Ask the Chief: Backbone of the Navy

Ask the Chief: Backbone of the Navy

by John F. Leahy

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Whenever sailors are confronted with 'unsolvable' problems--be it a fouled anchor or paint that won't dry--they often throw up their hands and exclaim, 'We'd better ask the Chief.' That refrain, heard for generations throughout the Navy, is the theme for Jack Leahy's newest book. Written at sea, his book provides a compelling picture of the Chief Petty Officer's community in the U.S. Navy.

As a guest of the Chief Petty Officer's mess aboard USS George Washington during Operation Enduring Freedom, Leahy was granted complete and unfettered access to all areas of the massive carrier and the other ships in her battle group. He interviewed nearly one hundred Navy Chiefs from the aviation, surface, submarine, and special warfare communities and recounts their stories of daily life at sea. In doing so, he presents the true backbone of the modern Navy: the wisdom, character, and dignity of the Chief Petty Officer's community. This book of contemporaneous oral history follows the format that proved so successful with Leahy's earlier book on Navy boot camp. Color photographs help bring the story to life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612512310
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Publication date: 10/11/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 270
Sales rank: 1,109,493
File size: 2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Ask the Chief

Backbone of the Navy
By J. F. Leahy

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2004 J. F. Leahy
All right reserved.

Chapter One

What Is a Chief Petty Officer?

Hear the voices of three chief petty officers of the United States Navy:

"I was out on the USS Simpson, a sister ship to USS Cole, right before Cole got hit. We were intercepting and boarding Iraqi tankers. They were in such bad condition that you could see President Bush's thousand points of light, right through the hull. I looked around for some leadership advice-and remembered at that moment that I was the leader. Now, there's a sobering thought for you."

"The average age on the flight deck is about nineteen. And at nineteen, you are invincible, you know? Nothing bad is going to happen to you-it's going to happen to the other guy. Well, I'm the guy who breaks the news to you-and I'm not gentle about it-that if you don't pay attention to what I'm going to tell you, you are going to die. Right here, right now, on this 4-acre flight deck. Today."

"As an independent duty corpsman, I am responsible for the four hundred sailors on USS Normandy. My boss is the navigator; no medical help there. We often steam independently, away from the rest of the battle group. People don't usually get hurt when the seas are calm and the winds are light. No, it's when you can't launch boats or recover helicopters that things get hairy. I'm a senior chief hospital corpsman-what you see is what you get. I'm all there is."

What exactly is a chief petty officer? According to the U.S. Navy,

Chief Petty Officers are enlisted members, in pay grades E-7 through E-9, who lead and manage the sailor resources of the Navy they serve. They are responsible for, have the authority to accomplish, and are held accountable for:

Leading sailors and applying their skills to tasks that enable mission accomplishment for the U.S. Navy Developing enlisted and junior officer sailors Communicating the core values, standards and information of our Navy that empower sailors to be successful in all they attempt Supporting with loyalty the endeavors of the chain of command they serve and their fellow Chief Petty Officers with whom they serve.

"Leading, Developing, Communicating, Supporting." Every chief petty officer knows that definition by heart, and each chief practices those traits every time he or she crosses the quarterdeck of a ship or station. That's what chiefs do; that's what chiefs have always done.

Chiefs are what chiefs do. And just what is it that chiefs do? Ask any sailor, from the greenest recruit to the most distinguished admiral, and he or she will gladly tell you. Perhaps he'll recall for you a special chief petty officer in his life, someone who got him back on track when he had temporarily misplaced his internal compass. Ask another, and she might tell you that a chief is the only one who will willingly get out of his or her rack at oh-dark-thirty to rescue a young and stupid sailor from the clutches of the local gendarme in a god-forsaken port halfway around the world. She might mention, too, that a chief is that sailor who will go into harm's way, risking life and limb, to clear debris from a flight deck so that circling pilots, low on fuel, can land safely. Yet another sailor might chuckle at the memory, and tell you that a chief is the one sailor who will stand up, respectfully but forcefully, and counsel a young division officer or an experienced department head: "With all due respect, sir, what you are suggesting just plain won't work." Or he might recall, with no little chagrin, that a chief is the person who will read a young sailor the riot act, questioning his legitimacy, sanity, intelligence, metabolism, and common sense, in language no mother should ever hear, and then, at captain's mast the next morning, say: "Well, sir, he's a darn good sailor, one of the best, and I'm sure that we don't want to hold a little mistake against him, now do we?" And the captain, if she's wise in the ways of the Navy and the world, will see the little wink, and know that her ship and sailors are in good hands.

