MCPON Delbert D. Black
First Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy:
Jan. 13, 1967 – Apr. 1, 1971
NHHC Collection Photo # L38-07.01.01. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Delbert D. Black. View additional images of MCPON Black.
Note: The following content is reproduced from Winds of Change: The History of the Office of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, 1967–1992, by Charlotte D. Crist; pp 13-28; joint publication of the Office of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy and the Naval Historical Center.
When I became Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in 1967, our Navy and our Nation, for that matter, was subject to considerable discontent due primarily to the Vietnam War and the way it was being fought. I was aware that the concept of a MCPON (Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy) had been under study for some time... I approved of the idea and was pleased to learn upon assuming office that Master Chief Gunner’s Mate Delbert Black had been selected for the post… I was impressed by our first meeting. It was clear to me that here was a man that radiated leadership and self-confidence, but I was still not sure that he was completely aware of the job he faced… He quickly proved that he understood his job and knew how to handle it. Step by step, MCPON Black established and broadened his scope of activity… I made several trips with Delbert Black and we had many discussions about the many problems we faced particularly in the personnel area. Boiled down, we agreed that it is not those that you work for that make you look good, rather it is those that work for you. They deserve the most of your attention.
Admiral Thomas M. Moorer, USN (Ret.)
In the fall of 1966, Master Chief Gunner’s Mate Delbert Defrece Black was in a hospital recovering from an appendectomy. When he heard the Navy was looking for a Senior Enlisted Advisor, he called his wife, Ima, to ask if he should put in an application. The answer was a resounding yes. A former Navy storekeeper, Ima Black was sure that her man was the one the Navy needed for the job.
Captain William Homer, Black’s commanding officer at U.S. Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Dam Neck, Virginia, was also convinced that his chief master-at-arms met the qualifications for the job. In fact, he spent so much time working on the application package that it arrived in Washington after the board’s deadline. Ten nominees had already been selected, but Black’s package was so impressive they added one more.
Black competed against HMCM (Master Chief Hospital Corpsman) Arthur W. Abbey of NAS (Naval Air Station) Barber’s Point, Hawaii; HMCM Frederic H. Andrews, Naval Support Activity, Da Nang, South Vietnam; BMCM (Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate ) Calvin L. Baker, NAS Point Mugu, California; TMCM (Master Chief Torpedoman’s Mate) Samuel H. Bledsoe, Jr., James K. Polk; AVCM (Master Chief Avionics Technician) Jack E. Candland, Constellation; GMCM (Master Chief Gunner’s Mate) Peter De Hart, Albany; AFCM (Master Chief Aircraft Maintenanceman) Harold D. Noe, Patrol Squadron 30; STCM (Master Chief Sonar Technician) John L. Robinson, Jr., Springfield.
Bronze Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses, Air Medals, and a Purple Heart decorated the 11 candidates. Candland was an All-Navy and inter-service tennis singles and doubles champion. All were married, ranged in age from
42–52, and had between 20–29 years of service.
“My Husband is the Top”
When the board was finished, one man was asked to come to Washington for an interview with the board. The interviewers ignored the man’s wife who accompanied him.
When it was over and they were being ushered from the room, Ima Black turned to the officers and said: “I don’t know who you are going to select, but my husband is the top enlisted man in the U.S. Navy.”
Shortly after their return to Norfolk, the Blacks were called and told he had the job but to keep it quiet until the official announcement was made.
On January 13, 1967, Black reviewed the recruits at Naval Training Center (NTC) in San Diego, California, and was officially appointed Senior Enlisted Advisor of the Navy by Vice Admiral B.J. Semmes, Chief of Naval Personnel. It was Black’s triumphant return to the boot camp he graduated from 26 years before.
After the ceremony, Black’s first official visit was to Naval Hospital, San Diego, where he talked with wounded Vietnam veterans. He also visited the bedside of the commanding officer of NTC, San Diego, who had missed the ceremony because of a bad back. The CO congratulated Black and said he hoped that as senior enlisted advisor, he could improve barracks life for the Navy’s enlisted personnel.
“I’m all for you,” the CO said. “We do everything we can down at NTC but I’m sure we can do more.”
Before Black could move Ima and their nine-year-old son, Donny, to Washington, he had one more stop to make. The Navy thought a short course in career information and counseling would be helpful.
The Blacks bought a home in Washington and he began to settle into his small office on the third floor of the Navy Annex. He was given a staff of one, Yeoman First Class Jerry Scharf.
Letters began trickling in from Sailors who had read about the master chief who could talk to admirals. Black spent his first few months in briefings and going through correspondence. The more he settled into his job, the more he discovered that very few people in Washington had a clear idea of what he was supposed to do.
Looking for guidance, he paid a visit to the CNO, Admiral David L. McDonald. He received less than a warm reception.
