Chief Petty Officers
By Garland Davis
We weren’t aware of it at the time but it became evident as life wore on, we learned our greatest lessons and true leadership from the finest examples any young man could ever have… Chief Petty Officers.
They were crusty old sons of bitches who had seen and done it all. They had been forged into men and had been time tested through World War Two and the Korean Conflict over more years than a lot of us had time on the planet.
They wore a coat and tie uniforms, but could change into dungarees or wash khaki and do a task better than anyone aboard. But it wasn’t their job to do the work. They were there to ensure that you knew how to do it and did it properly. And if you didn’t do it right, they could come on like the hind wheels of hell.
They usually had a cigarette or cigar in their mouth and a cup of coffee, if not in their hand, within reach. Ashore the coffee was replaced with a mug of beer. You only saw them aboard when you needed tweaking and you seldom saw them ashore. They rarely talked to you unless you were the PO1 when they handed out assignments. They would stop and correct you if they saw you doing something wrong and you felt as if you had grabbed the Brass Ring when one of them stopped to compliment you on your uniform or the job you were doing.
Many of them had tattoos on their forearms that would cause a cathouse madam to blush. Most of them were as tough as midrats steak. But they had to be tough to survive the life they had lived. They had been formed in the crucible of the wars in the Pacific and off Korea, in the months at sea watching for submarines and enemy bombers, of fighting off Kamikaze attacks off Okinawa, sweating depth charges at two hundred feet, or freezing on the flight decks off Pusan. They were and always will be, a breed apart from all other mortals inhabiting this Earth.
They took us seventeen and eighteen-year-olds and hammered and filed us until we fit in the round holes, in other words, they turned us into sailors. Sailors who could think for themselves and react as one when the situation required.
Chief Petty Officers didn’t have to command your respect. You respected them because there was nothing else you could do. They were God’s All-Stars on the oceans.
They were hardcore bastards who called it as they saw it and found no problem with the term ‘Jap’ to refer to the enemy that had visited us at Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning in 1941 and whom they had taken an ass whipping to. In their day, ‘insensitivity’ was not a word in a Chief’s lexicon. In their minds were memories of lost shipmates and they cursed the cause of their loss. They were expert at choosing descriptive adjectives and nouns, none of which their mothers had taught them.
I remember Chiefs with two rows of ribbons that meant something. Atlantic Theater, Pacific Theater, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and many Purple Hearts. There was a Chief Corpsman with the Navy Cross. I heard that he went ashore with the Marines at Okinawa. He was always directly behind the Captain at personnel inspections. When I was at NAS Lemoore, there was a Chief Cook with a fully loaded Submarine Combat Patrol Pin.
I would marvel at the ribbons and ask, “Hey Chief, what’s that one and that one?”
“Oh Hell kid, I can’t remember. There was a war on. They gave them to us to keep track of the campaigns. We didn’t get a lot of news out where we were. To be honest, we just took their word for it. Hell, you couldn’t pronounce most of the names of the places we went… They’re all Kamikaze survival geedunk. This one is for standing in line at a Honolulu cathouse. Listen, sailor, ribbons don’t make you a sailor. We knew who the heroes were and in the final analysis, that’s all that matters.”
When a Chief called you ‘Sailor’ and accepted you as a shipmate, it was the highest honor you would ever receive in your life. At least it was clearly that for me.
They were not overly conscious of their position. You could find them with their sleeves rolled up in a working party.
“Hey Chief, you don’t need to be out here, we can handle this shit.”
“We all got to eat and the term ‘All Hands’ means just that.
They mentored and trained us. Not only us but hundreds more just like us. If it wasn’t for Chief Petty Officers, there wouldn’t be any United States Navy.
There was no magic that could make a Chief Petty Officer. They were created from deck swabbing, mess cooking, head cleaning seaman and matured in steel hulls of U.S. Fleets over many miles and years. Nothing that a seventeen-year-old smart ass could cook up was original to a Chief. They had seen E-3 assholes come and go. They could read you like a book.
“Seaman Davis, I know what you are thinking. Just one word of advice… DON’T. It won’t be worth it.”
“Aye, Aye Chief.”
You don’t thank Chiefs. No more than your dog thanks you for making him sit or roll over for a treat. You learn to appreciate what they did for you and who they were from the long distance of years. You don’t take the time to recognize his leadership. That comes later when you have experienced poor leadership or when you have the maturity to recognize what a leader should be. The Navy Chief Petty Officer is the standard by which you measure all others
In those days there was no CPO Academy or leadership training. Their education came at the end of an anchor chain and the handle of a swab, or as the first loader on a 3 inch 50 during the battle of Okinawa. They gave their lives to the United States Navy. Airdales, Black Shoes, and Bubbleheads will claim that their Chiefs are best. Let it be said that we don’t have to differentiate, Chief Petty Officer is all I need to know.
So when we get our final PCS orders and we get to where the celestial CNO assigns us, I don’t know that there will be Marines guarding the streets, but I hope there will be an old Chief in stained wash khakis, a cigar stub in his teeth, standing at the brow to assign me a bunk and locker. We will be young again and the fucking coffee will float a rock.
Life kind of stacks the deck, by the time you grow old enough and smart enough to recognize those you should have thanked along the way, it is too late. If it were possible, I would thank my old Chiefs. They would be amazed that they had succeeded in pounding enough into my thick skull to make me a Chief Petty Officer also.
I give my thanks to you old crusty, casehardened, Sons-a-Bitches. Save me a seat in the Mess.