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History of the Chief Petty Officer Rate
JOCS Tom Jansing

The highlight of any enlisted career is being promoted to Chief Petty Officer, a time honored status held in high esteem by Navy men since the rate was created in ... when?

Good question, I asked those person I figured would know but they didn't. I was surprised to find no one could tell me the exact date when the rank was established.  When I went to look up the answer, I was even more surprised to learn there isn't much around on the subject.

My curiosity was aroused.  Here was a challenge which I accepted.  The searching started at the BUPERS Technical Library with books on naval history, and these were of no help.  Then a couple of books on U.S. naval uniforms got me on the right path.

Next a visit to the Library of the U.S. Naval History Division brought the immediate result of the librarian "wishing me success."  She said she is occasionally asked the same question but is not able to give a definite answer.

A call to the National Archives, a visit to the JAG Law Library, another to the Navy Uniform Board, and the pieces to the puzzle began to fall in place.

After several days of sifting through volumes of Navy regulations, general orders, regulation circulars, uniform regulations, SECNAV reports, executive orders, various books, magazines, and newspapers covering the past 200 years, this is what I learned.

On 27 March 1794 Congress passed a bill "to provide a naval armament."   This bill called for six ships to be built and it established the numbers and ranks of officers, enlisted men, and Marines to man them.  Petty officers were to be appointed by the ships' captains in the ratings of Master's Mate, Captain's Mate, Boatswain's Mate, Coxswain, Sailmaker's Mate, Gunner's Mate, Gunner of the Gun Room, Quarter Gunner's Mate, Carpenter's Mate, Armourer, Steward, Cook, Master-at-Arms, and Cooper.  "Petty Officer" was an all-inclusive title and men in these ratings were not divided into rates as first, second, or third class. The noncommissioned structure was simply warrant officer, petty officer, and seaman.  This system remained essentially the same for almost 100 years.

The term "Chief Petty Officer" was first used in connection with the Master-at-Arms rating.  As early as 1865, Navy regulations stated:

"The Master-at-Arms will be the Chief Petty Officer of the ship in which he shall serve. All orders from him in regard to the police of the vessel, the preservation of order, and obedience to regulations must be obeyed by all petty officers and others of the crew.  But he shall have no right to succession in command, and shall exercise no authority in matters not specified above."

All other petty officers were divided into two classes (POs of the line and POs of the staff) but still not into rates.  Petty officers remained just petty officers, and the MAA's title of "Chief" was one of function, not rank.  He was the principal petty officer of the ship, and the emphasis was placed on the word "Chief," or primary.

There doesn't appear to be anything dividing enlisted men into the rates until Navy Regulation Circular No. 41 of 8 January 1885 was issued.  It made the division like this:

U.S. Navy Regulation Circular NO. 41

Seaman Class Special Class Artificer Class Marines
PO1 Chief Boatswain's Mate,
Chief Quartermasters,
Chief Gunner's Mate
Master-at-Arms, Equipment Yeoman, Apothecaries, Paymaster's Yeoman, Engineer's Yeoman, Ship's Writers,
School Masters,
Band Masters
Machinist's 1st Sergeants
PO2 Boatswain's Mate, Quartermasters,
Coxswains to Commander-in-Chief
Ship's Corporals,
Ship's Cooks,
Chief Musicians
Boilermakers, Armorers,
Carpenter's Mates, Blacksmiths, Sailmaker's Mates, Water Tenders
PO3 Captains of Forecastle, Captains of Main Top, Captains of Mizzen Top, Captains of Afterguard, Coxswains,
Captains of Hold Printers,
SN1 Seamen,
Seaman-Apprentices 1st class
Lamplighters, Jack-of-the-Dust, Buglers,
Musicians 1st class,
Fireman 1st class,
Musicians, Orderlies
SN2 Ordinary Seaman,
Seaman-Apprentices 2nd class
Fireman 1st class Privates
SN3 Landsman,
Apprentices 1st class, Apprentices 2nd class, Apprentices 3rd class,
Coal Heavers

Notice that it shows Chief Boatswain's Mate, Chief Gunner's Mate, Chief Quartermaster (in the circular), and Chief Musician (in the order).  Here, these were one of function or title; they were actually first or second class petty officers.  In line with this 1885 change, uniform regulations of 1886 altered the uniforms and rating badges of enlisted men.   First class petty officers wore a "double-breasted sack pattern" jacket; second class and below retained a jumper-style uniform, and first class petty officers wore a rating badge of three chevrons, specialty mark, and eagle.  But, the Master-at-Arms' rating badge had three chevrons, specialty mark, eagle, plus three arcs (or rockers).  This MAA rating badge, along with the jacket uniform, has led some to believe he held the rate of Chief Petty Officer.  He did not.  He was still a PO1, based on the enlisted rate structure outlined in the 1886 uniform regulations which is the same as that detailed in the 1885 Circular No. 41.

There doesn't appear to be anything between 1885 and 1893 stating that the CPO rate had been established.  But then an executive order issued by President Benjamin Harrison dated 25 February 1893 and issued as General Order No. 409 of 25 February 1893 gave a pay scale for Navy enlisted men.  It was divided into rates and listed CPOs.  Both the executive order and Circular No. 1 listed Chief Petty Officer as a distinct rate for the first time and both were to take effect on 1 April 1893.  It appears that this is the date on which the Chief Petty Officer rate actually was established.  General Order No. 431 of 24 September 1894 changed the CPO chevron from the MAA's three-rocker type to the single rocker style of today.  It also changed first, second, and third class chevrons to their present form.

Conversely, there is no doubt when the master and senior chief petty officer rates were established.  The Defense Advisory Committee on Professional Technical Compensation (commonly called the Cordiner Committee) was created in March 1956 "to study a possible adjustment to the existing pay structure" for retention purposes.  On 8 May 1957 they recommended to the Secretary of Defense that paygrades E-8 and E-9 be created in all the services.  The recommendations of the Cordiner Committee were introduced to Congress in several forms.  In 1958, legislation called the Kilday Bill was passed, became Public Law 85-422 and established the E-8 and E-9 paygrades in the U.S. Armed Forces.  The first master and senior chief petty officer advancement exams were held in August 1958 and resulting advancements became effective on 16 November 1958.

Last Modified 1/12/2016