From that office he would serve as the Senior Enlisted Advisor of the Navy, responsible for advising the CNP on matters affecting the morale, retention, career enhancement, and general well being of the enlisted personnel of the Navy. Giving advice to officers, even admirals, would be easy for a master chief with a chest full of combat ribbons and more than 20 years under his belt. But, convincing commanding officers and other chiefs that his job did not pose a threat to the traditional chain of command was another matter.
Nor would it be easy to convince sailors that policymakers in Washington were not only interested in what they had to say but would act on their suggestions.
The master chief knew that bridging a 200-year-old communication gap between the sailors on the deck plates and their leaders in Washington was not going to happen overnight.
For the next 25 years, the master chief and his successors, working within a powerful leadership network that made peoples’ needs a priority, developed the tools necessary to build the bridge. Today, sailors can see evidence that their voice is heard. From increased educational opportunities to child care, the Navy has evolved into a people-oriented organization where an individual’s needs are balanced with the needs of the Navy.
The bridge itself is a chain of communication that begins at the command level with command master chiefs, continues up to fleet and force master chiefs and ends with the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy in Washington. Through this network, information is transmitted from sailors at the deck plate level to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the Chief of Naval Personnel (CNP) and back down again.
Listening has become an integral part of a leader’s responsibilities. Sailors are encouraged to make suggestions and question practices that appear to be unsafe, unfair, or need improvement. Ombudsmen, family service centers, chaplains, commanding officers, and command master chiefs work together as a support network for families. Career counselors are available to provide information and guidance on advancement possibilities, detailing, and training opportunities. Detailers, once viewed as an untouchable force that issued orders arbitrarily, now encourage sailors to call and communicate their duty preferences before orders• are cut.
With the closing of the communication gap, the Navy has been able to provide its people with programs and policies that make sense on the deckplates. In return, the Navy gains increased retention, high morale, and fleet readiness. The Navy has come a long way since that master chief first went to Washington.
In 1964, too many sailors were expressing their dissatisfaction with the Navy by taking their discharge papers and going home.
Retention for first-termers hovered around 10 percent. For a Navy still wrapping up the Berlin and Cuban Crises, the buildup for Vietnam just. beginning, and new technology changing the operational arena, retaining good sailors suddenly became a major concern. The days of the disposable sailor were over.
Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Paul H. Nitze commissioned a personnel retention task force to come up with ways to stem the tide. Headed by Rear Admiral John M. Alford, USN, the task force was organized under the supervision of the Chief of Naval Personnel and reported directly to SECNAV.
For two years, admirals to seamen were asked to give their personal views on improving career retention. The task force encouraged people to write to the director, disregarding the chain of command. For the first time, sailors could tell their leaders what they were doing wrong without fear of repercussion. The response was overwhelming.
The Commandants of the Fifth and 11th Naval Districts, in Norfolk, Virginia, and San Diego, California, respectively, hosted officer and enlisted retention symposiums. Question and answer periods, working groups, and individuals combined to identify specific problems and offer solutions.
All Hands magazine provided another input channel with its “Four Star Forum.” Sailors were asked what changes they would make if they were the Chief of Naval Operations for one hour.
Neil W. Lundy, a first class petty officer, responded that he would eliminate the deadheads and lighten the load.”
Expanding on the latter, he wrote: “By doing away with much of the pettiness such as unnecessary uniform changes, unwarranted liberty restrictions, ‘on-board-on-duty’ regulations, and similar irritations, the Navy as a whole could realize the same high reenlistment figures presently enjoyed by the submariners. A man in the service at present is far too busy trying to stay out of trouble and live within the many regulatory restrictions to become truly dedicated to anything other than his own skin.”
A senior chief yeoman attacked the new Variable Reenlistment Bonus (VRB), asking what the Navy would do when “there are nothing but specialists and technicians to run their offices and shuffle the paper?”
A lieutenant would retire or discharge “people with 24 years’ service and not producing because of a short-timer’s attitude.”
A first class machiniet’s mate claimed that it was “petty annoyances” that were driving “most of the really good men out of the Navy.”
Cryptologic Technician First Class John J. Abraham suggested establishing “a senior enlisted man in the Navy billet” to be “the enlisted man’s representative on the Chief of Naval Personnel staff.”
All letters to the task force and to All Hands were read and considered for merit. At the end of two years, Admiral Alford announced that his final report reflected the views of a cross-section of at least 100,000 Navy people.
