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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 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:

Naval Coverings of WWII – Navy Hats

My military collecting focuses almost entirely on documenting my family’s service with both a narrative and visual materials. One of the products of my research will ultimately be a hardbound, four-color book complete with original photographs of these veterans and displays of their uniforms and artifacts. You’ll have to take my word that this is a lengthy undertaking, considering that most of my subjects are long-deceased, requiring interaction with the National Archives and a lot of lag time waiting for the requested service records and materials.

As I began assembling a representative group portraying my uncle’s service in the United States Navy, I soon realized that I would have to collect several uniforms as he went from an Apprentice Seaman to a Chief Warrant Officer during his thirty years of service. For this article, I am going to cover one aspect of the assembled group : headwear.

My uncle enlisted in 1932 and remained on active duty throughout World War II. By 1941, he had advanced to first class petty officer radioman. His specialty was in intelligence and he had been with Joe Rochefort, having attended the Navy’s highly secretive and fledgling cryptologic school in the 1930s. He was meritoriously promoted to chief petty officer (CPO) for his efforts supporting the commander of Task Force 16 during the Battle of Midway. In 1944, he was promoted again to Radio Electrician, Warrant Officer (grade W-1).

Possessing that information, I knew that I had to collect some chief petty officer uniforms as well as some difficult to find warrant officer items. To complete those sets, headgear could pose a significant challenge. I first had to determine what a W-1 (the Navy discontinued this rank at the war’s end) would wear as I had personally never seen the uniform. I referred to some reference material that provided some basic information, but not the specifics regarding all of the hat components for this grade. I could select either (or both) a combination or garrison cap.

With a khaki jacket in my possession and the appropriate epaulettes (shoulder boards) that are affixed to the jacket’s shoulders, I knew that I wanted to have at the very minimum, a garrison cover. Current Chief Warrant Officers’ garrison cover devices include the naval officer’s crest on one side and the rank bar on the opposing side. The rank bar devices did not exist yet during the war (instituted in the 1950s) so I was at a loss for what they wore. I contacted some navy uniform experts who informed me that the W-1 would wear only their specialty devices (in this case, the radioman insignia). During WWII, these devices are mirrored, meaning that they both “point” forward yet look the same from either side. Current devices are not mirrored – Chief Radio Electricians wear two of the same device – one is upside down.

I located a vintage set of the devices and pinned them to the WWII-vintage Navy khaki garrison cap that I had previously obtained. The hat was now complete.


WWII-Era U.S. Navy Radio Electrician Warrant Officer’s Garrison Cap.

I turned my attention to the combination cover (some erroneously call the Navy caps “visor caps”) which is a hat with a visor that may be simply altered to match the uniform by replacing the cover with the appropriate color/material cover. Chiefs and officers could feasibly own a single hat frame (the sweatband/frame/visor) and simply change from white to blue or khaki (also grey or green) to align with the uniform of the day. I wanted to create a combination cap to go with this uniform as it looks classy.

I located a standard officer’s dress blue cover with the wide gold chin strap and the line officer’s crest. I already had a nice example of this cap so I decided that this would be a good base to create the warrant hat. Any alterations I made could easily be reversed to return it to its original state. I also kept the original owner’s name placard in the holder inside the hat. I found an original W-1 hat band and a 24k large hat insignia as well as the unique ½-inch gold chin strap (all vintage components). I disassembled the hat and replaced the appropriate parts with the newly acquired components.


WWII U.S. Navy Warrant Officer’s (W-1) Combination Cover

One last cover I focused on was the CPO hat. Examining numerous period-photographs, I locked onto the hat that I wanted to acquire or assemble. Through the assistance of a friend, I was directed to an early WWII CPO combination cap with a grey cover that was well-enjoyed by a family of moths. The sterling silver hat device was outstanding as was the remainder of the hat. I purchased the hat and obtained a set of covers (blue, white and khaki) to accompany the three CPO uniforms (all chief radioman). Now I could display each chief uniform with using a single combination cover.


World War II-Era U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Combination Cover.

The remaining uniform left to tackle (for this relative, at least)? A dress blue or white jumper with neckerchief and white hat.