Mike Stevens knows what it's like to be accused of breaking traditions.
"Tradition is a word that's thrown around a lot, but not many really take the time to fully understand what it means and put it in the proper context," Stevens told Navy Times. "It all goes to how you choose to understand and define what tradition really is."
His report, "A Tradition of Change — CPO Initiations to CPO-365," is the first official research of the history of CPO rites, and charts changes from the days of tossing selectees off the pier to the more elaborate and frat-house like rituals of recent decades.
"One of the things I learned from the research … is that many of our traditions are those things we have experienced during our time of service," Stevens said. "It's strongly based on what we have experienced."
The Navy is full of formal traditions — rendering honors to the flag and to individuals by ringing a set number of bells, or a specific call on a bosun's whistle — and many of these have long been laid down in Navy edicts and instructions. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines tradition as "a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time."
Given the facts in the new report, to be released April 1 in honor of the observed CPO birthday, Stevens says chief's initiation doesn't quite fit the mold of a tradition, though he realizes some chiefs will disagree.
"I know CPOs didn't come into existence until 1893, but in the now nearly 122 years since then, initiation has only been around for roughly half that time," Stevens said.
It's never been formally mandated by the Navy or consistent, Stevens added.
"When you look at the historical record and the facts, it's pretty obvious that much of the initiation process was essentially entertainment for the genuine chiefs of the day," Leuci said. "But when you step back and look at it over time, the process has grown much more difficult — and often forcibly mandated reform — it has grown and made the transition itself into a tough professional training program designed to prepare first classes to be effective chiefs."
Stevens says he's comfortable with the ending of the initiation and said the professional training is tough, meaningful and beneficial to the selectee, their commands and the service.
This wasn't always the case.
Research shows, Leuci said that role of the chief has evolved over time — as has their now hallowed place as leaders as well as technical experts and
Those reports to Congress were to announce all the major accomplishments of the service for each year and making chief's — such a large event today — didn't even show up on the service's radar screen as anything more than an administrative move.
"After April 1, 1893, chief, first, and second class petty officers shared the same mess," he wrote. "For nearly ten years, chief petty officers continued to mess and berth with first and second class petty officers."
Shipmates of John O. Tibs toss him overboard from the submarine Bream at Pearl Harbor upon his promotion to chief machinist's mate during World War II. This form of CPO initiation was often followed up with a few beers ashore.
Photo Credit: National Archives
Once advanced, a new chief moved into the chief's mess and picked up where he left off.
"There was no CPO initiation while they were underway in the South China Sea," Leuci wrote. "When Crevalle returned to Fremantle, Australia, the two new chiefs were initiated. Their initiation consisted of being thrown over the side of the boat, followed by drinking at a local bar. Dempster remained in the Navy after the war and retired as a chief yeoman in 1960."
"Though they were called initiations at the time, they weren't secret events, though they generally happened behind closed doors in the chief's mess," Leuci said.
Traditions of convenience
A female chief storekeeper faces the 'judge' and 'sheriff' during her 1948 initiation. Many of the early CPO initiation rituals were borrowed from shipboard crossing the line ceremonies at the Equator.
Photo Credit: Naval History and Heritage Command
"It was simply a place to document the transgressions of the chief select so they could be read by the judge at their initiation," he said.
"Bushey had a charge book that was stolen a few days after he got it," Leuci wrote. "It wasn't returned until a week before initiation.
"The book had been spit on, ejaculated on, defecated on, and was full of profanity ridden comments. After initiation he threw the book away."
Even Leuci's own charge book from his 1988 initiation was defaced.
"I asked a chief to put his X in the book and he took the request literally and made an X on the cover with a fire axe," he said.
"There are other official Navy photographs dating from the mid-1950s that show new chief petty officers in wash khaki or dress uniforms participating in various events such as eating their first meal in the CPO mess from a wooden trough," Leuci said.
Many kept these troughs as keepsakes
"But it doesn't appear that they ate anything different than the other chief's in the mess in those troughs," Leuci said, "unlike many initiations in later years where many inedible things were required to be eaten. At my own initiation I was required to eat raw eggs through a condom."
New chief petty officers in 1965 prepare to eat from a trough, either with a large spoon or with no utensils at all and their hands tied behind their backs.
Photo Credit: Naval History and Heritage Command
"Some of the rituals seen in crossing the line ceremonies, such as eating distasteful concoctions of food products and drinking 'truth serum,' were adopted for CPO initiations," Leuci said. "Some of the props used in crossing the line ceremonies such as stocks and ice-filled coffins began to be seen in CPO initiations. Characters like the 'judge,' 'defense attorney,' and 'sheriff' became fixtures as CPO initiations essentially became mock trials or kangaroo courts."
In the 1990s as Navy leadership sought to rein in the initiation antics, some chiefs fought back and offered voluntary alternatives, away from the Navy's prying eyes and rules.
"There were reports that some CPO messes offered 'traditional' initiations to interested selectees that were not sanctioned by the Navy and were held off-base," Leuci said."It seems almost ludicrous."
"It seems almost ludicrous," Leuci said "But apparently that was the case."
Pranks and controversy
The line between having fun at chief initiations and humiliation or even hazardous pranks blurred more often in the 1970s and after.
Photo Credit: Navy
Nearly every MCPON has had to deal with some sort of initiation controversy during his time wearing the three-starred crow that is the symbol of the office.
But in what became the first ever initiation guidance issued by the Navy, Black wrote in the January 1968 issue of All Hands Magazine that fact it just wasn't so.
