Posted by VetCollector
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:
- Carpenter’s Mate
- Cockswain (sic)
- Gunner’s Mate
- Master’s Mate
- Ordinary Seaman
- Quarter Gunner
- Sailmaker’s Mate
- 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.
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:
- Silver Eagles: Navy Bullion Rate
- Tracking U.S. Navy Specialties: The History of Radarmen
- Chiefly Limited: Space for Uniforms is at a Premium
- Discerning Birds: U.S. Navy Rating Badges from WWI to WWII
- The inside story of how the Navy’s top brass eliminated ratings
- Navy Eliminating 241-Year-Old Rating System in New Enlisted Rank Overhaul
- GOP lawmaker: Navy’s move to strip job titles will hurt morale
- Whitehouse.gov Petition: Restore the Traditional Navy Rating Specialty Titles
- The Navy dumped its time-honored job titles and the decision incited widespread outrage
- Navy move to scrap traditional enlisted ratings system draws criticism, questions in ranks
- War Relics.com – US Navy Rating Badges Discussion Topic