The Role of the Chief Petty Officer in the Modern Navy

By Chief Personnelman Don A. Kelso, U. S. Navy

Written in April of 1957 for Proceedings magazine

In the Days When the Chief Was the Backbone of the Navy: The high place of the chief petty officer in the peacetime Navy between the World Wars was not a myth then nor should it be one today. In the working and disciplinary hierarchy of the Navy, the CPO's position has not lost one iota of its significance.

There have been a great many questions, examinations, re-examinations, and discussions of the role of the chief petty officer in the modern Navy. Commanding officers, junior officers, petty officers, and enlisted men are saying that chiefs just aren't what they used to be. The "used-to-be" status referred to is that fabulous position occupied by the chief petty officers in the pre-war Navy wherein the chief's word was law to subordinates and his ability to get things done a trade-mark to his superiors.

Because the Navy expanded so fast during the World War II years, a great many younger petty officers achieved the rating of CPO in a third of the time required by pre-war chiefs, and consequently the new wartime top grade enlisted chief petty officers did not have the experience or maturity of their elder brothers. Further, wartime demands caused many naval reservists who had worked in a supervisory capacity in civilian life to be enlisted in the rating of CPO. These men, while being highly efficient in their specialty, in many instances did not have the military background to enable them to administer the military portion of their duties in the effective manner required of career chief petty officers. Many of these so-called "slick-arm" chiefs had to serve an apprenticeship to becoming a chief petty officer in their supervisory billets before they could begin to fulfill their duties as chief of a group of men, an expedient which caused a certain amount of confusion and uncertainty in the ranks. These factors contributed greatly to mitigating that important status occupied by the chief petty officers of the period from 1920 through 1941.

When World War II was over, the demobilized Navy found itself so top-heavy in pay grade E-7 that it was necessary, in many instances, to utilize chief petty officers in billets and jobs normally filled by junior petty officers, and, in some extreme cases, by non-rated men. This factor, too, tended to obscure the basic importance of the chief petty officer in the modern Navy. Further, the administrative organization of the Navy was overhauled and changed by the concepts embodied in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the accent of modern psychological approaches to leadership which frowned on negative enforcement of discipline. This period of re-examination of the Navy's enlisted leadership tended to diminish the importance of the CPO as known to the erstwhile Navy. As a result, the first to complain about this apparent loss of prestige were the chief petty officers themselves. They complained that they were reduced to a status of figureheads—that their opinions and words meant little to their superior officers. Commanding and executive officers have complained too that their chiefs were not what they used to be—that they no longer exercised firm control of their men and that they countenanced slip-shod work from subordinates.

In almost every instance, the complainers have harkened back to the golden age of the chief petty officer, or that age between the two great wars when chiefs were persons to be reckoned with by any standards. It is worthwhile to examine those characteristics of the pre-war chief which commanded such admiration and glowing re-call.

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Basically, the pre-war chief petty officer was the Navy's first disciplinarian. He maintained strict personal supervision of the military and specialty proficiency of the men assigned to him. He exercised and dispensed a great deal of unwritten naval law. Within the workings of the chief's bailiwick, he often restricted men for minor offenses with resulting few appeals to higher authority. If a subordinate did feel that a chief's unofficial administration of military discipline was too arbitrary and appealed to the commanding officer for relief, his appeal most usually was determined in favor of the chief's prior ruling. Most commanding officers found it expedient to back up their chief petty officers as completely as possible. Of course, under this local administration of discipline, fewer men were brought to the captain's disciplinary mast, and trouble was more effectively localized to the level of the division.

The pre-war chief was an exacting supervisor of ship's work in his division. He would demand a high quality of work, and usually subordinates would keep their collective noses to the grindstone until the job was finished and accomplished in a satisfactory manner. Many seamen have returned to their task of painting a bulkhead after the evening meal because the chief wasn't satisfied with the quality or quantity of work produced during normal working hours. This insistence on a good job meant that the standards of all work aboard ship and station were high.

Naturally, the pre-war chief was highly proficient in knowledge of his specialty. A chief watertender (boilerman) was an expert in boilers; a chief yeoman was an expert in office administration (in fact, he composed a goodly portion of the activity's outgoing correspondence); a chief boatswain's mate was an expert on rigging and navigation, and so forth, down the line of the various ratings then established in the Navy. Many times a department head would call his chief in for consultation on some technical matter falling within the chief's specialty. The junior enlisted men considered their chief as an ultimate authority on technical information.