“Admiral McDonald said he never believed in establishing the office to begin with,” Black said, recalling the visit 25 years later. “So I asked him, ‘If this is what the enlisted people want, will you give us a chance to make it work?’ And he told me at that point to do anything I wanted to do. I thanked him and that was the last time I had a conversation with him.”
To Black, the CNO’s brush off was like receiving a blank check. Though his official job description was still in the works, he had his own ideas about what he wanted to accomplish.
In his nomination package for the job, he had written: “The office of Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Navy should function as liaison between enlisted personnel and Chief of Naval Personnel. His office should be open to all regardless of rank or rate. He should solicit information and suggestions from any person he feels might in some way benefit enlisted personnel, always keeping in mind his primary concern is to give the Navy man a better life, which will, in turn, benefit the Navy in reenlistments.
“The responsibility of this office will be great and varied,” he added, “with a challenge never before faced by any single enlisted man.”
Not Afraid of Challenge
On his way to the Navy’s top enlisted billet, Black had survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor aboard the battleship Maryland, earned eight combat ribbons in WW II and numerous other decorations, served a tour in recruiting, and put spit and polish into the Navy’s most visible drill team, the Ceremonial Guard in Washington, D.C.
The 45-year-old master chief was not afraid of a challenge. He joined the Navy when he was 18 to get off the family farm near Orr, Oklahoma. But he brought his work ethics with him. Through 21 years at sea, from seaman recruit to master chief, he built a reputation as a Sailor’s Sailor.
“I was determined to be the best Sailor I could be, so I wouldn’t ever have to go back to that farm again,” he said.
Black had also put much effort into developing his own leadership style and philosophy. When he first came in the Navy, he said leading seamen “ran things because most of the time, he had eight to ten years in and was still a seaman but he knew everything. If you had a problem, you didn’t talk to the chief or the first class. You talked to the leading seaman.”
The leadership structure changed following WW II and petty officers took over the role of the leading seaman. Without a war to fight, practices began creeping in that detracted from the efficiency and morale of some commands. Commanding officers ruled with an iron fist, often making decisions for Sailors that Navy regulations said they could make for themselves.
As a petty officer and a chief, Black became a leader who tried to protect his men against such practices, using the chain of command to make his objections known. He also learned that taking the time to listen and help Sailors solve their problems was key to being a successful leader.
As the senior enlisted advisor, he was anxious to get out in the fleet and begin listening to Sailors and solving problems.
Black knew he would need a visible sign that he was, in fact, the top enlisted man. Ima came up with a solution. She suggested putting a third star above his rating badge. Black liked the idea and so did the Uniform Board. He took one of his uniforms into a tailor’s shop in Norfolk, Virginia.
“When I asked the tailor to put a third star above my crow, he looked at me like I was a drunken Sailor out of my mind,” Black said. “When the word got out that there was a master chief with three stars, there were wagers going around whether it was true or not. I had Sailors follow me into the head to ask me if I was really a three-star master chief.”
In 1967, Black, like the other senior and master chiefs, wore a chief’s cap device. It wasn’t until December, 1968, that the Uniform Board approved a master and senior chief cap insignia, similar to their collar devices, with one or two silver stars superimposed on the anchor. The MCPON received approval to wear three stars on his cap device while serving in that assignment.
Black knew that a three-star master chief might cause some raised eyebrows in the fleet but in Washington, it would not be enough to open the doors he needed to enter. Help came from Bob Nolan, executive secretary and powerful lobbyist for the Fleet Reserve Association (FRA).
“Black was a member of the FRA,” Nolan recalled. “I asked him what the Navy was doing to help him get started and he said not a blessed thing. His new office was a former closet; so small you had to step outside to change your mind. I asked Black if he would like to meet Mendel Rivers, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Black said, ‘Tell me when, and I’ll be there.’”
The meeting was set up as a breakfast at the Congressional Hotel in Washington. It went well, according to Nolan.
“Rivers thought the creation of the office was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Nolan said. “He thought it would give enlisted personnel another avenue for solving problems. He also believed that he would get more down-to-earth answers to his questions from an enlisted person. When he asked me how Black was doing, I told him that the title of Senior Enlisted Advisor should be changed to Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) to match the other services. Rivers agreed. I also told him that even though Black was getting proficiency pay, the senior enlisted man in the Navy should be paid as an E-10. After the breakfast, Rivers’ office dictated a letter to SECNAV (Secretary of the Navy) Paul H. Nitze on the recommendation.”
The FRA continued to help the office gain visibility by encouraging its membership to stop and visit with Black when they were in the Annex.
Nolan also invited Black to go with him on his visits with the hierarchy to talk about personnel issues. “It worked well,” Nolan said. “The first thing a MCPON has to do is gain the confidence of his superiors in the bureaucracy of Washington. He can’t be perceived as a wise guy but still he should be very knowledgeable. The Navy was very fortunate and blessed to have had a man like Black as the first MCPON.”