On February 14, 1966, the results of the task force findings were published in SECNAV Notice 5420. No less than 115 approved items were ready for implementation. The scope of the recommendations covered pay, afloat and ashore living conditions, education, distribution policies, sea/shore rotation, working hours, advancement opportunities, medical care, and professional dignity and enhancement of the Navy’s image.
Under the last category, included in recommendations to increase prestige associated with petty officer and career status, was the following. “Establish a billet for the ‘Leading Chief Petty Officer of the Navy’ (LCPO) and establish additional billets for ‘senior chiefs’ in Fleet and type commands and between district staffs. Provide for a ‘direct dialogue channel’ between enlisted personnel and the LCPO.”
Admiral Thomas H. Moorer who later became Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, was Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet when the retention task force was underway. He recalls that internal and external problems created the need for someone to “go out and talk to the young people in the Navy and learn what they were thinking about.”
“We needed to take the common sense approach,” he said. “Those were difficult times for the services. The public was demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. Sailors were unhappy and they were bitching. When they say a happy sailor is a bitching sailor, you are talking about a different kind of bitching. A sailor who is happy and performing well will still bitch about chow, liberty, or doing extra watches. But the military is not a democracy and a sailor has to put up with hardships and sacrifices to be in the Navy. He feels a lot better about doing that if the American public is supporting him. In the late ‘60s, that was not the case. As a result, we were beginning to have discipline and drug problems among the younger sailors.”
There were other factors working in favor of creating a post for a senior enlisted advisor. The Marine Corps had established a billet for a Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps in 1957 and the Army had followed suit in July 1966. Congressmen saw value in creating a billet for a senior enlisted who could act as a representative of a large, previously untapped contingency.
By the fall of 1966, the selection process was underway to choose the LCPO. All commands were asked to recommend qualified master chiefs who could serve as an enlisted advisor to the Chief of Naval Personnel.
The announcement was greeted with mixed emotions in the fleet. Some heralded the office as a positive step forward. For years, sailors had been discussing such a billet. Only a few, however, believed the Navy would give an enlisted man the power or authority to do the job right. Those doubts persisted long after the creation of the office and, despite its success and longevity, can still be heard in some quarters of the fleet.
But the greatest obstacle for the office and its early incumbents was the fear that too much power would create a circumvention of the chain of command. Officers and enlisted leaders worried that the office would become a threat to good order and discipline. Many commanding officers resented the implication that their commands needed an outsider to come in and solve their problems. And there were still those “old salts” who clung to a somewhat modified “rocks and shoals” discipline which held little regard for new ideas in leadership.
Despite the controversy surrounding the billet, hundreds of nomination packages were sent to Washington. The master chief selection board screened them down to 11. A special board, headed by Rear Admiral Charles D. Nace, Special Assistant for Retention Matters in the Bureau of Personnel (BUPERS), selected Master Chief Gunner’s Mate Delbert Defrece Black. On January 13, 1967, he received his appointment from Vice Admiral B.J. Semmes, Jr., Chief of Naval Personnel, during ceremonies at San Diego Naval Training Center.
Black’s original title, “Senior Enlisted Advisor of the Navy” was changed to “Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy” (MCPON) on April 28, 1967 to conform to the titles given the top enlisted billets of the other services.
The perks accompanying the title have increased throughout the years. Although the title was established in pay grade E-9, as the senior enlisted member of the Navy, the MCPON is paid at the E-10 level. Black’s annual basic pay, plus the $150 proficiency pay awarded with the title, was $11,682. Today, the MCPON earns $3,537.90 a month, regardless of years of service.
The MCPON is distinguishable from other master chiefs by three stars on his hat device and over his rating badge. Like the fleet and force master chiefs, the MCPON’s rating badge has a gold star in the place of a rating specialty mark.
In 1989, the MCPON along with the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps and the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, received the keys to brand new homes. The four-bedroom single family homes are located within the compound at Defense Communication Agency in Arlington, within walking distance of the Arlington Navy Annex, headquarters for the Bureau of Personnel. Funding for the MCPON’s and the Sergeant Major’s home was approved in the FY 1989 Military Construction, Navy Authorization Act. Prior to 1989, MCPONs either purchased or rented their own home or were provided quarters at Andrews Air Force Base or Fort Belvoir.
The term of the office, an early topic of debate between Congress and Defense officials, was originally set at four years. The first three MCPONs served the full term but warned successors that, for health and political reasons, three years was long enough. The seventh MCPON opted to go four years at the request of the CNO.