Chiefs are what chiefs do.

Young sailors, fresh from the rigors and terror of boot camp, may think that the chief petty officer position has been around forever. Consider the leathery faces and work-scarred hands in any chiefs mess at sea, and you might be forgiven for thinking that the members of that mess have been around forever, too. And it won't be long before someone reminds you that "officers run the Navy-but the chiefs run the ship."

So who, then, was the first chief petty officer? Records are scarce and open to interpretation, but Chief Warrant Officer Lester Tucker has researched the issue extensively for the Naval Historical Center. He states that "during the Revolutionary War, Jacob Wasbie, a Cook's Mate serving on board the Alfred, one of the first Continental Navy warships, was promoted to 'Chief Cook' on June 1, 1776. Chief Cook is construed to mean Cook or Ship's Cook, which was the official rating title at that time. This is the earliest example of the use of the term 'Chief' located to date by the author."

Tucker's research is meticulous and valuable, but, as he points out, names can be misleading. Sometimes the term chief had functional rather than positional meaning, similar to our use of the word leading today. Yesterday's chief carpenter might well be today's leading damage controlman; yesterday's chief apothecary could be today's independent duty corpsman. It may be an oversimplification to trace the concept of today's chief petty officer-one charged with the training and leadership of sailors in a wide range of duties-to a single colonial ship's cook. If we look elsewhere, though, we'll soon find the spiritual, if not etymological, ancestors of today's chief petty officers. For a cadre of petty officers-junior to the most junior officer aboard ship, yet senior to all other sailors-did exist, even before colonial times, and it is to this group of sailors that we look for antecedents of the modern chief petty officer. These fine sailors were ship's masters-at-arms.

Surprisingly, there is no written record of masters-at-arms in the British Royal Navy until 1694, although certain trusted sailors had always been given responsibility for the ship's guns during battle. These individuals were called "masters of the armory," and were responsible for musketry, cutlasses, and other small arms, as well as supervision of the ship's main armament. In August 1694 the Admiralty determined that the senior lieutenant on each warship would henceforth be installed as the first lieutenant. The first lieutenant, among his other duties, would be responsible for the good order and discipline of the ship's crew. The first identified officer to hold this billet in the Royal Navy, one Lt. Henry James, found it difficult to maintain discipline aboard ship, given the Royal Navy's practice of "press ganging" or taking unwilling landsmen to sea for extended periods of time. Indeed, most seamen were recruited from the lowest classes of society, and often went to sea only to avoid imprisonment, transportation to the colonies, or hanging. The mess decks of British men-of-war were rough and rugged places, and Lieutenant James nominated sturdy, reliable men as his assistants. Naturally, many were those already trusted with access to, and care of, ship's armaments. Thus was born the community of masters-at-arms. The Royal Navy held them responsible for maintaining good order and discipline, as well as for training the crew in hand-to-hand combat. The master-at-arms in the Royal Navy also had other names-even today, the assistants in that branch are known as regulating petty officers (or, colloquially, "crushers") responsible for enforcing ship's regulations and maintaining good order below decks.

The newly founded American Navy copied many practices from the British. The concept of a ship's master-at-arms was twice mentioned in the Naval Regulations of 1775, and during the Revolution the master-at-arms was generally considered to be the senior "enlisted man" aboard any ship. It was not until the Civil War, however, that a formal role for masters-at-arms was dictated. By 1865 Naval Regulations stated: "The Master-at-Arms will be the Chief Petty Officer of the ship in which he shall serve. All orders from him in regard to the police of the vessel, the preservation of order, and obedience to regulations must be obeyed by all petty officers and others of the crew." During this period, the badge of the master-at-arms, worn on the right sleeve, displayed three chevrons, an eagle, and three arcs, quite similar in appearance to that of an army master sergeant of the period. Indeed, it was the basis for today's CPO insignia, which has three chevrons and a single arc or rocker, and which came into use shortly before the turn of the twentieth century.

During the draw-down and reorganization of naval ratings following World War I, the formal rating of master-at-arms was disestablished, and tasks performed by the master-at-arms were assigned collaterally to other senior petty officers. Given the disciplinary and morale issues prevailing during and at the end of the Vietnam War, however, the rating was reestablished in 1973.

