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.
The human condition and the travails of chief petty officers were foremost on McKenna’s mind when he wrote while serving at the U.S. Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois in 1948. He opened the essay with language foreshadowing the future novelist: “The Chief was not happy. With both an elusive feeling of shame and a real and immediate feeling of distress, he was being driven to acknowledge a fact which he found to be as unpleasant as it was inescapable. Service in the post-war Navy was not the same as before. It was not satisfying. And – admit it, oldtimer – the only real reason he had for hanging on was to protect his investment of seventeen years’ service.”
McKenna wrote that in the post-war Navy, chief petty officers were being subjected to an apparently endless series of transfers and finding it difficult to obtain duty assignments commensurate with their training and abilities. “The primary cause of these afflictions is obvious: we are engaged in operating four ships with three crews, so to speak. In the present state of the planet no Navy man will question the wisdom of that policy. It is a fact. The chief petty officer is especially subject to the consequent frantic shuttling about because, in many ratings, he is vastly in excess of allowance.”
He reviewed different aspects of this numerical disproportion: overcrowded chief petty officer living spaces; the problem of who among the chiefs will be in charge when several chiefs are assigned to a single station; the apathy, anger, and other psychological impacts on the chiefs not in charge, the negative downward impact on the unit’s non-rated men. “There is a difference of spirit between a chief whose position affords him full realization of what has been called “the instinct of workmanship,” and a chief who knows that he is “spare gear.” Any seaman apprentice can sense that difference. … These men are plastic material for the impression of whatever mood or spirit is prevalent. … Note well that the chief petty officer must feel honestly the devotion which it is his duty to instill in others, and that he must gain the respect of those others if his example is not to be wasted and the process to be a failure.”
Recognizing that there was no perfect solution, he wrote that it was essential to find suitable employment for the chief petty officers, relatively few in number. “Congressional criticism has been heard recently in reference to a rising ratio of civilian employees of the Armed Forces to the men in uniform.
“Precedent is not lacking. At one time the administrative structure of Guam was staffed largely with naval personnel.” There was even an experimental farm managed by a Warrant Machinist assisted by a Chief Boatswain’s Mate. Although this and other less extreme instances may have seemed incongruous to a naval traditionalist, it is not on record that the personnel assigned to such extra-military activities failed in the discharge of their duties. There is no reason to suppose that U.S. Navy Men are any less versatile at present.”
* Mr. Clift is currently the U.S. Naval Institute’s vice president for planning and operations and president emeritus of the National Intelligence University. He served as a naval officer from 1958-1962 & from 1963-66, he was editor-in-chief of Proceedings.