Today, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) is coded OP-00A as the primary enlisted advisor to Chief of Naval Operations and PERS-00D in his special advisory capacity to Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Manpower, Personnel and Training)/Chief of Naval Personnel.
In his office or out with the fleet, the MCPON serves as the focal point of a Navy-wide network of senior enlisted advisors. This network, made up of fleet, force and command master chiefs, funnels information in from the fleet and back out again as it addresses issues affecting sailors in fleet or type commands.
During the week-long CNO Master Chief Petty Officer Advisory Panel, hosted semi-annually by the MCPON in Washington, D.C., senior enlisted leaders are briefed on a variety of topics by the CNO, CNP, and other experts in the personnel arena. The panel submits recommendations on specific policy matters directly to the CNO.
The MCPON also serves as the sailor’s messenger to Congress, testifying before Senate and House subcommittees on compensation, housing, family, and other quality-of-life issues.
As “pulse-taker of the command,” the MCPON travels extensively, listening and talking with sailors and their leaders at locations around the world. In 1988, the MCPON’s spouse was appointed ombudsman-at-large, authorizing her to travel with or without her husband. While the MCPON visits with sailors, his wife visits with Navy wives and families, ombudsmen, family service centers, commissaries, Navy exchanges and medical facilities. Her findings are included in trip reports that are submitted with the MCPON’s to the CNO and CNP.
The office of the MCPON, located on the first floor of the Navy Annex is staffed by an administrative assistant, a journalist, and a yeoman. Additional assistance is provided by the Shore Sailor of the Year who is given the option of spending one year with the MCPON after selection.
The volume of correspondence and phone calls, as well as an open door policy to sailors, makes the office one of the busiest at BUPERS. Over the years, the MCPONs have individually molded the office to fit their own brand of leadership, philosophy, drive, and ambition. Through them, the office has evolved into the Navy’s ultimate enlisted leadership position.
The original charter outlining the duties of the MCPON was established by a BUPERS instruction dated April 28, 1967. While additional duties and responsibilities have been added through the years, the original mission and tasks remain intact. Today, the charter has expanded to read:
The Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, assigned to the immediate staff of the Chief of Naval Operations, serves as the senior enlisted representative of the Navy and acts as the primary enlisted advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations as OP-00A, and the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Manpower, Personnel and Training)/Chief of Naval Personnel as PERS-00D, in all matters pertaining to both active duty and retired enlisted members and their dependents.
The MCPON serves in an advisory capacity on various boards pertaining to enlisted members. They include (but are not necessarily limited to):
The MCPON is responsible for recommendations applicable to the development of effective leadership and training at all enlisted levels and to the attainment of high standards of conduct and general appearance within the enlisted community The MCPON acts at all times to maintain and promote the chain of command and its associated chain of communications. Further, the MCPON is concerned with existing or potential situations, procedures, and practices which affect the utilization, morale, retention, career enhancement, organizational effectiveness, and general well-being of the enlisted mert and women of the Navy and their dependents.”
The selection process for choosing a MCPON has remained basically unchanged since 1967. All commands are encouraged to nominate those master chief petty officers whom they consider qualified to meet the demands of the office. “conspicuously outstanding” record of diverse duty assignments, leadership, career motivation, and “people oriented” programs is essential. Because the successful candidate will be a personal advisor to the CNO and the CNP, he or she must possess a “higli degree of personal dignity and a keen sense of service etiquette.” Married candidates need a spouse who understands the extensive travel and varied public and social commitments involved in the job.
Candidates are asked to include in their package a handwritten statement of the reasons they desire to be the MCPON, along with a nominating letter from their command commenting on leadership, military bearing, oral and written expression, interest and awareness in naval and world affairs, extent of civic involvement, family considerations, and other factors which warrant consideration.
Command nominations are screened by the Senior Chief and Master Chief Petty Officer Selection Board convening in the spring of the year the outgoing MCPON will retire. Final screening from the top ten candidates for the four finalists is conducted by a special selection board convened by the Chief of Naval Operations.
The four finalists and their spouses are then invited to Washington for a flurry of social events and interviews with the CNO, Vice CNO, CNP, and others. The CNO announces his selection to the finalists prior to their departure and via message to the fleet.
While only seven master chiefs have been selected in the past 25 years, thousands of others have applied. At least 30 of those have reached the final level of competition.