Today, the master-at arms serves as a force protection/antiterrorism specialist for Navy ships and commands, and also assists in maintaining good order and discipline at sea and ashore. Master Chief Gregory Ciaccio is the master-at-arms aboard the USS George Washington (CVN-73). Chief Will Scheer is his primary assistant. I caught up with both of them just a few hours before the George Washington battle group was about to pass through the narrow, and potentially dangerous, Straits of Gibraltar.

Master Chief Ciaccio:

We MAs were around forever, but then we were abolished as a separate force in the 1920s. Mostly, I think, that was because the chiefs were angry that we were always the senior petty officers on board; in fact, the whole idea of chief petty officers started with masters-at-arms. In a way, that role is now filled by command master chiefs. But when they reinstituted MAs, we became the senior rating in the Navy, even above boatswain's mates. Fortunately, when they initiated the command master chief program, we got away from all the hostility about senior ratings, and I think that's a good idea. We're more like what a first sergeant is in the Army, as far as good order and discipline goes.

While many things have changed since colonial days, the reliance upon the master-at-arms force as the ship's experts in small arms and close-in defense certainly has not.

Master Chief Ciaccio:

We're also the naval infantry; we're here to fight for our ship. If you look at the history of masters-at-arms, that's what we've always done. Not only are discipline and good order our responsibility but, even back in history, we've always done antiterrorism. We're the people that were with John Paul Jones, we're the people that went against the Barbary pirates, we're the people that would go overboard and fight with a cutlass and a musket. The weapons have changed, but that's what we still do. In 1973 Congress told the Navy to reinstitute master-at-arms as a separate rating. If you go to the hall of heroes in the Pentagon, you'll find MAs all over there; they were awarded the Medal of Honor. It's our ship, let us fight for it.

Most chiefs, like those quoted at the beginning of this chapter, take their leadership role very seriously. And none articulates that responsibility better than Master Chief Ciaccio.

Master Chief Ciaccio:

When I think of our role here, I always recall a movie that I saw, and something that a guy said that struck me. It was the movie Anzio, and in the movie, Peter Falk played Cpl. Jack Rabinoff, who was badly wounded previously and discharged, but managed to get back in the military. He was a terrific soldier, a natural, and he knew how to take care of his unit. And this officer said something to him, and he offended the officer, I guess, because the officer was from a higher social stratum, and the officer pretty much wasn't listening to him. So Falk's character said, "You can do anything you want with me, you can put me on report, or whatever. But I'm going to take care of everybody," and he said it from the heart. And that's my job as a master chief: to take care of everybody. That means my chiefs, my petty officers, my seamen, the new guy, the captain, the CMC, the mess cooks; my job is to take care of everybody. And I truly believe that that is my job. Sometimes I see them going the wrong way, and I open my big mouth, and sometimes it works real well, and sometimes I hurt somebody's feelings. We need to do the right things: we need to keep our people alive, fulfill our missions, and take care of sailors. That's what we do-Leading, Developing, Communicating, and Supporting. If we aren't caring about our people, then it all ends right there; it's a nonstarter. I think that sometimes people make decisions for the wrong reason. They worry "How's it going to look?" My job is to take care of the chiefs, the chief's job is to take care of the sailors. I always say to my people, "If you make me lead, I'm going to make you sorry." Because that means that everybody below me, from chiefs to third-class, is failing somewhere. Take care of business: Developing, Communicating, and Supporting. Leading is a fallback position; if you take care of the other three, leadership happens.

A great deal has been written about the all-volunteer force, and the mindset of today's young enlisted soldiers and sailors. Sometimes it falls to the senior enlisted to remind their juniors that, after the events of September 11, 2001, this is, indeed, "the real thing."

Chief Scheer:

Most of the younger sailors, I think, still haven't bought in to the fact that this is a war patrol. Now, our guys, the masters-at-arms force, it's different with them. We had to do a battle-focusing as we were preparing to get under way. We laid it out straight for them; we are done with the calm period, and we're out here to get down to brass tacks. Even though we hope that nothing happens to us, the potential for something bad to happen is there. Sailors on the mess decks, generally, I suspect, feel the same way. Maybe they didn't fully understand it, until after the captain came on and spoke about the threat, or after we went to the hangar bay the other night and heard the admiral speak. The guys that have been on cruises before, I'm sure they understood.


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