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History and Heritage

History of the Chief Petty Officer Grade

120 years of deckplate leadership.

All Hands Magazine honors the 120th birthday of the chief petty officer with this current photo story and a reprint of an article highlighting the history of Navy chiefs from Pull Together: Newsletter of the Naval Historical Foundation and the Naval Historical Center, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 1993).

It is a sure bet that one of the proudest days in an enlisted individual's naval service is the date on which a first class petty officer dons the uniform and is accepted into the Chief Petty Officer community. At this time, the PO1's leadership and professional abilities are recognized by superiors. These qualities continue to be honed with experience and maturity until retirement.

This article covers the history of the grade of Chief Petty Officer. April 1, 1993, marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of that grade. It is necessary, however, to look back to the origins of the Continental Navy to establish the foundation of relative grades and classifications that led to the ultimate establishment of the CPO grade. During the Revolutionary War, Jacob Wasbie, a Cook's Mate serving on board the Alfred, one of the first Continental Navy warships, was promoted to "Chief Cook" on June 1, 1776. Chief Cook is construed to mean Cook or Ship's Cook which was the official rating title at that time. This is the earliest example of the use the term "Chief" located to date by the author.

The United States Navy was reauthorized under the Constitution by an act of March 27, 1794. The fledgling Navy was to consist of four forty-four gun frigates and two thirty-six gun frigates. The action taken by Congress on that date was based upon the need to counter the Algerian pirates. However, a treaty was reached between the United States and Algiers prior to completing any of the vessels, and the act was allowed to expire.

The construction or completion of three frigates was later directed under an act of July 1, 1797. Those ships were the Constitution and United States, each rated at forty-four guns, and the Constellation, mounting 36 guns. Personnel allowed to the two classes of warships were the same under both acts. Petty officers, who were appointed by the Captain, consisted of one Captain's Clerk, two Boatswain's Mates, a Coxswain, a Sailmaker's Mate, two Gunner's Mates, one Yeoman of the Gun Room, nine Quarter Gunners (eleven were allowed for the two larger vessels), two Carpenter's Mates, an Armorer, a Steward, a Cooper, a Master-at-Arms, and a Cook. Non-petty officers, as listed in the 1797 act, consisted of 103 Ordinary Seamen and Midshipmen and 150 Able Seamen for the larger frigates; the smaller vessel, Constellation, was allowed 130 Able Seamen and Midshipmen and 90 Ordinary Seamen. None of those figures included Marines, which added three Sergeants, three Corporals, one Drummer, one Fifer, and 50 Marine Privates to the complement of the larger ships. The 36 gun frigate was allowed 1 less Sergeant and Corporal and 40 rather than 50 Marines.

Generally speaking, precedence of petty officers was not really introduced until the U.S. Navy Regulations, approved February 15, 1853, were published. It must be pointed out that those regulations were declared invalid by the Attorney General on May 3, 1853, and were rescinded due merely to the fact that the President rather than Congress approved them. However, this did not mean that the information and the guidelines contained in them were inaccurate. Conversely, the Secretary of the Navy submitted a set of naval regulations for Congressional acceptance on December 8, 1858, but they were never acted upon in that session of Congress. Based upon pay tables of the period, the contents of the 1858 plan, like the regulations of 1853, appear to have contained the current rating structure of that period.

Prior to 1853, one could infer a quasi-precedence of ratings based upon the sequence in which ratings were listed within complement charts; this is backed by differences in pay of various petty officers. Another issue to be considered is the fact that the order of the names of the petty officers as they appeared on muster rolls could generally be considered an order of precedence. Precedence of ratings was explicitly spelled out in Navy Regulations approved on March 12, 1863. At this point it is useful to review the early Civil War petty officer rating structure just prior to the official usage of "Chief" with rating titles. Petty officers were listed under two categories--Petty Officers of the Line and Petty Officers of the Staff as shown in Table 1.

The 1863 Regulations made the priority of ratings clear: "Precedence among petty officers of the same rate, if not established particularly by the commander or the vessel, will be determined by priority of rating. When two or more have received the same rate on the same day, and the commander of the vessel shall not have designated one of that rate to act as a chief, such as chief boatswain's mate, chief gunner's mate, or chief or signal quartermaster, their precedence shall be determined by the order in which their names appear on the ship's books. And precedence among petty officers of the same relative rank is to be determined by priority of rating; or in case of ratings being of the same date, by the order in which their names appear on the ship's books." That lengthy paragraph was shortened in the 1865 regulations to read simply, "Precedence among Petty Officers of the same rate shall be established by the Commanding Officer of the vessel in which they serve."

