To say that many Sailors were doubtful that the creation of a “Senior Enlisted Advisor of the Navy” position would have any real impact on addressing their concerns is something of an understatement. This took place, after all, during the turbulence of the 1960s, when slogans such as “Never trust anyone over 30” were commonplace and doubts about U.S. involvement in Vietnam were picking up steam.
But the selection of Delbert D. Black in January, 1967 to helm the newly established office went a long way in alleviating Sailors’ wariness about the process and purpose of the program. Master Chief Black not only hailed from the Gunner’s Mate rating, one of the oldest in the history of the Navy, but he had struck for that rate and worked his way to the top. A few months after Black was appointed, the title he held was changed to reflect the true nature of the job and the qualities a Sailor would need to hold it: Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, or MCPON.
Chief Petty Officers have always been deckplate leaders, and Black and the MCPONs that followed him have shouldered those types of responsibilities at a national level, bringing the issues that Sailors truly care about to the attention of top Navy officials and Congressional leaders working on committees related to the U.S. Armed Services. Those issues, of course, varied over time, with some cropping up as the result of sea changes in cultural mores and other times the consequence of new vision from Navy leadership.
During MCPON John Whittet’s tenure, for instance, the Chief of Naval Operations, Elmo Zumwalt, issued a series of directives called “Z-grams” that sought to “update” many Naval traditions. While many of his policy directives were greeted with enthusiasm—the decision to allow all Petty Officers wear civilian clothing on board ships, for instance—others left some veterans shaking their heads in disbelief. Whittet helped allay those fears, and in the process ushered in rules and regulations that many Sailors and even civilians take for granted.
Whittet’s successor, Robert Walker, labored hard for the benefits he thought Sailors deserved, such as pay hikes, a broadening of educational opportunities for Sailors to pursue when not on duty, and helped create the Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist program.
Though coming at the job with different perspectives, both Whittet and Walker proved that the MCPON could have a significant impact on the lives of enlisted men and women, a tradition that has been carried on to this day.