By A. Denis Clift*
EDITOR’S NOTE: At the end of two long wars and a time of defense drawdowns, there is a need to guard against the damage that could be caused by a hollow force. Richard McKenna’s words from the past are worthy of reflection.
Fourteen years before reaching fame as the author of the highly acclaimed novel and subsequent Hollywood hit The Sand Pebbles, Chief Machinist’s Mate Richard McKenna, USN, won the Naval Institute’s Enlisted Prize Essay, 1948, writing on “The Post-War Chief Petty Officer: A Closer Look.”
McKenna was born in 1913, grew up in rural Idaho, and enlisted the Navy in 1931 during the Great Depression. From 1939 – 1941, he was a machinist aboard the USS Luzon (PG-47), a Yangtze River Gunboat, which would give him the setting in The Sand Pebbles aboard the fictional 1920’s Yangtze River Gunboat San Pablo.
Throughout his Navy years, McKenna’s deep and abiding interest was machinery and engineering. In the engineering spaces and enlisted living spaces, he became an observer and student of the human condition, ridicules and humiliations, misplaced individuals, and the transcending discoveries of self and accomplishment in such environments. The leading character in The Sand Pebbles is machinist Jake Holman who is a loner, has a passion for engines, is disturbed by the crew’s racist attitude toward the Chinese, and who teaches a Chinese coolie the intricacies of engineering.
“McKenna,” according to editor and biographer Robert Shenk, “spent the whole of World War II in the USS Mount Vernon (AP-22), a ship that delivered troops to battle areas throughout the world. During this tour he was advanced to machinist’s mate chief, a rank he retained after the war. Then he found himself passed along rapidly from ship to ship. He transferred to the USS Wakefield (AP-21) in April 1946, joined the USS Washington (BB-56) in February 1947 for just a month, then was assigned to the USS Wisconsin (BB-64). The next year he went to a fleet training group. This kind of rapid transfer, common to the chief-rich but manpower-poor Navy of the period,” was the subject of his Proceedings Prize essay. Read the rest of this entry »