has been discontinued and is now known as a “B440.” The Navy has yet to decide the fate of the rating badges and insignia.

When the CNO and MCPON unceremoniously pulled the plug on the enlisted classification system, there were in excess of 90 active ratings in use. Since the ratings were officially established in 1797, more than 700 have been used.  As a collector, I wonder what changes are forthcoming that will have impacts on the items that I am interested. As Mark D. Faram and Sam Fellman of the Navy Times noted, “the moves leaves the enlisted force’s foremost symbols as the petty officer crow and the chief petty officer anchors.” The writers continue, “It remains unclear what will happen to the ratings badges that feature iconic rating insignia that officials are considering changing. An engineman’s gear. An information systems technician’s sparks. These images were beloved by many and inspired countless tattoos.” Apparently, we have to wait and see what will become of our unique (to our branch of the armed forces) sleeve insignia. Will the Navy remove the distinguishing/specialty marks that currently reside between the eagle and chevrons? Since the goal is to make the enlisted structure more in line with the Army, Air Force and Marines (see: Hello, Seaman: Navy Ditches Ratings After Review – Military Times, 9/29/2016), would they simply reduce our insignia to just chevrons, also eliminating the eagle?

For those who collect rating badges and insignia, the discontinued use of them on enlisted uniforms could spark a sudden boost in interest spurring on an increase in demand while driving up prices. At present, collectors have predominately focused their interest in rating badges that predate the current eagle design (often disparagingly referred to as a “sick parrot”) – prior to the design change in the late 1980s. The earlier “crow” designs incorporate an more aggressive and menacing perched eagle and finer details in the embroidery (see: Discerning Birds: U.S. Navy Rating Badges from WWI to WWII). Another factor that garners collectors’ interest is that many of the distinguishing/specialty marks have been long since disestablished or superseded.  Collectors will be watching for any indication of changes (increased interest, more online auction bidders, etc.) in the market. It may be premature to say that the market appears to not be impacted by last week’s announcement. If the rating badges are altogether eliminated, I suspect that there will be a spate of new collectors influencing prices but it will eventually settle down shortly after. Time will tell.

What is Wrong With The New System?
Many people are wondering why are sailors so adamantly opposed to the new system that is being implemented. Why is there such a visceral and negative response to the impending changes? What began in January, 2016 as a directive by the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Maybus to evaluate all of the ratings in order to “ensure they were representative of all sailors and did not discriminate based on gender,” evolved in the elimination of every rating. Rather than to work within the ratings, addressing the directive and fighting to uphold tradition, the MCPON took the easy way out, flippantly recommending (to the SecNav) that simply demolishing the ratings all together “could be be done tomorrow.”

“Make no mistake about it,” MCPON Stevens recalled telling (SecNav) Mabus, “this course of action will be the most labor-intensive, probably the most expensive, certainly the most controversial as well as difficult to accept socially throughout the Navy.”

Stevens had previously presented four scenarios to Maybus that were workable solutions to the directive (removing “man” from 21 specific ratings) before proposing the one that would strike the biggest blow to enlisted morale and to the American taxpayers. Maybus would have the final decision and, according to Stevens, Mabus “sat there a little bit, pondered it, asked a few questions and then decided, in the best interest of the Navy’s future, this was the path he wanted to take.” With that, Navy leadership unceremoniously rendered sailors to be nothing more than generic enlisted people that will no longer be as specialized as they are today.

Rather than focus on the most pressing needs of the navy (preparedness and readiness), the navy instead has shifted gears to be more focused on social issues. This shift in focus has already begun to produce negative results on mission-readiness:

  • Fourth breakdown in US Navy littoral combat ship – “…the Coronado’s incident (suffering an ‘engineering casualty’) means four of the six littoral combat ships in service have suffered mechanical failures in the past nine months.
  • The New $3B USS Zumwalt Is a Stealthy Oddity That May Already Be a Relic – “On the DDG-1000 [Zumwalt-class], with the waves coming at you from behind, when a ship pitches down, it can lose transverse stability as the stern comes out of the water—and basically roll over…”
  • Why More (Navy) Commanding Officers are Getting Fired (due to misconduct) – “…the presence of the opposite sex has led to an exploding rate of fraternization, at every level. Simply put, you cannot put young, healthy men and women into a small box, send them away for extended periods of isolation, and not expect them to interact dynamically with one another. They’re like magnets being put into a box and shaken — they stick.”

There are countless instances of sailors dealing with the effects of extended deployments (due to the reduction of the number of combat-ready vessels and aircraft yet an increased demand), reduced morale, radical changes to command structure, and de-funding of maintenance budgets for active ships – all of this is contributing to a naval force that is wholly unprepared to meet any emergent needs that should arise.  Further diminishing morale by removing the enlisted rating system will only serve to continue the downward spiral that could take decades to end.

Contradiction and Irony
The eight-month long effort (January through September) to address Secretary Maybus’ directive to be sensitive to the ever-increasing list of federally recognized genders by removing “man” from rating titles is, at the outset, a failure. Though the leadership did succeed in eradicating the negative connotation from 21 ratings, they doubled-down on “man” for all sailors in pay-grades E-1 to E-3, referring to them all as “seaman,” leaving bluejackets to wonder what was Maybus’ underlying motivation.

 

Previous Articles about Collecting Navy Ratings and Badges:

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