Chief Petty Officers and Initiations
By Garland Davis
Any Active or retired Chief who spends as much time on Facebook as me has surely seen and been invited to join the myriad CPO Facebook groups. There is the CPO Mess, the USN CPO Mess, REAL CHIEFS, Navy Chiefs (anything goes), the CPO Charge Book, and I am sure many other groups.
One of the groups requires that a prospective member provide the month, year, and location of his initiation. Just short of swearing a blood oath that he or she was initiated in the time-honored traditions of the CPO Mess, otherwise the person is not a “Real” Chief.
All this caused me to wonder just how did the Naval “tradition” of initiating new CPO’s joining the mess begin?
On March 3, 1893, U.S. Navy Circular #1 announced the establishment of the Chief Petty Officer classification effective April 1, 1893. Today, April 1, 1893, is commemorated with celebrations, ceremonies, and khaki balls. However, the appointment of the first Chief Petty Officers was not a major event of the day. The first Chief Petty Officers of 1893 were not immediately elevated to a higher enlisted status as a result of their appointments. In fact, there is no mention of the establishment of the CPO ratings in the Secretary of the Navy’s annual reports to the U.S. Congress in 1893 or 1894.
For the first ten years, Chief Petty Officers berthed and messed with the First and Second Class Petty Officers in the Senior Petty Officers Mess. The separate berthing and messing of Chief Petty Officers weren’t established until 1902 by a change to U.S. Navy Regulations. All other enlisted men were members of the General Mess.
By the end of WWI, most of the original 1893 CPO’s had left or retired from the Navy. The newer Chiefs had no memory of co-existing with subordinate Petty Officers. The Chief Petty Officer’s mess and quarters were firmly established at sea and ashore. The status of the Chief had also evolved. Chiefs enjoyed privileges such as open-gangway liberty. They also had better living quarters and better food than the rest of the crew.
The distinction between Chief Petty Officers and other enlisted men continued to grow. By 1941, all Chief Petty Officers and Officers were authorized to wear khaki working uniforms. Dungarees remained part of the CPO seabag.
Chief petty officer initiations of the 1940s and early 1950s were simple, fun events that welcomed new CPOs into the Chief’s Mess. Many of the events, such as tossing a shipmate into a swimming pool, were performed in front of the officers and crew. It wasn’t uncommon for seamen and junior petty officers to assist in throwing a Boot Chief into the water. After the new Chief dried off and changed clothes the final event generally consisted of having a few, or more, drinks ashore.
The initiations of the 1940s and 1950s were not the elaborate events that occurred in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The initiations were usually overseen by the leading chief of the mess. At the time, there were no senior or master chiefs in the Navy. CPO initiations were not organized and varied from command to command. After initiation, there was no pinning ceremony since chief petty officers did not wear collar devices. Collar devices for CPOs were not authorized until 1959. Initially, all CPOs, E7-E9, wore the same collar devices. The final event of CPO initiations often involved the new CPOs donning their new hats and raising mugs of beer in a toast to the Navy. Promotion to Chief was commonly referred to as “wearing the hat.”
CPO initiations began to change during the late 1950s. CPO selectees, or Boot-Chiefs, were no longer simply thrown in a pool or tossed into the water. It became common for new chiefs to eat their first meal in the CPO Mess from a wooden trough using a big metal spoon. The food was edible and not yet the distasteful concoctions that would appear over the following decades. Boot chiefs wore their new chief uniforms during initiation– sometimes with minor modifications such as a “Boot-Chief” sign or a non-regulation hat. Their new uniforms were generally not ruined by initiation although they sometimes got wet.
CPO initiations began to evolve in the 1960s. Some of the rituals seen in “crossing the line” ceremonies such as eating distasteful concoctions of food products and drinking “truth serum” were adopted for CPO initiations. Some of the props used in crossing the line ceremonies such as stocks and ice-filled coffins began to be seen in CPO initiations. Characters like the “judge”, “defense attorney”, and “sheriff” became fixtures as CPO initiations essentially became mock trials or kangaroo courts.
Charge books also became more common. However, they were not the keepsakes that are seen today. CPO selectees were generally required to carry them and present them to any CPO who requested to see it. The most common charge book was one made from a legal size navy record book with a green cover. CPO selectees were always required to carry the book. The books were often attached to a line or chain worn by the selectee. Genuine chief petty officers would sign the book and enter charges against the selectee to be evaluated by the judge on initiation day. Chief petty officers were expected to enter words of wisdom or humorous notes concerning fines to be paid on initiation day. However, it was very common for lewd and vulgar statements to be entered into the book. Desecration of the book by cigarette burns and smearing food or feces on pages was not uncommon. After initiation, the books were often discarded due to their vile smell and vulgar contents.
By the mid-1980s chief petty officer initiations had adopted many of the characteristics of “Crossing the Line” (equator) ceremonies that included favorite props such as stocks and ice-filled coffins. The consumption of food and liquids, both good and not so good, by CPO selectees was the norm. Cross-dressing and crude behavior was entertainment for all who were present. The humor, hardships, and humiliations experienced during chief petty officer initiations formed a common bond between all CPOs.
Initiations prior to 1995 had little training value and were mainly entertainment for the “genuine” chief petty officers. Raw eggs, alcohol, and “truth serum” were consumed and or worn by CPO selectees and any officers who attempted to “practice law” as defense attorneys.
During the late ’90s and early 2000’s the CPO Initiations, as we knew them, ended and were replaced with a program of transitioning new CPO’s into the Mess. The pinning ceremony is still the capstone of the process of welcoming a new Chief.
During the 126 years since the creation of the CPO rate, we see that initiations evolved. The first Chiefs were not initiated in any way. In actuality, neither their circumstances nor uniform changed. The change was to their title and authority. From the beginning until the end of WWII, the initiation consisted of the Chiefs and other members of the crew throwing the new Chief into a pool of over the side and the everyone going ashore and drinking beer. This evolved into the “Kangaroo Court” with base humiliation of the selectee. This practice was ended and CPO’s are accepted into the Mess using more “humane” methods.
My question to all of you, were the original Chiefs, the WI and WWII Chiefs, or the newly appointed Chiefs any better or worse Chief Petty Officers because they weren’t caused to dress funny, chug-a-lug tequila concoctions, eat slop from a trough, protect their private parts from a bowling ball, or pick an olive off a block of ice with their butt crack?
The September 16th pining of the Navy’s Newest Chief Petty Officers draws near. Welcome to the Mess Chief!