One thing we weren't aware of at the time, but it became
evident as life wore on, was that we learned true
leadership from the finest examples any lad was ever
given - Chief Petty Officers. They were crusty old
guys who had done it all and had been forged into men
who had been time tested over more years than a lot of
us had time on the planet. T he ones I remember wore
hydraulic oil stained hats with scratched and dinged-up
insignias, faded shirts, some with a Bull Durham tag
dangling out of their right-hand pocket or pipe
and tobacco reloads in a worn leather pouch in their hip
pockets, with a Zippo that had been everywhere.
Some of them came with tattoos on their forearms that
would force them to keep their cuffs buttoned at a
Methodist picnic. Most of them were as tough as a
boarding house steak, a quality required to survive the
life they lived. They were, and always will be, a
breed apart from all other residents of Mother Earth.
They took eighteen year-old idiots and hammered them
into sailors. You knew instinctively it had to be
hell on earth to have been born a Chief's kid. God
should have given all sons born to Chiefs a return
option. A Chief didn't have to command respect, he
got it because there was nothing else you could give
them. They were God's designated hitters on earth.
We had Chiefs with fully loaded Combat Patrol Pins in my
day... Hard-core bastards, who found nothing out of
place with the use of the word 'Japs' to refer to the
little sons of Nippon they had littered the floor of the
Pacific as payback for the December 7th party they gave
us in 1941. As late as 1970 you could still hear a
Chief Petty Officer screaming at you in boot camp to
listen to him, because if you didn't, the damn gooks
would kill us. They taught me in those days,
'insensitivity' was not a word in a sailor's lexicon.
They remembered lost mates and still cursed the cause of
their loss... And they were expert at choosing
descriptive adjectives and nouns, none of which their
mothers would have endorsed. At the rare times you
saw a Chief topside in dress canvas, you saw rows of
hard-earned, worn and faded ribbons over his pocket.
"Hey Chief, what's that one and that one?" "Oh Hell,
kid, I think it was the time I fell out of a hookers
bed; I can't remember, there was a war on. They
gave them to us to keep track of the campaigns were in.
We got our news from AFVN and Stars and Stripes.
To be honest, we just took their word for it.
Hell, son, you couldn't pronounce most of the names of
the villages we went to. They're all gee-dunk.
Listen, kid, ribbons don't make you a Sailor. The
Purple one on top? OK, I do remember earning that one.
We knew who the heroes were and in the final analysis
that's all that matters." Many nights we sat in
the after mess deck wrapping ourselves around cups of
coffee and listening to their stories. They were
lighthearted stories about warm beer shared with their
running mates in corrugated metal hooches at rear base
landing zones, where the only furniture was a few
packing crates and a couple of Coleman lamps.
Standing in line at a Philippine cathouse or spending
three hours soaking in a tub in Bangkok, smoking cigars
and getting loaded. It was our history. And we
dreamed of being just like them because they were our
heroes. When they accepted you as their shipmate,
it was the highest honor you would ever receive in your
life. At least it was clearly that, for me.
They were not men given to the prerogatives of their
position. You would find them with their sleeves
rolled up, shoulder-to-shoulder with you in a stores
loading party. "Hey Chief, no need for you to be out
here tossin' crates in the rain, we can get all this
crap aboard." "Son, the term 'All hands' means ALL
hands." "Yeah Chief, but you're no damn kid
anymore, you old fart." "Shipmate, when I'm
eighty-five, parked in the old Sailors' Home in
Gulfport, I'll still be able to kick your worthless ass
from here to fifty feet past the screw guards along with
six of your closest friends." And he probably
wasn't bullshitting. They trained us! Not only us, but
hundreds more just like us. If it wasn't for Chief
Petty Officers, there wouldn't be any U.S. Naval Force.
There wasn't any fairy godmother who lived in a hollow
tree in the enchanted forest who could wave her magic
wand and create a Chief Petty Officer. They were
born as hot-sacking seamen and matured like good whiskey
in steel hulls and steaming jungles over many years.
Nothing a nineteen year-old jaybird could cook up was
original to these old saltwater owls. They had
seen E-3 jerks come and go for so many years, they could
read you like a book. "Son, I know what you are
thinking. Just one word of advice. DON'T! It
won't be worth it." "Aye aye, Chief." Chiefs
aren't the kind of guys you thank Monkeys at the
zoo don't spend a lot of time thanking the guy who makes
them do tricks for peanuts. Appreciation of what
the Chiefs did, and who they were, comes with
long-distance retrospect. No young lad takes time
to recognize the worth of his leadership. That
comes later when you have experienced poor leadership
or, let's say, when you have the maturity to recognize
what leaders should be you find that Chiefs are the
standard by which you measure all others. They had
no Academy rings to get scratched up. They
butchered the King's English. They had become
educated at the other end of an anchor chain from
Copenhagen to Singapore. They had given their
entire lives to the United States Navy. In the
progression of nobility of employment, CPO heads the
list. So when we ultimately get our final duty
station assignments and we get to wherever the big CNO
in the sky assigns us, if we are lucky, Marines will be
guarding the streets. I don't know about that
Marine propaganda bullshit, but there will be an old
Chief in an oil-stained hat, a cigar stub clenched in
his teeth and a coffee cup that looks like it contains
oil, standing at the brow to assign us our bunks and
tell us where to stow our gear. And we will all be young
again and the damn coffee will float a rock. Life fixes
it so that by the time a stupid kid grows old enough and
smart enough to recognize who he should have thanked
along the way, he no longer can. If I could, I
would thank my old Chiefs. If you all only knew
what you succeeded in pounding into this thick skull,
you would be amazed. So thanks, you old casehardened,
unsalvageable sons-of-bitches. Save me a rack in
the berthing compartment!
Author: Bob "Dex"