Every master chief in the Navy and all career-minded sailors are potential Master Chief Petty Officers of the Navy. As retired CNO Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt points out, if a sailor develops “superior leadership qualities, superior professional competence and superior ability to communicate, then he can become one of the thousand or more who ought to be candidates. Beyond that, it takes the luck of the draw.”
Among the seven who have served, the average age at selection was 45 and the majority had at least 27 years of service. Four of the MCPONs came from the aviation community, three had served as a force master chief, one had been a fleet master chief, two had bachelor’s degrees, two had a warfare specialty, and all seven were married.
The MCPONs have individually served with eight CNOs. MCPON Black served with three CNOs before his tour ended.
Due to the rapport that must exist between the MCPON and the CNO, the selection may be based on something as elusive as a certain chemistry that develops between the CNO and a candidate during the interview process. When Admiral Zumwalt selected Jack Whittet as MCPON, he was looking for a senior enlisted advisor who believed in the changes he planned to make and had “the charismatic leadership capabilities to persuade vast numbers, scores and scores of senior petty officers in the Navy to understand and support them.”
The seven men who have served as MCPON shared a common desire to help sailors improve their lot. They have all expressed an immense satisfaction in their ability to “cut through the red tape” in responding to requests from the fleet for assistance.
Master Chief Gunner’s Mate Delbert Defrece Black (January 13, 1967 April 1, 1971) admits that his advantage was being first. He could set the standard without being judged by it. His leadership style was a combination of presence and authority. With young sailors, he was attentive and courteous, always aware of the example he set. In the chief’s mess, he pushed for leadership. Without demanding it, he got respect, and with that respect came credibility for the office itself.
Master Chief Aircraft Maintenanceman John (Jack) D. Whittet (April 1, 1971 — September 25, 1975) was charming, easy going, and relaxed among officers and enlisted. He and Admiral Zumwalt became good friends and together they symbolized the officer-enlisted teamwork that was essential for the changes that Zumwalt was directing. According to Admiral Zumwalt, Whittet was liked by everyone he met.
“They might not have agreed with what he was saying,” he said, “but they still liked the guy.”
Master Chief Operations Specialist Robert J. Walker (September 25, 1975 — September 28, 1979) was a striking contrast to his predecessor. With a granite chin, he still adhered to many of the old ways of doing things. In a time when hair and beards proliferated, he was close cut and clean shaven. He realized early that he could not change the liberal grooming standards of the day but he pushed for standardization and uniformity in the interpretation. He was relentless in his messages to the chiefs: stand up and act like chief petty officers.
Master Chief Aircraft Maintenanceman Thomas S. Crow (September 28, 1979 — October 1, 1982) was on the ground floor of the “Pride and Professionalism” era. He pushed for leadership training and stressed petty officer integrity and pride. With Mrs. Crow, Navy wives found an ally, a representative not afraid to speak up in their behalf. She laid the groundwork for future MCPON wives who were willing to take on the responsibilities of a Navy-wide ombudsman.
Master Chief Avionics Technician(Air Crew) Billy C. Sanders (October 1, 1982 — October 4, 1985) was a quiet man, intent on doing the right thing for sailors and for the Navy. He made his own way without the benefit of a close relationship with the CNO. A strong advocate of the democratic process, he encouraged sailors to use their vote to force Congress to listen to the serviceman. He enthusiastically endorsed the decision to outlaw beards and with it a push to the more traditional standards of grooming.
Master Chief Radioman (Surface Warfare) William H. Plackett (October 4, 1985 — September 9, 1988) was the first to be groomed for the office as a fleet master chief. He took over with a solid network of con4cts having served first as force master chief for Commander, Training Command, Atlantic and then as Atlantic Fleet Master Chief. With his wife, he helped to strengthen the Navy family image through work with family service centers, ombudsmen, and command master chiefs. He was educated by the Navy through the short-lived Associate Degree Completion Program (ADCOP) and he pushed other sailors to set high educational goals. He was a strong advocate of the Leadership Management Education Training (LMET) program and guided it toward the more compressed Naval Leadership (NAVLEAD) system now in effect.
Master Chief Avionics Technician (Air Warfare) Duane R. Bushey (September 9, 1988 - August 28, 1992) was pulled from the fleet as a command master chief with a reputation for making things happen. In the office, he is a hard worker, driven by self-made deadlines and the haunting feeling that he could or should be doing more for the fleet sailor. Out with the fleet, he puts sailors and officers at ease with a folksy sense of humor and a ready handshake. Bob Nolan, retired Executive Secretary of the Fleet Reserve Association, worked with all seven MCPONs. To Bushey he paid the ultimate compliment: “Bushey reminds me a lot of MCPON Black.”
