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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.

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Why Do You Collect Militaria?


After publishing more than 100 articles (this is my 106th, to be precise), it is odd that I would make a U-turn and head back to a topic that I should have posted when I commenced this militaria-writing venture. There are many times when I find myself in conversations with people when I am explaining my unusual interest of gathering artifacts that were used in the armed forces in some capacity. I have touched on various aspects of my own rationale behind my interests in several posts, however nothing as fundamental or foundational to what lies at the root of my interest. Though I have been actively collecting artifacts since 2008-9, my interest in militaria began many years earlier.

What is Militaria? Merriam-Webster defines it as “military objects (as firearms and uniforms) of historical value or interest.” The definition of the word is fairly ambiguous and vague when one considers what could fall into the category of military objects.

The categories of military objects can be quite expansive ranging from matchbook covers and photographs to uniforms and weapons. There is something for anyone interested in almost any aspect of military history. As with most collectibles, militaria objects can cross over into multiple categories which can bring larger audiences and have significant influence on pricing. For example, in the area of military patches, militaria collectors can find themselves competing with Disney collectors for Walt Disney-designed aviation squadron patches from World War II. Vintage photograph collectors may be competing with the militaria collector for the same WWI yard long images.

Crossover collectability is good for the hobby as it provides opportunity to focus on specific interests that may be out of the mainstream for either facet. While many militaria hobbyists gather M-1 helmets, insignia, or edged weapons, very few seek out matchbooks.

One might focus solely on collecting patches (or shoulder sleeve insignia – SSI). These are the Marine Divisions (1-6). Shown are two versions of the 2nd MarDiv. Three of these patches are wool felt.

My own interest in militaria was fostered during my quest to uncover the details surrounding the military service of my ancestors and family members. I also inherited a number of personal effects (militaria) from a few of those veterans which drove me to document their service. As with collecting, one item led to another and soon I found myself piecing together shadow boxes honoring their service and assembling their uniforms for display purposes.

Where do your interests lie? Nineteenth century, Napoleonic wars? Eighteenth century British naval officer uniforms? Medals and decorations of the former Soviet Union? Or perhaps your interests lie in the current conflicts of the United States (Iraq and Afghanistan). One can specialize in assembling the various uniforms for WWII women’s services such as W.A.C.W.A.V.E.S. or W.A.S.P.– but be prepared to pay premiums for these hard-to-find items. Whatever your interest, you should find a collecting niche that aligns with your interest.

This embroidery-embellished USS Newark flat hat group garnered significant attention when it was listed at auction. Having a piece like this in my collection would be a fantastic addition
(Source: eBay image).

Unless you inherited a museum full of artifacts, narrowing your collecting is advisable with the considerable financial outlay you will be facing as you expand or fill in the gaps in your collection. Instead of broad categories such as anything World War II-related, one can be very specific and pursue items from the U.S. Army 4th infantry division. Uniforms, insignia, notable personalities, valor medal recipients or any number of special interests would make the hunt exciting and possibly keep costs manageable.

I acquired these WWII vintage Chief Radioman uniforms to create a representative display recognizing another family member’s service. Though I did inherit many family military artifacts, I do still try to either have a representation or simply complete what is missing from what I received.

My collection consists of uniform items, medals, ribbons, documents and photos. All of which has context or tie-in to my family history. In addition to the displays and groups I have assembled, I also have acquired some items that have piqued my interests (or distracted me). While I haven’t purchased any of them, I did manage to obtain a nice group of Third Reich militaria that was “liberated” by one of my relatives, a U.S. Army officer. But in keeping with my focus, I haven’t pursued any additional items to add to that theme.

 

Follow your heart and your interest!

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.

Showcasing Your Militaria Investment


What good is a collection if it is maintained behind a closet door (where mine tends to be), stored in the basement or locked in a trunk? We spend years gathering items and filling in gaps in our collections as we reach goals that, in some cases, could take a lifetime to achieve. Despite those successes, we fail when we choose to keep them under wraps, hidden from the eyes of our house guests.

Most collectors’ spouses raise objections to the idea of them bringing old, musty-smelling objects into the spaces that we regularly inhabit. Olive drab hardly matches any home decor and the idea of weapons, armament and mannequins occupying limited floor or wall space tends to create friction with our spouses or significant others.

When I can, I like to visit museums that choose to commit their valuable floor real estate to displaying military history. I enjoy seeing the care that was taken by the staff to draw from the collection a tasteful blend of artifacts to present specific themes or create visual representations of specific historic events. Knowing that too much can cause viewers to gloss over the display, missing the all of the details. Too few artifacts or vague information cards in a display can have a similar effect. In both cases, the efforts of the curator are laid to waste as the museum visitor ambles past the display.

Through my membership in the U.S. Militaria Forum, I have seen some very impressive personal collections with well thought out displays that rival any of the best museums in the United States. From the hand-crafted cases and cabinets to the tastefully selected art hung on the walls, these collectors demonstrate that their investment is something to share with others.

Take note of the mannequin’s altered ring finger on the left hand that matches Nimitz’ partial amputation from 1916 (source: Naval Academy Museum).

Not too long ago, the Naval Academy Museum shared some photos on their Facebook page of one of their latest displays that showcases one of the most historic events of the last century, the signing of the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Presented is the uniform worn by Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz on that September 1945 day in Tokyo Bay. The display clearly shows his khaki uniform with the rare 5-star insignia affixed to each collar. The museum staff went as far to alter the mannequin’s left ring finger to match Nimitz’s left hand: a portion of his finger was severed in 1916 by a diesel engine that he was demonstrating.

The key, limiting factor in my home is that I have a considerable lack of space. It is challenging enough to store my collection so the thought of propping up torsos to show my uniforms is nullified. Besides, it can be a little disturbing to walk into a room and see a still and quiet human-form at 4:00 AM as I prepare to head off to work.

A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a public showing of my military baseball collection at our state fair in their hobby hall. My artifacts where showcased in and among adult and youth collections that were varied, ranging from pig-themed collectibles to artifacts from our nation’s bicentennial celebration. This year, I have yet another part of my militaria collection on display at the state fair. Being that the overwhelming military population (veterans, retirees, reservists and active duty personnel) is army and air force, I wanted to educate the citizenry on enlisted uniforms of the United States Navy. I gathered a few selections of my enlisted rating badges and uniforms to spotlight the history, designs and the ratings themselves.  My wife and I visited the fair and stood in the distance to observe visitors to see how they respond to what I had on display. People-watching is fun but seeing people enjoying these artifacts is pleasing and provides some satisfaction to collecting, even if I can only experience it on rare occasions.

Spotlight on private collector militaria displays

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.

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