With very rare exceptions involving specific watches and field exercises, ball caps are banned from wear with the Navy working uniform. Here, sailors on the historic frigate Constitution haul a line during sail training in June 2012. (SN Michael Achterling / Navy)
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Despite a controversial decision four years ago, ball caps remain a fleet favorite — so could they be set for a comeback?
Many sailors hope so.
Everyone from line-handlers to ship captains wear them daily to show their unit pride, and leaders from the Navy's top civilian on down wear them to bolster their credibility with the waterfront. Ball caps have been synonymous with the fleet for more than four decades.
That leads many sailors to wonder, why can't you wear them with the fleet's latest mainstay, the Navy working uniform? With the Navy having a new top sailor, many hope Big Navy will relax the widely unpopular rules that restrict these to all but a few watchstanders and trainers.
Navy Times asked sailors about this lingering controversy last month and the response was considerable: In just the first 24 hours, more than 100 sailors responded via email, forum posts and Facebook. The large majority was in favor of allowing ball caps to be worn with NWUs. This group all said ball caps should be allowed underway, emphasizing this would be a morale boost at a moment when it's sorely needed.
"In a time of budget uncertainty and talk of ‘fiscal cliffs,' Navy spirit should not have to suffer," said Information Systems Technician 2nd Class (IDW/SW) Andrew Gardiner, in one of many such responses to Navy Times. "We are already unmanned and overworked. Bring back the command ball caps to the NWUs, and I can assure you it will help."
Of course, ball caps have kept a toehold on the fleet as they are the headgear worn with coveralls. Active-duty sailors and officers said they should be allowed with NWUs, too, emphasizing the hats are comfortable and enhance a command's unit pride, while former sailors recalled that these covers are a deck-plate favorite that stretches back decades. For a work space, like the industrial environs in the hangar bay or the equipment shop, the ball cap's stenciling makes it handy to identify people and it beats the alternative, many said.
The eight-point cover, modeled after the Marine headgear, "starts to sag, droop and just fold over the corners" after weeks of wear, even with the plastic insert, attested Machinery Repairman 2nd Class (SW) Johnny Leege. "Ball caps keep weather and sunlight out of the face more and show that you are proud of being in the Navy and the command."
Officials, however, are taking a wait-and-see approach. They said they haven't heard many complaints about this — adding that any formal proposal to allow ball caps with the NWU must come from the fleet.
"The door hasn't slammed shut on the wearing of ball caps with the NWU," said Fleet Master Chief (SW/AW/IDW) Charles Clarke, the top sailor at Fleet Forces Command, in a January interview. "The Navy working uniform is a work in process and ball caps are part of the discussion, but we're not there yet."
But the Navy's top sailor remains skeptical this is something wanted on the deck plates.
"In the last four months, in all the all-hands calls that I've done, not one sailor has stood up and said, ‘Can we bring the command ball cap back?'" Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens said in a Feb. 11 interview.
He believes this was an issue for sailors who were there for the shift four years ago — not for the junior sailors who make up the bulk of the force.
"Frankly, a lot of them don't even give it a second thought because it's not something that they ever wore," Stevens said.
But Navy Times did receive a number of comments from junior sailors, such as the information systems technician seaman apprentice on the amphibious assault ship Wasp who liked the casualness of the ball cap, adding: "Please bring the ball cap to the workplace." And many more bluejackets may not know what they're missing from the days when ball caps reigned in the fleet.
The chief of naval personnel said in December that no formal ball cap proposal was before the uniform board, and the CNP spokeswoman declined to address the pros and cons of sailor suggestions or make a uniform official available to discuss them.
"The Navy welcomes input from sailors and the fleet for recommendations to consider uniform changes or updates," Cmdr. Kathy Kesler said in an email. "Sailors who believe these ideas should be brought to the Uniform Board for consideration should work through their chain of command to send command-endorsed proposals to the board."
