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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 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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Silver Eagles: Navy Bullion Rates


This chief Pharmacist’s Mate’s Geneva Cross is accented with a bullion thread outline.

This chief Pharmacist’s Mate’s Geneva Cross is accented with a bullion thread outline.

Beautifully stitched with metallic thread or wound-metal elements overlaid onto crows, bullion navy rates have been in existence for more than a century. By 1913, the U.S. Navy’s uniform regulations established that rate badges with gold stripes (for dress blues) be accompanied with the eagle and specialty mark to be made of silver bullion. Uniform regulations regarding bullion were further expanded providing that all dress blue chief petty officer rates (regardless of the chevron color) would be constructed with silver bullion. These regulations, in my opinion, facilitated the establishment of one of the best aspects of enlisted uniform adornments.

These fantastically embellished crows historically incorporate multiple shades or tones of silver, and at times, gold bullion threads in their designs making for highly detailed and textured rate badges. Along with aesthetics, the bullion crow designs take on a three-dimensional feel and are really quite stunning.

Crow designs are substantially varied in their appearance based upon the time period in which they were made and the manufacturers’ interpretation of the design specification. One can examine two bullion rates from the same period and note that they will have different embroidery patterns. Thread direction will differ as well as the pattern used for the specific elements.

Because they were traditionally hand-embroidered, two crows from the same supplier can differ. You might see various embellishments to the bird’s feathers or the beak. Some will have different colored bullion that can really make the bird stand out from the rest of the rate badge.

A rare bird. This Radarman/Operations Specialist 2/c badge is not collectors can easily find. Bullion rates were for E-6 and above and this one is clearly not a cut-down E-6 rating badge.

A rare bird. This Radarman/Operations Specialist 2/c badge is not collectors can easily find. Bullion rates were for E-6 and above and this one is clearly not a cut-down E-6 rating badge.

Other embellishments may include custom applications to the specialty mark. Variations to these embellishments pose challenges to collectors. Considering the Pharmacist’s Mate chevron (as seen at the top of this article), for example, one pattern could simply surround the red Geneva Cross with a single outline of thread while another could apply a crisscrossing pattern in addition to the outline. One example of a unique enhancement that I have seen was to a Machinist’s Mate crow that had a precious stone sewn to the center of the propeller insignia. The aquamarine tone of the stone really stood out against the silvery-blue bullion.

This early Machinist's Mate crow (right-arm rate) is embellished with a stone in the center of the propeller specialty mark (eBay photo).

This early Machinist’s Mate crow (right-arm rate) is embellished with a stone in the center of the propeller specialty mark (eBay photo).

With the modern standardization of uniforms and insignia, the highly detailed and character-filled bullion crows are relegated to history (and to collectors). The current designs are sanitized, sterile and merely one-dimensional caricatures of the old patterns causing many navy rate collectors to shy away from them.

Selected References:

Chiefly Limited: Space for Uniforms is at a Premium


Chief Machinist Mate bullion

Always an attention-grabber, vintage silver-bullion chief petty officer rating badges are highly collectible due to their intricate designs and usage of silver thread.

There are many challenges and hurdles for collectors of militaria. Not unlike the difficulties other collectors face, militaria requires research, authentication and a healthy bank account in order to enable the afflicted with the tools to be successful in such endeavors. One of the most significant universal hurdles collectors face is the ever-increasing deficit of square footage needed for storing and displaying collections.

I am no different from any other collector in that space is at a premium when it comes to safely storing my militaria. Without the proper controls being set in place, I could easily displace my closet space needed for hanging my wardrobe in favor of a growing assortment of vintage military uniforms. What sort of proper control could bring to bear the appropriate amount of pause before pulling the trigger on a deal to acquire the next amazing uniform?

My collection, almost from my entry into militaria, has grown slowly due to my tempered approach, focusing on specific areas of interest. Within those areas, I incorporate a finer set of specificity that helps me to keep things under control. Like many U.S. naval collectors, I enjoy uniforms, rates, shoulder insignia, collar and cap devices and other assorted pieces. However, I tend to direct my attention to specific rates when it comes to uniforms and badges. Mostly, my naval uniform collecting focuses on rates that were held by members of my family.

Only one member of member of my family ever advanced through the enlisted ranks to don the rocker-topped chevron of a chief petty officer, so my collection of CPO uniforms is very limited.

On occasion, I might be tempted to acquire an item that falls outside of my parameters if it possesses other aspects that make it too good to pass up as was the case of my most recent acquisition.

WWII CPO machinist's mate jacket

This CPO jacket has it all…well almost. It is an 8-button, tailor-made dress blue, World War II-era jacket complete with a silver bullion chief machinist’s mate rating badge and custom sewn-on ribbons.

A few weeks ago, a chief’s uniform jacket and cap became available that was just too good to pass up. The dress blue coat was an older, tailored eight-button version indicating that it was made during (or prior to) World War II. Affixed above the left breast pocket were 2-⅓ rows of custom (sewn-on) ribbons which clearly showed the chief as having served during and after World War I up to (and probably through) World War II. On the left sleeve were six hash marks showing that the chief served for at least 24 years. I have an affinity for bullion rates or insignia and the chief machinist’s mate insignia on this coat was the icing on the cake that put me over the top to make the decision to pick it up.

WWII CPO combination cap with white cover

Included with the CPO jacket was this WWII-era (wicker-framed) combination cap. The condition of the frame, visor and white cover are outstanding.

For many of us, researching veterans is a challenge and when we learn about the original owners (of military uniforms) were, there is a compulsion that pushes us to discover where the served and what they did during their time in uniform. When a uniform (that we acquire) is inscribed with a name, we are invariably driven to pursue the history in order to retain it with the item. Sadly, this jacket was unmarked which only meant that I wouldn’t have any further work once I had my hands on it.

Navy custom, sewn-on ribbon rack

The custom ribbon rack, though a little deformed from years of use and storage is complete with a Navy Good Conduct, WWI Victory, China Service, American Defense, American Campaign, Asiatic Pacific Campaign (with three campaign stars) and WWII Victory.

After it arrived, I was even more impressed by the condition of the jacket and the silver bullion of the rate badge. One glance at the Good Conduct ribbon (sans devices) and the six red hash marks, it is very apparent that the chief had some challenges with Navy regulations, staying out of trouble (when on liberty) or simply clashed with his superiors. I am sure his disciplinary record would make for an entertaining read. It is unfortunate that the jacket is forever decoupled from the sailor’s service. Regardless, the uniform is a great addition to my collection.

Now…where to put it?