Chief Petty Officers
YNCM(SS) Charles "Tom" L. Tomkins, USN(Ret)
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
The ones I remember wore hydraulic oil stained hats with scratched and
dinged-up insignia, faded shirts, some with a Bull Durham tag dangling out
of their right-hand pocket or a pipe and tobacco reloads in a worn leather
pouch in their hip pockets, and 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 with, 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
bootcamp 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, 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 they 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 lets 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 the 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 only knew what you
succeeded in pounding in this thick skull, you would be amazed. So thanks
you old casehardened unsalvageable sons-of-bitches. Save me a rack in the berthing compartment.
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