Three decades in the Navy and a lifetime of memories about Chiefs
(Permission granted to print this story)
By Butch Kirkland
12 January 2004
The writer, a commander with 28 years in the Navy, is serving on active duty.
When I ponder my brief, 28-year career in the Navy, I think about chiefs.
The chief petty officer is a rare figure in our military rank structure. No other service has such a significant shift in recognition and prestige as the Navy's CPO ranks.
My first incident with a chief was toward the end of boot camp in Orlando, Fla. I was double-timing from my barracks over to the recruit visitation area to meet my grandparents, who had arrived for a brief visit before the next days planned graduation.
I saw a chief walking toward me, and I slowed to a walk and rendered a salute. I thought all was OK until the chief bellowed, White hat, give me that salute again. I quickly rendered my salute, just as I had seconds earlier.
The chief said, just what I thought, you have been in boot camp seven weeks now and still don't know how to properly render a salute to a senior. You see, I had allowed my thumb to slip down into the cup of my palm instead of holding it fast next to my index finger. This observant chief caught it and awarded me my first speeding ticket since beginning boot camp seven weeks earlier. That was in September 1972; I never have rendered or returned a salute improperly since.
The second memorable chief experience occurred on a ship later in my enlisted career. I was on temporary duty on a tender in Norfolk, Va., awaiting my ship to return from training at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I was working in the transient personnel unit and found myself sitting on a garbage can in a common area near the laundry.
I had not been sitting on the can more than a minute when a ships serviceman senior chief came out of the laundry and noticed me. He stopped in his tracks, looked me square in the eye and directed me to follow him back to the laundry. Being the high-ranking fireman apprentice that I was, I offered no resistance and followed him.
Once in the laundry, the senior chief found a wash bucket and sponge and directed me to go out to the common area and scrub all eight garbage cans there, then report back to him. I did this and found the senior chief, and he inspected my work. His only words were, good job, and think next time you want to take a rest on a garage can in his area.
The third case involves my former master diver on a tender in Holy Loch, Scotland.
I was a second class petty officer, and my end of active obligated service date was approaching rapidly. I wanted a two-month school cut to begin college. My first request was shot down by the executive officer. The master chief/master diver agreed to accompany me for a sit-down appointment with the XO.
Master chiefs are crusty by nature, but master chief/master divers are doubly crusty. The XO initially held firm to his denial, but when the master chief/master diver started telling him what I had accomplished in the Navy, the XO gave in and signed the chit, paving the way for me to leave the Navy two months early to attend college on the GI Bill.
My fourth story is more recent. I was captain of a deep-sea diving and salvage ship home-ported at Sasebo, Japan. We were off the coast of Indonesia near Bali conducting joint diver and demolition training with the Indonesian navy.
Our mission completed, we were making preparations to get underway for liberty in Bali when we suffered a catastrophic electrical fire in the main switchboard in the auxiliary machinery room. Luckily, no one was injured. The ship, however, was hot and dark.
The bus tie between No. 1 and No. 2 switchboards was fried. We were going to need some time to sort this situation out. I asked the XO to draft a “Failed to Sail” report and get on the 7th Fleet Secure Voice to let the one-star in Singapore know we had a problem and were working it.
While all this was going on, my lone electrician chief petty officer, who also happened to be the electrical division officer, and his sailors assessed the damage and planned a corrective course of action. In less than 12 hours, that chief electrician and his men patched our ship so we could get underway cautiously and sail to Singapore, where repairs were completed at a private shipyard.
I will never forget that humble chief. When I recognized him publicly later, he simply stated, Captain, we were just doing our job.
I have few regrets regarding my time in the Navy, one being that I never attained the rank of chief petty officer.
YNCS Don Harribine, USN (Ret)