The current brass in the Navy, in all its hoary wisdom, has decided to dispense with Chief Petty Officer initiation.
As at least one retired Master Chief Petty Officer opines, this is a decision fraught with implication for what sort of navy we choose to have in the future.
Way back in the day, when I was a brand-new ensign on a straight-stick, superheated steam, automatic-nothing guided missile destroyer, I got to experience the range of chiefs. Alas! my very first Chief Petty Officer was lousy (actually, that descriptor may well have been literally true, because among his other failings he had abysmal personal hygiene). In fact, he was such a bumbling incompetent that the other chiefs came within an ace of kicking him out of the chiefs’ mess. In an organization that small (our total crew, officers and all, was under 450), that sort of collective revulsion is just unheard-of. He’d made chief back in the 1970s, when the military in general was scrambling for every warm body it could find, and a great number of people who would never have otherwise pulled it off advanced well beyond their Peter Principle level. He was respected by absolutely no one on board, and trusted in the same measure.
I was ASW officer, and I still recall with humiliation the time our sonar went down, hard. When my chief reported that they just couldn’t isolate the problem, I sat down with him and my senior E-6 sonar tech (except for their appearance he was his physical and mental twin) to pore over the technical circuitry diagrams (any CPO out there worth his salt knows that when an ensign feels called upon to get into the equipment in that detail, there is something badly, very badly wrong . . . as was in fact the case). I was able to run the problem down to one of the multiple equipment cabinets that made up the suite. I asked both of them, face-to-face and point blank, whether they had tested each of the specific electro-doo-dads in that cabinet. As in tested this one? and this one? and this one? Oh yes, sir; we’ve gone through them all with a fine-tooth comb. Zero idea of what to do next. In desperation I borrowed a missile firecontrolman from the missiles officer (he was an FC2, I think), and in less than an hour he had identified the precise problem: a blown diode or some similar thingummy . . . in exactly the cabinet I’d located. A bit of soldering work and we were no longer blind underwater.
My next chief was at the opposite end of the spectrum. I could (and in fact, by reason of my other duties, often did) run that division by periodically calling up the workcenter and asking him how things were going. “Just fine, sir,” to which I was happy to be able to reply with confidence, “Good. Let me know if that changes.” He was known as being somewhat prickly, but I got along with him by letting him do things his way with very few exceptions, and on those cases I could carry my point by pointing out, “Chief, you’re just gonna have to indulge me on this one.” That’s not a silver bullet that can be fired frequently and I didn’t. We got along extraordinarily well.
All of which is to say that there is a helluva lot more to being a chief than knowing how to put together a PowerPoint presentation, or mouth the latest slogans, or conduct sensitivity training so no one’s feelings get hurt. Being a Chief Petty Officer was more than a uniform. It was more than a paygrade. Watch the video at the link; every sailor in the navy gets to watch the Forrestal catastrophe. Read out Battleship Sailor, by Theodore Mason (it’s a great read, and an insider’s glimpse into a world that once existed and was blasted away, literally in a matter of hours, viz. the pre-war battleship navy). He was a junior radioman in USS California (flagship of the Pacific Fleet Battleships) on December 7, 1941. His chief was Chief Radioman Thomas Reeves, who was (posthumously) awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Folks, that’s why you have Chief’s Initiation. It’s the difference between having as your senior enlisted some community organizer on the one hand, or on the other having some guy who’s pissed more salt water than you’ve seen go by the bow, and (very respectfully of course) has socks that have been in the navy longer than you have. Sir.
So yeah, what he said.