History of the Chief Petty Officer Grade
120 years of deckplate leadership.
It is necessary to reflect back to Chief Boatswain's Mates and Chief Gunner's Mates to define their exact status. Navy Regulations of 1865, 1870, and 1876 fail to show Chief Boatswain's Mate and Chief Gunner's Mate as different rates or levels from Boatswain's Mate and Gunner's Mate respectively. It therefore follows that to justify calling the Chief Boatswain's Mate and the Chief Gunner's Mate additional rates one has to depend upon General Order 36 of May 16, 1864 (effective July 1, 1864), and Tables of Allowances for the 1870s which list them as rates or ratings along with Boatswain's Mate and Gunner's Mate. To answer the question of whether the Chief Boatswain's Mate, Chief Gunner's Mate, and Chief Quartermaster or Signal Quartermaster of the 1863-93 era were or were not actually Chief Petty Officers is elementary. They were not Chief Petty Officers due to the fact that the grade had not yet been created.
On January 1, 1884, when the new pay rates became effective, there existed the three aforementioned rates carrying the word Chief--Boatswain's Mate, Gunner's Mate, and Quartermaster--all paid $35.00 per month. Several other rates were paid higher amounts, ranging from $40.00 to $70.00 per month.
Fifty-three weeks later, on January 8, 1885, the Navy classed all enlisted personnel as first, second, or third class for petty officers, and as Seaman first, second, or third class for non-petty officers. Chief Boatswain's Mates, Chief Quartermasters and Chief Gunner's Mates were positioned at the Petty Officer First Class level within the Seaman Class; Masters- at-Arms, Apothecaries, Yeomen (Equipment, Paymasters, and Engineers), Ships Writers, Schoolmasters and Band Masters were also First Class Petty Officers but came under the Special Branch; finally, Machinists were carried at the top grade within the Artificer Branch. Included under the Special Branch at the second class petty officer level was the rate of Chief Musician who was junior to the Band Master. That rate was changed to First Musician under the 1893 realignment of ratings was and carried as a petty officer first class until 1943.
On April 1, 1893, two important steps were taken. First, the grade of Chief Petty Officer was established; secondly, most enlisted men received a pay raise. The question is often asked, "Who was the first Chief Petty Officer?" The answer is flatly: "There was no first Chief Petty Officer due to the fact that nearly all ratings carried as Petty Officers First Class from 1885 were automatically shifted to the Chief Petty Officer level." Exceptions were Schoolmasters, who stayed at first class; Ship's Writers, who stayed the same but expanded to include second and third class; and Carpenter's Mates, who had been carried as second class petty officers but were extended to include chief, first, second, and third classes. Therefore, the Chief Petty Officer grade on April 1, 1893, encompassed the nine rates shown in Table 2.
Prior to the establishment of the Chief Petty Officer grade, and for many years thereafter, commanding officers could promote petty officers to acting appointments in order to fill vacancies in ships' complements. Men served various lengths of time under acting appointments, generally six months to a year. If service was satisfactory, the captain recommended to the Bureau of Navigation (called the Bureau of Personnel, BUPERS, after October 1, 1942) that an individual be given a permanent appointment for the rate in which he served. Otherwise the commanding officer could reduce an individual to the grade or rate held prior to promotion if he served under an acting appointment. The change in status from acting to permanent appointment was always a "breathe-easier" occurrence. This meant that the commanding officer could not reduce a Chief Petty Officer in rate if he messed up. It took a court-martial and the Bureau's approval to reduce a Chief serving under a permanent appointment.
The letters "PA" and "AA" were written alongside rate titles and their abbreviations. Those letters stood for permanent appointment and acting appointment, and were used to signify a Chief Petty Officer's status. After March 8, 1946, the letter "A" (for acting appointment) was used integrally with the rate abbreviation. For example, Chief Boatswain's Mate with an acting appointment was abbreviated CBMA. Pay grade 1-A no longer signified acting appointment for Chief Petty Officers after October 1, 1949, as affected by the Career Compensation Act of October 12, 1949. From that time, CPOs received the same pay regardless of whether they held permanent or acting appointments. On November 1, 1965, acting appointments were dropped from use.
A pay differential existed between permanent and acting appointments until 1949. Pay for Chief Petty Officers, in 1902, ranged from $50.00 to $70.00 depending upon the specialty held. General Order 134 of June 26, 1903 (which became effective on July 1, 1903), ordered that "Chief Petty Officer Officers whose pay is not fixed by law and who shall receive permanent appointments after qualifying therefore by passing such examination as the Secretary of the Navy may prescribe shall be paid at the rate of $70.00 per month."
CPOs holding permanent appointments dated prior to July 1, 1903, were required to requalify by standing an examination before a board of three officers. If they passed, they were issued permanent appointments by the Bureau of Navigation. Those who did not requalify remained in their pay and grade level instead of increasing to the $70.00 level.
