CPO Richard McKenna and Sand Pebbles

CPO Richard McKenna and Sand Pebbles

By Peter Yeschenko

One of my favorite movies is the 1966 movie “The Sand Pebbles.”

The movie was set in pre-WWII China and was based on a book/novel written by Richard McKenna, a career Navy Sailor who spent time in the Far East during the 1930s.


DID YOU KNOW…that the writer of the Sand Pebbles was a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer?!


Chief McKenna was born in 1913 in a small town in Idaho.

Seeking more opportunities than could be found in such a rural part of the country at the height of the Great Depression, Chief McKenna joined the US Navy in 1931 at the age of 18.

He served for 22 years, including 10 years of active sea duty. He also served in both World War II and the Korean War and retired shortly afterward as a Chief Machinist’s Mate.

Because of the benefits of the GI Bill, Chief McKenna was able to attend college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he studied creative writing.

He also married a librarian, Eva, whom he met at the college.

Chief McKenna’s most popular book was The Sand Pebbles in 1962, a 597-page novel later made into the well-known 1966 film of the same title.

The protagonist was an enlisted career Sailor on a US Navy river gunboat named the San Pablo in China during the 1920s.

Chief McKenna himself served aboard a river gunboat on the Yangtze Patrol, but about ten years after the events in his novel and of more modern construction.

USS San Pablo was an ancient gunboat seized from the Spanish in 1898.

The Sand Pebbles won the $10,000 1963 Harper Prize Novel and was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

Chief McKenna suffered a heart attack and died at his Chapel Hill N.C. home on 4 November 1964, at age 51.


5 thoughts on “CPO Richard McKenna and Sand Pebbles

  1. Marcus Lane says:

    He wrote several books, another one (a collection of his writings) that I recommend is The Left Handed Monkey Wrench, a good read with historic Navy information.


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