When thinking back to the pre-war chief, the fact that the chief was a most able and effective advocate for the hapless division's bad boy comes to mind. When an enlisted man broke the rules by disobeying orders, staying over liberty, or by being mischievously derelict in his performance of duty, the first person he ran afoul of was his chief, who usually took summary disciplinary action at the local level. Then, if the offender showed promise of ultimately shaping up, turned out good work, and generally was a worthy man except for a minor fall from good habits of conduct, it was the chief who stood up with him, and for him, at captain's mast and pleaded his case. Very often the chief would get through to the commanding officer who would give the offender another chance after undergoing light, non-judicial punishment, rather than adjudge the more serious form of disciplinary action, the court-martial.

These characteristics of being a stern disciplinarian, a strong supervisor, an expert in his specialty, and an advocate to higher authority for the men under him are the stuff of which the chief petty officers were made in the pre-war Navy The main substance of the complaint today, both from CPO's and officers, is that these qualities do not manifest themselves so brightly as they did in the times gone by.

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Actually, even though naval organization has undergone considerable change in its methods and administration, the role of the chief petty officer in relationship to the men he must supervise remains substantially the same. The chief petty officer is the chief of his rating group. He is the senior enlisted man, the top enlisted rating in his field and, as such, is responsible for the efficient functioning of all persons working under his supervision. He is the functionary that sees that the immediate task at hand gets done. His first responsibility, of course, is to his immediate superiors. He must clothe the broad orders and projects of his division officer with practical translation by putting his men to work and seeing to their accomplishment. The chief's second and equally important responsibility is to the men assigned to his supervision. He must see that their basic needs of food, housing, and training are met, and, if any problems arise in these areas, he is the one who wrestles with the problem until it is solved. He is responsible for his men's esprit de corps. Further, the chief is the main liaison official between officers and the enlisted man.

Many of the ratings below chief and nonrated men have not completely developed the Navy career attitude which is the attitude of accomplishing the most in the job, of doing the best job possible, and of having a proprietary interest in the assignment at hand. Now that most enlisted naval reservists called up to duty during the Korean emergency have been released to inactive duty, the body of chief petty officers as a whole is a group of men pledged to a Navy career. As such, they can be expected to do their utmost to improve efficiency and fulfill the Navy man's mission of manning a fleet ready to defend the nation's sea lanes against all threats. The chief petty officer is one person in the Navy, by virtue of being a career petty officer, who cares whether the work gets done or not.

Being a career petty officer, the chief cannot pass the buck when things go wrong in his department. Harry S. Truman, while President of the United States, used to have a motto placed on his desk to the effect, "The Buck Stops Here" So it is with the chief petty officer. If his men turn out sloppy work, if they present an unmilitary appearance, if they show a tendency to laxness in military discipline, or if they demonstrate lack of training in their assignments, the chief must accept personal responsibility therefore. Certainly, the chief cannot blame any deficiencies entirely on his men—it is his job to supervise them and see to it that they present a neat appearance and constitute a handy working unit. He cannot blame his superior officers entirely for all defects in the morale or discipline of his men, because he, as chief petty officer, is the first person to have responsibility for these things.

Actually, the chief petty officer is responsible for three facets of leadership relative to the men placed in his charge. In the first instance, he is responsible for the effective discipline of his men. He is the one who must insist on ready habits of obedience. He accomplishes this first by himself setting the example of respectful attentiveness to the orders and instructions of his superiors. Having personally set the pace for obedience, he demands alacrity in his men's habits of response to his orders. By the time a man has reached the rating of chief, he has learned to avoid attributing unpleasant orders or duties to higher authority, but rather gives orders as being his own. He first must establish his leadership and authority in his group to the end that his men develop habits of obedience to his orders because he is a chief petty officer in the Navy and as such is competent to give orders. The type of leadership the chief exercises will be reflected in the conduct of his men. The chief who holds tight rein and exercises positive leadership will have few of his group on the mast report. Whenever men get off on the wrong foot or into extraordinary trouble, they automatically advertise poor leadership on the part of their chief.

