The Chiefs Really Run The Navy

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - September 26, 2007
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As a young Navy lieutenant junior grade (Lt.j.g.) fresh out of flight training, I was assigned to a photo reconnaissance squadron based in Jacksonville, Fla. We flew the new supersonic (big deal in those days) RF-8 Crusader and deployed aboard aircraft carriers in three-plane detachments with four pilots, an air intelligence officer, and around 40 enlisted men. (Literally no women in those days!)

On the first of my two cruises in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the carrier USS Saratoga, I had the daunting assignment of detachment maintenance officer, responsible for the maintenance of our three aircraft and for the efficiency, well-being and morale of the enlisted maintenance specialists who made up the bulk of our personnel complement. I was, of course, intimately familiar with the Crusader’s various systems: flight control, hydraulic, pneumatic, fuel, engine, electronic and so on, and the in-flight emergency procedures when any one of them failed. But fix ‘em when they’re broke? No way! For that I had to depend upon the expertise of my men, but especially one man, my maintenance chief, Chief Petty Officer Charlie Boyer.

Now briefly, for the uninitiated, there are nine enlisted ranks (E-1 through E-9) in each of our five services. E-4 and above are non-commissioned officers (NCOs). In the Navy they are called petty officers, and the top three (E-7 through E-9) are chief petty officers: chief, senior chief and master chief, distinguished by their more officer-like uniforms, especially the visored hat; no more white sailor hats (dixie cups). It is widely accepted that the backbone of the Navy is its chief petty officer corps, and I learned that from Chief Boyer in spades. In fact, I learned more from him about leadership, communication, shipboard relationships and just plain getting the job done than in all of my previous officer training. And like most CPOs and the junior officers “over” them, he “brought me along” with patience and humor, and saved my butt too many times to count. I will never forget him and all he taught me, and we are still in touch today.

It is this enduring appreciation for the chief petty officers of our Navy - and the senior enlisted of all our services, really - that I brought into my recent participation in the new “CPO Legacy Academy” here at Pearl Harbor. Patterned somewhat on the “CPO Heritage Training” on the Atlantic coast aboard the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides) in Charlestown, Mass., the Legacy Academy is hosted aboard the USS Missouri in the WWII version of the Chief’s Mess (dining, berthing and lounging area) recently voluntarily refurbished by Pearl Harbor’s CPOs themselves. The vision, structure and impetus for the ultimate implementation came from Command Master Chief Matt Welsh, Retired Chief Boatswains Mate Harold Estes, and Retired Navy Capt. Don Hess, president of the USS Missouri Foundation.

Class 001, 22 of the top CPO selectees from various Hawaii commands, spent an intensive five days aboard the Missouri. Administered by several of the area’s leading chief petty officers, the course included leadership and problem-solving exercises, guest speakers, community humanitarian work, a “Legacy Run” around Ford Island focusing on the historical points, a guided boat tour around Pearl Harbor including a visit to the Arizona Memorial, a Red Hill march and tour of the massive underground fuel tanks there, excursions to Punchbowl and to Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), and time for bonding and camaraderie.

At the Friday graduation ceremony on the ceremonial fantail of the Missouri standing before guests and families, each spiffy grad received a diploma and a plaque made from old teak decking from the ship itself. Command Master Chief Welsh received a Navy Commendation Medal; his sixth. And U.S.Pacific Fleet Command Master Chief Tom Howard concluded his inspirational speech with “The question now is - what are you going to do with it (the Legacy experience)? My answer to you is simple. Lead! Lead Sailors!”

Indeed, these 22 new CPO leaders, so representative of the dedicated men and women of our modern Navy, will be even better equipped to do just that. And I wondered, how many Chief Boyers would be among them?

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