Over the past 25 years, a number of issues have required the attention and effort of all seven MCPONs. There are the issues that won’t go away, such as equal opportunity and uniforms, and those requiring periodic tweaking, such as advancements and evaluations.
As the office became more established, the MCPON became part of the Bureau of Personnel “chop chain.” All issues concerning personnel matters
are sent to the office for the MCPON’s input or approval. Many issues are initiated by the MCPON, communicated as recommendations to the CNO or the CNP. All the MCPONs have been strong supporters of the chain of command, careful not to overstep the applicable bureaus or codes when working issues through the system. The open door policy to the CNO and CNP has not been perceived or used by the MCPONs as an invitation to “back-door” anyone without first offering the opportunity to discuss the issue with the concerned individual or command.
Uniform Board membership has involved the MCPON on all major uniform changes through the years. As a voting member, the MCPON may not have approved all the changes but his input was certainly considered. Many of the major changes, like the switch in 1973 to the coat and tie and the subsequent change six years later back to the bell bottoms were CNO directed. As such, the MCPON had been consulted early in the decision-making process.
Initiatives on leadership development can be traced back to Whittet but all the MCPONs following him have made a contribution to the program.
It was also Whittet who was the driving force behind the fleet and force master chief program. Originally called the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Command (MCPOC), the program was based on a recommendation from the first Chief Petty Officer Advisory Panel held in 1971. The program was revised once by Whittet before he left office, and by Walker, Crow, Sanders, and most recently by Bushey.
Shipboard habitability, detailing, sea/shore rotation, selection boards, and quality of life issues such as medical care and housing are among the long term issues with no quick fixes. Since all MCPONs have dealt with these issues, communication between the past and present MCPONs is maintained to ensure continuity.
Changes or accomplishments that can be isolated or credited to any one MCPON are few. Endless hours of discussion, planning, decision-making, lengthy, transient chop chains, and the slow moving machinery of bureaucracy have proved frustrating to master chiefs accustomed to making things happen rapidly in the fleet.
MCPONs who begin their tour with specific action-oriented goals are generally well into retirement before those goals are realized. According to MCPON Walker, the best a MCPON can hope to do is “continue and improve upon, then fade into the sunset for the next person to continue and improve upon.”
From the deckplate perspective, it is difficult to see what the MCPON does for sailors. When he is out in the fleet with them, he is more interested in listening than boasting of what he has been able to accomplish. Because his office is in Washington, D.C., some sailors view the MCPON as a “political” figurehead who tells admirals what they want to hear and tells sailors what admirals want them to know. That perception is hard to dispel for fleet sailors who may never have the opportunity to meet the MCPON one on one, in spite of his many trips to the fleet.
Newspaper articles written about the MCPON, columns written by the MCPON in Link and All Hands Magazine, and video news stories or documentaries attempt to fill that void, but cannot replace the personal touch nor fully communicate a MCPON's personality or committment.
Still, there are the hundreds of sailors, past and present, who reached out to the MCPON as a last resort and found the lifeline they needed. A request for a humanitarian transfer granted immediately. An erroneous, but damaging record entry suddenly removed. A frustrating tangle of red tape miraculously smoothed. A non-rated single parent with special needs bumped up on the base housing list.
For those sailors, the MCPON was truly a friend in need. But for the thousands of other sailors who sail through an enlistment or an entire career without a problem requiring help from the MCPON, the master chief who wears three stars remains somewhat of an enigma. In addition to the bureaucratic roadblocks a MCPON must overcome, other variables inherent to the job are the working relationship and personalities of the MCPONs and their CNO and CNP, internal and external pressures affecting the overall attitude of the enlisted community, and the willingness of senior leadership throughout the Navy to adapt and adhere to change.
In spite of the obstacles and the variables involved, the office, through the combined efforts of all seven MCPONs, has played a key role in the Navy’s evolution towards a more people-oriented organization and the proven success of the All-Volunteer Force. Today’s sailor may work as hard as the sailor in the “Old Navy,” but they work in an environment that encourages a sense of pride, professionalism, and dignity.
The tenures of the individual MCPONs are presented in the following chapters to offer a record of the issues, the trends, the attitudes, and the people themselves who helped move and shape the “Old Navy” into the new.