In maintaining good discipline, the chief sees to it that his men observe the military courtesies. He will call any man in his outfit on failing to salute. He will admonish a man against talking to an officer on more familiar terms than befits the military relationship of officer and enlisted man. Whenever a man appears to be getting off on the wrong foot, the chief must take measures to square the man away. The chief is very interested in how his men wear their uniforms. He is quick to tell a sloppy looking sailor to square his hat, roll down his sleeves, and get into clean uniform, if the occasion warrants. He actually has control over three areas which are most vital to the men under him. He makes recommendations for quarterly marks, and these recommendations are usually the marks that are finally entered in the man's service record. Secondly, the chief must approve of all special liberty requests. An efficient chief petty officer will not hesitate to use his disapproval of special requests in order to positively demonstrate to persons under his jurisdiction that he demands a cooperative attitude of good discipline and efficient work. He must use his judgment as to whether the man merits special consideration in a special request. This is a most strong factor in any chief's authority. A chief must recognize it and use it wisely. Thirdly, the chief has the authority to recommend outstanding persons in his division for special recognition, commendatory masts, and special assignments. If he uses this office effectively, his men will respect his judgment and strive to prove themselves worthy of acclaim and recognition.

The second facet of leadership required of a chief petty officer is naturally that of effectively supervising the work of his men. It is the chief petty officer who sees to it that the job gets done on the section level. He must demand maximum efficiency from his men, keeping the standard in mind that the Navy's mission is readiness for war. In case of war, the ship's plan of the day will require that Navy men have developed habits of turning out an efficient job as quickly as possible and, in addition, of performing the military duties required of combatant military personnel. It is the chief's job to demand that each man in his organization accomplish his own assigned job and that as efficiently as the man's ability permits. In order to achieve this, the chief has the authority to keep his men On the job regardless of the hour of the day or nigh t until he is satisfied that he and his men have completed the task that higher authority assigned to his group. Of course, it goes without saying that the chief must not be a martinet in his supervision; but nevertheless, he must have developed habits of demanding the best that his men are able to accomplish. Even when his working party is not fully qualified or capable of an assigned task, he must whip them into shape and lead them, through experience and training, into an attitude where they will tackle their daily mission with resolution and determination regardless of its difficulty. Perhaps this area is one of the most critical facets of the chief petty officer's responsibilities. Men like to accomplish something, but it goes without saying that they hate to be driven by an unreasonable, insatiable, hard-headed machine of a chief petty officer who shows no sympathy or feeling for the sensibilities of the men working under him. On the other hand, the men also, by the same token, despise the chief petty officer who is too soft, who allows his men to idle, to slack on the job, and who is confounded by the slack put out by the few trouble makers in the outfit. Men in the service admire a strong-willed, determined chief, providing he also demonstrates a genuine concern for his men's welfare along with his efficiency.

By and large, the majority of men in any naval activity have a basic willingness and desire to do the work expected of them and to advance in their status. About ten percent of any men in any activity are "eager-beavers" who will do an exceptional job whatever the exigencies of the moment and take upon themselves responsibilities far in excess of that required by higher authority. The other ninety percent are average persons, however, who are affected greatly by the leadership of the section and division.

The question may be raised here as to what the chief can do to insure a wholesome work output and work attitude by all hands under him. The answer is the chief's basic authority to pass on all requests of the men under him, his authority to keep men on the job until it is accomplished, and his office of bringing deserving men to the attention of higher authority for commendation or recommendation to one of the many Navy's plans for advancement to commissioned rank. Along this line, many chiefs may point out that it is ticklish business for a chief petty officer to take in his own hands disciplinary measures that appear to be forms of punishment reserved for captain's mast, such as restriction and extra-duty. This whole matter can be resolved as a concept of administration. The chief cannot punish, but he can train his men; he can give them as much extra instruction as is necessary to shape up an outfit. One of the qualities of being a chief petty officer is the quality of knowing how to administer extra-instruction effectively when needed.

A great majority of chief petty officers today are effective chief petty officers because they worked under the example of an efficient chief petty officer while they were working up in the junior ratings. Likewise, the chiefs have a great responsibility to set a high standard for the chief's supervisory duties for the persons now working their way up to the rating of chief petty officer.