Precedence by rating was a fact of Navy life for the next 105 years and was substantiated by rating priority and the date of an individual's promotion. Precedence of ratings remained in effect until the issue of Change #17 of August 15, 1968, to the 1959 Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS) Manual. At that time, precedence among ratings was eliminated and changed to a single system for military and non-military matters based on pay grade and time in grade.

During 27 1/2 years of naval service, the author has been audience to an appreciable number of boiling point arguments on the ship's fantail and in the Chiefs' messes concerning seniority of ratings. As one can determine from the foregoing evidence, Boatswain's Mates have not always been the senior rating in the Navy. However, if one tries to enlighten some of them they will usually get their danders up and argue until red in the face. Likewise, Aviation Machinist's Mates have not always been the senior rating within the Aviation Branch. From 1924 to 1933, and again from 1942 to 1948, the rating of Aviation Pilot topped the mechs as well as all other aviation ratings.

It is not the intention of this synopsis to present an extended dissertation on individual ratings. However, at this point, clarification of a longstanding controversy and its resultant misconceptions regarding the Chief Boatswain's Mates, Chief Gunner's Mates, and Chief or Signal Quartermasters of the 1864-93 era is necessary. Those three ratings have at one time or another been erroneously identified and argued as being Chief Petty Officers. General Order #36 of May 16, 1864, effective July 1, 1864, listed Navy ratings along with monthly pay for each rating. Among the ratings included were Chief Boatswain's Mate, Boatswain's Mate in Charge, Boatswain's Mate, Chief Gunner's Mate, Gunner's Mate in Charge, Gunner's Mate, Chief Quartermaster and Quartermaster. Boatswain's Mates and Gunner's Mates received $27.00 monthly and Quartermasters, $25.00. Chief Boatswain's Mates and Chief Gunners's Mates were paid $30.00 per month and were listed for service only on board vessels of the lst and 2nd rates. Chief Quartermasters were paid the same except for a $2.00 reduction while serving in ships of the 3rd and 4th rates. Boatswain's Mates in Charge and Gunner's Mates in Charge were also paid $30.00 per month.

The primary difference between the Chief Boatswain's Mate and Boatswain's Mate in Charge and the Chief Gunner's Mate and Gunner's Mate in Charge lay in their assignments. Chief Boatswain's Mates and Chief Gunner's Mates were permitted on board ships of the first two classes of vessels (1st and 2nd rates with 100 or more crewmen). The Boatswain's Mate in Charge and the Gunner's Mate in Charge could be assigned to any of the four classed vessels (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th rates) and specifically only when a Warrant Boatswain or Warrant Gunner was not assigned to the ship. Boatswain's Mates in Charge and Gunner's Mates in Charge appeared in the rating structure for only five years. They were last listed in the pay table included in the Navy Register for July 1, 1869, and were eliminated from this list with the issue of January 1, 1870. From that date, according to complements set in 1872, Chief Boatswain's Mates and Chief Gunner's Mates were assigned to vessels of all four classes. Then, five years later, by the allowance list of 1877, they were assigned only to ships without a warranted Boatswain or Gunner.

The title of Chief or Signal Quartermaster was mentioned in the 1863 Regulations and requires explanation. The term Signal Quartermaster was utilized from at least the early 1800s. That title identified those Quartermasters who were principally involved with signaling and the care of flags, halyards, markers, lanterns and other paraphernalia as opposed to Quartermasters who were mainly concerned with navigational and steering duties.

From 1863 to 1865, the rating titles of Chief Quartermaster and Signal Quartermaster were virtually synonymous. Furthermore, the 1863 Navy Regulations and the 1864 pay order did not present a distinction between those two titles. In 1865, however, by U.S. Navy Regulations approved April 18, 1865, a distinction was made between Quartermaster (not Chief Quartermaster, which was never listed) and Signal Quartermaster listed under Petty Officers of the Line. Signal Quartermaster was listed as third in precedence (after Gunner's Mate), whereas Quartermaster was sixth (after Coxswain to Commander in Chief of a Squadron or Fleet). Those two ratings continued to be carried in successive issues of Navy Regulations until 1885. It is of note that Signal Quartermaster was never listed as a separate rate from Chief Quartermaster in the pay tables covering those twenty years. Therefore, the title of Signal Quartermaster, instead of Chief Quartermaster, can be considered as the official title from April 18, 1865, to January 8, 1885. The title of Chief Quartermaster, primarily found in Navy pay tables for that same period, can be judged to be an alternate or common-use title for Signal Quartermaster. In other directives and correspondence these two titles were often used interchangeably.