Established on July 4, 1966, the position of Sergeant Major of the Army was created not only to provide the Army Chief of Staff with an advisor who was an expert in all matters related to enlisted personnel, but who also could serve as a leader of the noncommissioned officer corps.

The need for input from noncommissioned officers at the command level was understood as far back as the Revolutionary War, when George Washington included Sergeants Major in each regimental or battalion headquarters staff when creating tables of organization for infantry regiments in 1775. And it was Baron Frederick William von Steuben, a Prussian officer whom Washington appointed as a temporary Inspector General, who placed all other noncommissioned officers under the authority of Sergeants Major in his 1779 manual Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (1779), making them responsible for the NCOs conduct and performance.

Until 1920, Sergeants Major were usually assigned to battalion or greater sized units, but in 1920 Congress eliminated the rank when it radically altered the pay grades and ranks of enlisted Army personnel. As a result, the most senior Master Sergeants in a given unit stepped in to assume the leadership functions, but this was merely an ad hoc solution that did not address the growing problem of how to attract candidates to an arbitrarily abbreviated NCO career path.

Congress addressed the issue in 1958 with the creation of two new pay grades, E-8 and E-9, and by re-establishing the Sergeant Major as the highest (E-9) pay grade. This went quite a way in making the NCO career field more attractive, but in the 1960s a new problem began to emerge: declining troop morale, brought on in part by the perception of average soldiers that Army leadership was not truly listening to their comments or concerns.

The solution was inspired in part by a 1963 Army magazine article titled “Sergeant Major at the Top” about Sergeant Major George Loikow, who was serving under Army Chief of Staff General Earl Wheeler. In the article, Loikow noted that in his travels with General Wheeler to Army bases, he would be warmly received by enlisted Army personnel—officers and enlisted Soldiers alike—as the “Army’s Sergeant Major.” Loikow also felt that his presence as an enlisted man serving side-by-side with a high-ranking general served to boost the pride and morale of enlisted troops, and also established a camaraderie that helped him get a true sense of how they felt about their careers and Army life in general. Pointing to the position of Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps as a precedent, Loikow recommended the creation of the same position in the U.S. Army.

During the 1964 Personnel Sergeant Majors Conference, a council of Sergeants Major announced its endorsement for Loikow’s suggestion, urged on by Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army, Pacific Francis J. Bennett; Bennett said such a position would give senior leaders insights into the needs, concerns, and cares of the rank-and-file Soldiers, while simultaneously enhancing the prestige and boosting the career incentives for senior NCOs.

The idea quickly gained traction, and Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson officially created the rank in General Orders No. 29 dated 4 July 1966. One week later, on 11 July 1966, World War II and Vietnam veteran Sergeant Major William O. Wooldridge of the 1st Infantry Division took the oath of office, becoming the highest-ranking enlisted Soldier in the United States Army in the process.

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