"There is no objection to CPO initiations conducted in a humorous vein, but at the same time, they should not be hazardous," Black wrote in an article in the January 1968 All Hands Magazine, in what was the first initiation guidance. "Proper supervision and planning can ensure that the honor and pride that go with making chief are not overshadowed by fun and games. We should not force the initiates to eat or drink against their wishes, nor should we do anything that could lead to bodily injury."
Black went on to say that the chiefs conducting the ceremonies should "avoid any humiliation to the initiate."
Despite Black's prohibitions, Leuci wrote, initiations went on unabated.
"Many provisions of SECNAVINST 5060 were generally ignored," Leuci wrote in the report. "Alcohol abuse, the consumption of food concoctions, unsafe events and the humiliation of CPO selectees remained the norm."
Sometimes things got so bad that a few times the chief of naval operations tried actually sought to shut down initiations altogether.
"Every MCPON, starting with [William] Plackett through Scott, was confronted with concerns about, or actual orders to end, CPO initiations from the Chief of Naval Operations," Leuci wrote. "Discussions to eliminate CPO initiations were generally kept out of the media and were not common knowledge within the fleet."
But In 1988, then-CNO Adm. Carlisleyle Trost and members of Congress were drawn into the debate by "reports of lewd, crude, and disgusting behavior during initiations" which were reported directly to them, according to the report.
The straw that broke the CNO's back was a complaint of a lewd incident in Groton, Conn. where newly Nine newly minted chiefs came down with strep throat after being forced to put a plastic facsimile of a male penis in their mouths, one after another. The disease was then transmitted to family members, according to accounts told to Navy Times by sources close to the discussions.
Leuci mentions the incident, but not does not describe exactly what spread the disease, citingsaying only unsanitary conditions during the initiation were the cause.
"Adm. Trost informed [Bushey] that he was ready to eliminate CPO initiations," Leuci wrote. "Instead, Bushey was able to present a plan to reform initiations that the admiral accepted."
This led to a crackdown. Alcohol use by selectees was banned from the events. Promises were made to hold command master chiefs accountable for degrading or hazardous conduct at inductions. Officials expanded the rules to banning selectees from performing any acts against their will. and rules were expanded so that out of line initiations and prohibitions were expanded from simply banning selects from eating or drinking anything against their will to now extending that ban to performing any acts against their will.
"The reforms were not popular among all CPO messes," Leuci wrote. "However, even though some CPO messes were slow to accept or simply ignored the MCPON's guidance, the reforms had begun."
A few years later, Leuci said, in the wake of the Tailhook scandal, both CNO's Adm. Frank Kelso and also Mike Boorda, too, threatened elimination of initiations, but this time it was MCPON John Hagan who saved initiations from the scrap heap by instituting reforms accepted by the Navy's leadership.
Nearly every MCPON since has issued some sort of reform to the existing system, instituting formal leadership training and other more acceptable and arguably more beneficial ways of welcoming in new chiefs each year.
It was Stevens in 2013 who took the final step, and moved the process to one that mandated a totally professional transition, eliminating all alcohol from any formal events and ending chief's initiation and the sophomoric antics that had so long gone with it. as well as any sophomoric antics altogether.
Frocking, boards and chief's season
And it's only been since 1974 that the Navy has held a selection board to review and select eligible first-class petty officers for advancement to chief.
Before that time, ese two events occurred, advancement to chief petty officer was pretty much a year-round affair, with advancements — and initiations — being held nearly every month as a new crop of chiefs earned their anchors. put on their new rank.
Just As with petty officers today, there were twice-annual chief chief petty officer exams given for advancement to chief petty officer.
And also like petty officers today, these exams were graded and a final multiple score based on that test score and the sailor's annual evaluations ranked the candidates. Those on the list were promoted in their order of ranking.
These lists, according to Leuci's research, were mailed to commands.
"A posted advancement list was the way that most sailors found out they were selected for chief," Leuci wrote. "CPO promotion lists promulgated by naval message did not become common until the late 1960s."
Frocking — the practice of allowing someone to wear the rank and assume the rights and responsibilities of the next pay grade — wasn't authorized, yet.
Once the selection board was established and the first one held in 1974, the twice a year lists went away and a single annual list was published.
In 1980, unrestricted frocking was authorized throughout the enlisted ranks.
So, when the selection boards met that year and the results were released in July, the Navy held its first "chief's season," where all those selected were either advanced or frocked in September — a practice and timeline -- that has continuesd until today.
Covers and khakis
The longest-standing symbol of a chief petty officer is their cover. Chief Hospital Corpsman Tarren Windham dons hers at a 2013 ceremony aboard aircraft carrier Carl Vinson.
Photo Credit: MC2 Timothy A. Hazel/Navy
Like with much of the Navy's uniform history there's little tradition, really and a whole lot of change and evolution through the years.
But when the Navy went to the Navy Service uniform and adopted a khaki short for all, many in the chief's ranks cried foul, believing khaki was exclusive tradition only for E-7 and above.
The came cries returned when the at Navy Working Uniform appeared and eliminated the wash khaki's, many chief's cried foul again that traditional things were being done away with. But had they looked at their history, Leuci said there was just as long a tradition that chief's wore dungarees and were only differentiated by their hats.
And many, Leuci says, believe that was how the anchors were decided on as chief's insignia, when in actuality it was the other way around.
None of that Leuci said, has been passed down from the first chief petty officers to the present — they were all alternate means created along the way as teaching tools — traditions of convenience.
"It's a nice tradition that someone made up," Leuci said.
"When you step back and look at it all, it's not so much tradition as it is an evolution, a process of constant change," Leuci said. "But no matter what the evidence says, there will always be those who think that any change is bad."
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.