Black made some friends in Congress on his own. As a native son of Oklahoma, he was invited by Speaker of the House Carl Albert (Democrat, Oklahoma) to make the rounds on Capitol Hill. Before long, Black was being consulted on personnel issues by Congressmen who wanted the enlisted view.
While the CNO was not alone in his opinion of the office, there were many more who believed that a senior enlisted advisor was the shot in the arm the Navy needed to shore up retention and morale. Among those were the Secretary of the Navy Paul H. Nitze and his successor, Paul R. Ignatius, the Chief of Naval Personnel Benedict J. Semmes, and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) James D. Hittle.
“They helped me to see from the top how things operated and how to get things done,” Black said. “I began to get my recommendations in.”
The Pecking Order
From that initial support base, Black began to build the foundation for the office as well as the title. As the first enlisted man to wear three stars, Black discovered that no one in Washington was sure where he fit into official or social protocol. So, he picked his own place in the pecking order. Anyone below rear admiral, he told his yeoman, would be required to make an appointment before coming to see him. If a rear admiral or above wanted to talk to him, he would make the appointment to go see them.
“I wanted everyone to know that the office was not just another office in the bureau,” he said. “It worked pretty well for official business but there was still a lot of confusion on the social side. I’ve been introduced along with admirals at some things and after the waiters at others.”
In the Bureau of Naval Personnel, the prevailing attitude towards the three-star master chief was one of mild tolerance and curiosity. Black began testing the structural flexibility of the bureau. He knew that Sailors would be expecting him to do more than listen to their problems or suggestions. To do the job right, he was going to have to make the system bend.
“I’d go to someone, a head of a division, and ask them what do I do in this case?” he said. “And they would look at me and say, ‘Well, Master Chief, you make the decision.’ And it didn’t take me long to find out why they would say that. If it didn’t work, I’d take the blame. No one wanted to give you positive help because they were afraid it would come back on them. They wouldn’t say I could not do something, though. They wanted to see if I could.”
From his extensive fleet experience, Black knew that the person behind the stars needed to project them in a way that would build confidence and credibility from the top as well as the bottom.
In April of his first year, Black was given a BUPERS (Bureau of Naval Personnel) instruction listing his purpose, mission and tasks, and changing his title to Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. The instruction cautioned that “individual correspondence of an official nature or matters which concern the traditional and appropriate mode of redress and hearings shall continue to be processed in the normal manner via the chain of command. The office of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy shall in no manner be interpreted as derogating the effective and necessary method of communication between enlisted personnel and their respective commanding officers accomplished through the request mast procedure.” The instruction was signed by Vice Admiral Semmes. Black was ready to travel. His itinerary the first year was hectic — visiting Newport Rhode Island, the Naval Ammunition Depot at McAlester, Oklahoma, Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, Patuxent River, Maryland, Great Lakes, Illinois, and RTC(W) Bainbridge, Maryland. In Florida, he visited MacDill Air Force Base with his counterparts from the Army, Marines and Air Force. William 0. Woolridge was Sergeant Major of the Army, Herbert J. Sweet, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, and Paul W. Airey, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. During his visits to shore and sea commands, he became acutely aware of a lack of communication from the policymakers down to the fleet, as well as among the key links in local chains of command.
“When I started out, there were no contacts out in the fleet to call when I wanted to schedule a visit,” he pointed out. "You'd have some strange things happen as a result. I’d set up a visit and when I’d get there, the command would have me scheduled to talk with officers only. That was not the purpose of my visit. You’d also have confusion about seniority, like at an aviation squadron. You’d have the line chief and the maintenance chief. Who was senior? Well, the maintenance chief was a master chief but the line chief is a senior chief and he runs the squadron. Problems like that you would eventually work out, but it would distract you from things that are more important. You’d have to spend time sorting them out.”
Black’s answer came in the form of a fleet-wide network of senior enlisted advisors appointed by fleet commanders, type commanders, and Naval district commandants. The authorization to create the positions had already been given by the Secretary of the Navy when he established the Senior Enlisted Advisor (SEA) of the Navy billet. Both were based on recommendations stemming from the 1966 Task Force on Personnel Retention.
By 1969, Black had the network humming from London to Da Nang. SEAs met with troops in their respective commands and listened for developing trends and problem areas. Problems that couldn’t be solved locally or ideas that deserved further development were sent up the line. Some came directly to Black.
While Sailors were encouraged to work through their chain of command first, many used the published Washington address given for the senior enlisted man. Black read every letter that came into his office. Very few, he said, were from Sailors just looking to air complaints. Most contained constructive suggestions or expressed concerns about orders, housing, educational programs, and pay.
“Most individuals were seeking information not available to them or were pointing out areas which they felt needed improvement,” he said.