Navy policy requires sailors to submit suggestions in a formal letter. To reach the Uniform Board, which sets uniform policy and design, each level of the chain of command must endorse the idea — a considerable hurdle but one that could be surmounted if there is enough interest.
‘Ball caps are a must'
Ball caps are a Navy tradition that predates World War II, when aviators began experimenting with khaki hats with a long "duckbill" designed to block sunlight. By the 1950s, this idea was spreading to the fleet. Sailors bought unofficial ball caps in foreign ports and wore them underway. The Navy approved these hats in the 1970s, with the working uniform, and they have been a favorite ever since.
There is even evidence that sailors wore ship names on their covers in the Civil War. One archived Navy photo shows a veteran of the sloop of war Kearsarge, which sank a feared Confederacy raider in 1864, wearing his cap with "KEARSARGE" stenciled below its brim.
But the ball cap fell out of fashion when officials designed a camouflage uniform to replace utilities and wash khakis as the working uniform for all hands. They decided to replace the cap with an eight-point cover similar in styling to that worn by Marines, arguing this would be more professional.
During the development process, Navy officials heard feedback from sailors who worked alongside Air Force personnel clad in new battle dress cammies worn with a similarly patterned patrol cap.
"Those sailors have told us repeatedly, ‘Please don't adopt a [BDU-style] uniform and authorize the ball cap for wear with it,'" said Command Master Chief (SS) Robert Carroll, then the top sailor on Task Force Uniform, in 2005. Ball caps, Carroll continued, "make them look like they are at a picnic."
Carroll, who has since retired, now heads the Uniform Matters office in Arlington, Va.
Ball caps were forbidden with the NWU for all but a few in 2009, as the older working uniforms were phased out. It sparked an uproar. Letters flowed to Navy Times and "Save the Navy ball cap" protest pages were started online.
Sailors adjusted to wearing the new covers, but there is still a lingering unhappiness for many sailors who were serving around the time of the switch. Roughly half of the ball cap supporters who responded last month said they should be worn everywhere that the Navy working uniform can be worn, including on base and while making stops to and from work. Anything less, they argue, would make the rules too confusing — with sailors switching their headgear a few times a day. But others believe the eight-point is sharp and has its place.
"The eight-point covers should be worn just for official get-togethers, i.e. quarters, captain's call," said Fire Control Technician 2nd Class (SS/SW) John Dees, who wears NWUs every day on the sub tender Frank Cable. "When traveling to and from work or any other time, the command ball caps should be able to be worn."
Many others were emphatic.
"Ball caps are a must," wrote Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class (AW) Sean Keoughan in an email to Navy Times. "They are COMFORTABLE, stylish and bring a sense of pride."
Keoughan, an aircraft maintainer assigned to aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan added: "Bring them back ASAP! And wearing them off base? Sure! Why not? When people see the hat they're going to be curious, not disgusted."
Not all in favor
Not everyone is such a fan, however. While some old-timers hail a weathered cap as "salty," others say it's prone to grime and that a bent-up bill doesn't represent military bearing.
"The ball caps lose their crisp/clean appearance quickly," said Lt. William Curtin in an email. "This is particularly true when the cap is mashed in between their working uniform trouser's rear belt-loops," he said, adding that washing machines can "mangle" the hat.
Curtin and others acknowledged ball caps were a sign of command pride, but said this could also be displayed in an already authorized way — with a unit patch worn on the right breast pocket. Seabees, for example, commonly wear their patches there.
"It gives a way to display command pride and also keep commands looking uniform," said Curtin, who is assigned to Naval Beach Group 1 in San Diego, where woodland pattern NWUs are worn most of the time.
The fate of the ball caps could hinge on the Navy's top sailor. And, right now, he remains cool to the idea of bringing them back.
"Where I'm at right now is, I'm inclined to not support a change to go back to the ball cap," Stevens said.
Staff writers firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com.com reader">Mark D. Faram and email@example.com?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this report.