To people outside the Navy, the words ‘the Chief’ have very little meaning. If anything, they tend to conjure up images of a Native American, decked out in the sort of feathered war bonnet made popular in old cowboy movies. But to those of us who have walked the steel decks, and kept the weather eye, the words take on an entirely different significance.
My first Chief (that’s Chief Petty Officer for you non-Navy types) was my boot camp Company Commander. His duties as CC pretty much overshadowed his actual rank, so I don’t really include him in the khaki pantheon. All of my memories of him involve military creases, inspections, and pumping out pushups in large multiples of ten. Oh, and I remember my CC’s tonsils. He spent an inordinate amount of time standing two inches away from my face, and shouting at the top of his lungs. In any case, I never thought of him as the Chief, and I certainly never dared to call him that. Anything less than Sir was likely to bring an invitation to something called a Mini-Motivational Tour, which was not nearly as entertaining as it sounds.
I encountered my first real Chief aboard my first ship, a guided missile cruiser based out of Yokosuka, Japan in the early 1980s. Actually, he was a Senior Chief, but it’s the same club, and they play by the same rules. I reported aboard on a Saturday morning, and the Senior Chief was off the ship for the weekend. I didn’t get my first peek at him until the following Monday morning, by which time I’d heard two days of sea stories about him from the guys who had the weekend duty. Nearly every story seemed to end with the Senior Chief pulling some sort of minor miracle out of his garrison cap.
After all the buildup, I was prepared for a giant of a man: eight feet tall, and covered with hair. At the very least, he should have been hovering in midair over the deck plates, or bathed in golden light. But the man didn’t look like anything special. His boondockers touched the deck just like mine did, and he appeared to make do with the same ordinary sunlight as the rest of us mortals. If anything, he was a little shorter than average, and seemed to be a bit inclined toward pudginess. I had to give him points for his uniform, though. His khakis were immaculate, crisply starched and sharply creased, but—other than that—he looked like any average guy off the street.
I began to feel stupid for believing the stories. I was the new kid on board, fresh out of basic training. Obviously, the duty personnel had decided to have a bit of fun with me. And, I decided, the much-lauded Senior Chief was just an average, ordinary guy. Boy was I ever wrong.
To say that Senior Chief was superhuman would certainly be an exaggeration. But I’d feel pretty comfortable using words like ‘amazing,’ or ‘phenomenal.’ His tactical skills were superb. He could rattle off the contents of every publication and manual in the safe. He could diagram complex search and attack plans from memory. He could tell you which plans worked, which ones didn’t, and why. He knew frequencies and operating modes for every tactical sonar in every navy. He could calculate torpedo gyro angles in his head, and he could practically smell a Soviet diesel submarine operating on batteries. Somehow, and I still don’t understand this, he managed to turn an aging cruiser with a thirty year old tube-powered sonar into one of the top Anti-Submarine Warfare ships in the Pacific. Other ships had quieter engineering plants, and better sonar systems. We had Senior Chief.
His expertise didn’t end with Anti-Submarine Warfare, either. He seemed to know a lot about everything. When he gave me my welcome aboard interview, I discovered that he knew quite a lot about me. I’d been on the ship less than three days, and he’d already been through my Personnel Record. He remembered my home town, my advancement goals, and my final grades from Sonar Technician A-School. He knew from my ASVAB scores (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) that I had an aptitude for mechanics and electronics, solid English skills, good spatial orientation abilities, and a weakness in Mathematics. I discovered that he had ordered several self-instruction books to help me improve my math skills, and he offered to help me find a tutor. This wasn’t to help me overcome a job-related deficiency. My skills were more than sufficient for Target Motion Analysis, Acoustic Range Predictions, and the other sorts of calculations common in Anti-Submarine Warfare. Senior Chief was preparing me for college, long before I knew I’d be moving in that direction. His interest in me wasn’t limited to the two or so years I’d be serving in his Division. He was already thinking about the rest of my life.
I learned a thousand other things from Senior Chief. I learned that a good leader rewards his personnel in public, but disciplines them in private. I learned how to think outside the box in a tactical situation, long before the phrase ‘outside the box’ had even been coined. I learned that fixing problems is more effective than fixing blame. I learned that people tend to live up to your expectations, or down to them, depending on where you set the bar. I learned about leadership, self-reliance, and personal integrity. I learned to value my own skills and abilities.
Over the twenty-something years that followed, I worked for quite a few Chiefs. With one notable (and ignoble) exception, every Chief Petty Officer I ever served under was a leader, a teacher, a mentor, and an expert in his field. Between them, they taught me tactics, acoustics, oceanography, electronics, discipline, sacrifice, confidence, and the value of preparation.
When it came time for me to put on my own khakis, as my sponsor pinned the anchors to my collar, I couldn’t help but measure myself against the standard set by Senior Chief, and by all the other Chiefs whose guidance helped to shape me as a person and as a Sailor. On the day that I made Chief, when the promotion ceremony was over and the crowd had gone home, I took out my little green notebook and started my list of things to accomplish. At the very top of the list, I wrote three words. I continued writing those three words in every notebook I carried until the day I retired. Be the Chief. That was the first action item on my list, and my first responsibility.
I hope that I lived up to it.
(Originally published on Military.com 01/26/05)