Friday, October 7, 2016

The Navy Specialty Mark, 1866-2016

As we move toward a Navy where Sailors may hold multiple occupations, rating titles will no longer be applicable. 


Two-thousand-sixteen has been a year of dramatic change with regards to the naval uniform.  Not a single seabag of any current member of the United States Navy will emerge untouched by the profound changes that have been mandated this year through the Navy Uniform Matters Office.  

Although the decade-long saga of the controversial blue-and-gray camouflage Navy Working Uniform has entered its final chapter and the same Navy headgear is now worn by both male and female personnel, the latest change might prove to be the most profound.  A tiny part of the standard enlisted dress uniform is to be eliminated after almost 150 years, and this will literally change the way Sailors view their occupations.     
Detail of an illustration by H. Charles McBarron, Jr., from the collections of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, showing a Boatswain's Mate 1st Class dress uniform, behind typical officer uniforms of 1898. Aside from the elimination of port (left sleeve) and starboard (right sleeve) positioning of rating badges in 1949, the appearance of the rating badge itself remained fairly constant from 1886 until 2016.  By comparison, nothing resembling officers' service and full dress uniforms such as those shown here is worn by today's naval officers.   
In contrast to the rather ostentatious gold trimmings symbolizing prestige or power on officers' uniforms that have come and gone over the last 241 years, the more modest specialty mark of the enlisted uniform has been an ubiquitous symbol of Navy professionalism since the first eight types were authorized in December 1866.  

Emerging with the "New Navy" of the 1880s, the positioning of the roughly one square-inch occupational symbols between the eagle (commonly called a "crow") and the chevrons of the petty officer rating badges first authorized in 1886 has remained essentially unchanged since America's emergence as a world-class naval power. 
This rating badge of a coxswain, circa-1898, the oldest one of its kind in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, can be seen in the museum's Steel Navy gallery.  The specialty mark is the crossed-anchors symbol at the center of the badge.  The image has not been "flipped." The eagle atop the rating badge faced either right or left depending upon which sleeve it was worn.  After the Second World War, a Sailor sporting this rating badge would been known as being a Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
Long before the advent of the Steel Navy, Sailors in certain specialized shipboard occupations began embroidering their own specialty marks to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crew.  A woodcut in the Naval Magazine of November 1836, for example, shows a Boatswain's Mate with crossed anchors on his jacket sleeve. 
Nestled within another illustration by H. Charles McBarron, Jr. from 1966, we can see roughly what the enlisted specialty mark of a Boatswain's Mate looked like during the 1830s.  Although no regulations specified the wearing of such occupational symbols at the time, the specialty marks Sailors had been putting on their own uniforms for years were ultimately incorporated into regulations drafted in 1866.  
Although a general sleeve insignia for petty officers was authorized in 1841, the uniform regulations of December 1, 1866 introduced eight specialty marks for petty officers.  The ever more sophisticated naval vessels coming into the fleet over first few decades that followed, particularly during the 1880s, necessitated further division of labor.  With it came more specialty marks, including those for the rank of Chief Petty Officer, established in 1893.  Five years later, there were 15 specialty marks for enlisted personnel.  A century later, there were 71.

A World War I-era Chief Storekeeper rating badge.  The job specialty itself, along with its specialty mark, was merged into the Logistics Specialist rate in 2010. (Jim Leuci Collection)
Over the twentieth century, hundreds of different ratings emerged with new technologies and missions, then disappeared or merged into other rates as those technologies and missions receded.  At the time the decision was made in September 2016 to replace Navy ratings with an alphanumeric Navy Occupational Specialty code (with no corresponding specialty mark), 57 distinct specialty marks remained.
A closeup of a Master Chief Boatswain's Mate rating badge from the late-1950s. (Jim Leuci Collection)
Although specialty marks might not completely disappear, it appears that they will never symbolize the jobs that U.S. Navy Sailors do in the same way that they have for the last 150 years.  Nevertheless, you can trust that the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and the other museums under the Naval History and Heritage Command will preserve these small yet profound symbols of professionalism in our collections as long as the Sailors of today  have a job to accomplish.  

1 comment:

The Pierce family in Italy 2008 said...

Our Naval Heritage is unique among the branches.Our ratings are an integral part of our Naval pride as enlisted.To remove them without any input or logical need is a professional slap in the face. Political correctness has won the day,again.