Pay levels for enlisted men at that time were established by executive order until July 1, 1908. An act of May 13, 1908, established that the U.S. Congress would set pay for enlisted men. However, during the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, by executive order alone, temporarily decreased the pay of all Armed Forces personnel by 15 percent from April 1, 1933, to June 30, 1934, and 5 percent from July 1, 1934, to June 30, 1935.
Chief Petty Officer Ratings on April 1, 1893
Chief Boatswain's Mate
Chief Gunner's Mate
Chief Carpenter's Mate
The act of May 18, 1920, effective January 1, 1920, standardized pay at all levels from the lowest non-rated grade, which was Apprentice Seaman, through Chief Petty Officer. Base pay for Permanent Appointment Chiefs was $126.00 per month, and for Acting Appointments, $99.00. These pay rates remained effective until June 1, 1942. Under the act of June 16, 1942, pay was increased to $138.00 and $126.00 for CPOs with permanent and acting appointments, respectively. By an act of June 10, 1922, which became effective July 1, 1922, the pay grades of 1 and 1-A to 7 were established. CPOs (PA) and Mates were carried in pay grade 1 whereas Chiefs with Acting Appointments were listed in pay grade 1-A. On October 1, 1949, by the Career Compensation Act of October 12, 1949, pay grades were reversed and the letter E, for enlisted, was added setting all Chief Petty Officers at E-7 vice pay grades 1 and 1-A.
The pay grades of E-8 and E-9, Senior Chief and Master Chief, were created effective June 1, 1958, under a 1958 Amendment to the Career Compensation Act of 1949. Eligibility for promotion to E-8, the Senior Chief level, was restricted to Chiefs (Permanent Appointment) with a minimum of four years in grade and a total of ten years of service. For elevation from E- 7 to Master Chief, E-9, a minimum of six years service as a Chief Petty Officer with a total of 13 years service was required. The E-5 through E-9 levels included all ratings except Teleman and Printer which at the time were being phased out of the naval rating structure. People holding those ratings were absorbed or converted to Yeoman or Radioman from Teleman and primarily to Lithographer from Printer. Service-wide examinations for outstanding Chiefs were held on August 5, 1958, with the first promotions becoming effective on November 16, 1958. A few months later, a second group of Chiefs from the February 1959 exam inations were elevated to E-8 and E-9 effective on May 16, 1959. The names of the first two groups of selectees are listed in Bureau of Naval Personnel Notices 1430 of October 17, 1958, and May 20, 1959. It is noted that after the May 1959 elevations, promotions to E-9 were through Senior Chief only.
On July 1, 1965, compression of several ratings at the two top grades was enforced. Six new rating titles were created: Master Chief Steam Propulsionman, Master Chief Aircraft Maintenanceman, Master Chief Avionics Technician, Master Chief Precision Instrumentman, Master Chief Constructionman, and Master Chief Equipmentman.
Conversely, about four years later, on February 15, 1969, some expansion at the Senior and Master Chief grades eliminated Master Chief Steam Propulsionman. Expanded rates included Master and Senior Chief Torpedoman's Mate, Quartermaster, and Storekeeper. Seven ratings were reestablished at the E-8 and E-9 grades, presenting the opportunity for Chiefs to again advance within their specialty to E-9. The seven affected ratings were Signalman, Mineman, Aircrew Survival Equipmentman, Aviation Storekeeper, Aviation Maintenance Administrationman, and Boiler Technician.
The only recent rating change that has had a substantial effect on the Chief Petty Officer community occurred on January 1, 1991, when three ratings were merged into one. Antisubmarine Warfare Technician, Aviation Fire Control Technician, and Aviation Electronics Technician ratings at the E-3 (apprenticeship) and E-4 through the E-8 petty officer grades were merged into the single rating of Aviation Electronics Technician. At the same time, the rating of Avionics Maintenance Technician (E-9 only) remained as the normal path of advancement from the rates of Senior Chief Aviation Electronics Technician and Senior Chief Aviation Electrician's Mate.
The current number of ratings of Chief Petty Officers falls far short of the number listed at the end of World War II, which then totaled 207 different rating titles. At the present time there are 81 rating titles that apply to Chief Petty Officers, 80 titles for Senior Chiefs, and 69 rating titles for Master Chiefs.
Only two ratings have remained in continuous use since 1797--Boatswain's Mate and Gunner's Mate. The service of all senior enlisted personnel, past, present and future, are recognized in their centennial year, aptly marked by the theme, "One Hundred Years of Leadership."
CWO-4 Lester B. Tucker, USN (Retired), enlisted in the Navy in 1939; for the next 27 years he served as Gunner's Mate Third Class, Aviation Ordnanceman Third Class, Aviation Chief Ordnanceman, and Warrant Gunner (Aviation). Since 1974, he has conducted extensive research on the history of U.S. Navy ratings from the Revolutionary War to the present for a multi- volume series on that topic.
Sources: Information contained in this article was collected over several years from Navy Regulations, General Orders, NAVEDTRA, BUPERS Manuals and Notices, ALNAV Bulletins and other sources.