In the matter of training, the chief petty officer being the one who knows the "nuts and bolts" foundations of his rating and of general information relating to the Navy as a whole, is responsible for the all-around training of personnel assigned to his supervision. He must see to it that the non-rated men serve a fruitful apprenticeship in their rating and learn the basic foundations of that specialty. He must prescribe the appropriate courses of study for his men to acquire the knowledge necessary to their rating. Along this line, he should maintain definite liaison with the Information and Education Officer, seeing to it that his men draw appropriate training courses. He must satisfy himself that his men are actually studying and preparing themselves for advancement.

Lastly, the chief petty officer is an advocate for his men in their misguided skirmishes with the established regulations. When one of his men becomes a disciplinary problem, the chief must personally look into the case, and if the man can be rehabilitated, plead for his probation before the division and commanding officers. Since it is the chief who must immediately supervise the man in trouble, commanding officers generally give a great deal of thought to whatever the chief has to say for a man. Many a minor offender has his chief to thank for pulling him off of the disciplinary coals before the commanding officer because the captain believed that remanding the wrongdoer to his chief petty officer was the best thing to do.

Along this line, the chief petty officer must always look out for his men. When the task has prevented a group from eating their meal on time, the good chief will go with them to the mess hall and insure that they receive an adequate meal. Usually the chief commissaryman will see that rations are prepared for a working party when requested by their supervisory chief. After the men have performed an unusually noteworthy job, the chief will recommend that they be suitably rewarded when reward is indicated in the way of special recognition by the commanding officer, or a special liberty, whichever is the most appropriate for the occasion.

The chief always is approachable. Even though he is a stickler for getting the job done, for preserving good order and discipline, he is always available for talking over special problems. He can always be counted on to do his utmost to help the men with their problems. Whenever it appears that his men are getting a bad deal in work assignments or consistently getting less liberty than others of comparable status, the chief will go all the way down the line to straighten out any trouble or misunderstandings. Leadership at the chief petty officer level is a two-way proposition. He demands the best efforts and attitudes of team spirit from his men and he strives constantly for the best things for his men from higher authority.

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It has been said of old that the chief petty officer is the backbone of the Navy. While that is putting it a bit strongly, nevertheless the chief fulfills a most vital function in the operation of the Navy's military and work schedule. The present trend is for the commanding and division officers to place more and more responsibility for supervising and seeing to it that tasks are performed on the shoulders of chief petty officers. It is true that in some cases junior officers needlessly meddle in the chief's relationship to his men; however, in most such cases, the action was occasioned because the attitude of the group showed that more positive supervision was needed. Most commanding and executive officers will instruct junior officers in the practice of maintaining productive relationships with chief petty officers when they observe that the junior officer appears to be over-supervising a chief.

Chief petty officers have complained greatly in the preceding years that their place in the post-war Navy was diminished over that of the pre-war Navy. Of late the situation has improved immeasurably mainly because the CPO's have taken hold of their inherent responsibilities again. Chiefs are demanding more respect from their men and they are not only getting it from that quarter but are proportionately rising in the esteem of their seniors. Officers are again addressing a chief petty officer as "Chief Jones," rather than just "Jones." This adds to the chief's authority both in the eyes of superior officers and subordinate men alike.

The chiefs occupy an enviable position in the Navy. If a chief will demonstrate efficiency and positive qualities of leadership, he is almost in a position to write his own ticket as far as his privileges and status are concerned. An efficient, active body of chiefs aboard a ship will produce a taut ship because such condition means that all enlisted men aboard the ship are doing their jobs. This creates such a healthy sense of accomplishment and team spirit that it cannot help but reach upwards to the wardroom, resulting in less negative regulations and a more dynamic operation of the mutual loyalty principle. The Navy desires and expects a great deal from its chiefs. When the chiefs fulfill their rightful place in the Navy's scheme of things, the wheels of naval management run smoothly.

Chief Kelso served in the USS St. Mihiel (AP-32) and PCE-845 during World War II and subsequently was an instructor, Military Justice School, Fleet Training Center, San Diego; Chief in charge of the Administrative Office, Fleet Training Group, Pearl Harbor, and of the Career Appraisal Board, Fleet Training Group, Pearl Harbor. He is currently attached to the U. S. Naval Torpedo Station, Keyport, Washington.