Correspondence from the fleet increased with every trip the MCPON made. Before responding, Black would go through the bureau, asking the same questions Sailors were asking him. If the answer did not make sense to him, he knew it would make less sense to the Sailor on the deck plate. Bureau personnel, officers, enlisted, and civilians, learned quickly that providing the MCPON with satisfactory answers was no easy task. Through his questioning and search for the right answers, Black prodded the system to examine time worn practices that needed improvement or could be eliminated.
Occasionally, Black discovered that Sailors themselves needed to change. While looking for answers to detailing questions, Black learned that many of the problems in detailing could be traced back to the individual’s failure to provide information to the detailer. “The detailers have to assign everyone within their duty choices,” he wrote in an All Hands magazine article in 1969, “but good personnel management dictates that the individual be placed where he can be best utilized. If a problem develops after a man has been assigned, then I am able to bring the matter to the attention of the rating control branch. The detailers, in turn, try to find a solution to the man’s problem.”
Much of his mail was about family housing shortages. Aware that the answer he was given was not the one Sailors were looking for, Black tried to help them understand the system. He explained that because Congress limits the funding available, the Navy would probably never be in a position to provide quarters for all those who are eligible. He pointed out, however, that he was recommending a cost of living allowance to help families stationed near high cost areas. While he understood that the cost of off-base housing was even more difficult for the lower pay grades, ineligible for base housing, he believed that career personnel should remain a priority on the housing list.
As his visibility grew, so did his determination to make changes.
“It took patience, and more patience, to get anything done,” he said. “My philosophy in dealing with the bureaucracy was that there were no such things as wins and losses. There were wins and disappointments and if you felt strong enough and you worked hard enough, you’d turn those disappointments into gains. That’s how you accomplished things.”
In August 1967, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, commander in chief, Atlantic Fleet (CINCLANTFLT), relieved Admiral McDonald as CNO. As CINCLANTFLT, Moorer had a reputation as a leader responsive to personnel issues. Unlike his predecessor, he saw value in having a senior enlisted man to communicate with enlisted Sailors. He invited the MCPON to travel with him on trips to the fleet.
“Rumors were very active at that time,” Admiral Moorer recalled. “The MCPON could go down to the chief’s mess and explain to them that everything that was going on could not be blamed on the Navy. Congress shared much of the responsibility. It was a very difficult time to develop an attitude among our people that would help to improve readiness.”
Attitude development was just one of the symptoms of the larger problem that was affecting the Navy and the other services in the mid to late ‘60s. The Vietnam War was sending thousands of young Americans home in body bags, college campuses were erupting in protest of the war, racial rioting was dividing the country on civil rights, and a strange, new youth culture was creating a wide generation gap. The divisions and shifts in American society found their counterparts within the military services.
For the Navy, these problems were reflected in high attrition rates among first term enlistees, low retention rates among career personnel, and high absenteeism and desertion rates. MCPON Black tried to make a small dent in desertion rates while he was on a trip to Hawaii with the CNO. He had heard that a church on the island was serving as a shelter for deserters. He requested permission from the CNO to go to the church and talk to any Sailors who had deserted. According to Black, the CNO told him to give it a try. So Black put on civilian clothes, went to the church, and began talking to the deserters.
“I had several young Sailors talked into returning to their unit,” he said, “but church officials found out what I was doing and they threw me out of the compound.”
Black used his visits to the fleet to gain direction in areas that needed immediate attention. By October of his first year in office, he was able to tell Sailors at NTC, Great Lakes, Illinois, that he was working on the following issues: increasing the number of permanent career counselor billets to allow every ship in the Navy with a complement of 400 or more to have a full-time career counselor; making the dungaree uniform acceptable in more on-base facilities such as the Navy exchanges and commissaries; pushing for an increase in sea pay from $15 monthly average to $110, based on a 74-hour work week for watch standers underway; eliminating the requirement for out of bounds passes for Sailors on weekend liberty with a round trip plane ticket; giving senior enlisted more prestige through increased responsibility, and increased privilege such as having civilian clothes aboard ship.
Leadership, or the lack of, among senior enlisted was one of Black’s primary concerns. He believed that with the right kind of leadership, a lot of the problems that he had to fix in Washington could have been taken care of in the fleet. He told a group of chiefs at Great Lakes that a push was on to get signature authority for senior and master chiefs on certain official documents, such as service record entries.
On his own job, he told the chiefs, “What we accomplish is not on a major scale — a lot of it is personal — the people in the bureau don’t know what an individual’s situation is. A man will write to us and explain and then we can go to the Bureau to personalize the system. When they don’t have anywhere else to go, they come to us. Anything that goes out of our office is just as if Admiral Semmes signed it. Anything that should be handled on a command level by the chain of command is kicked back to the command.”
Especially revealing of his new job, he told them, “No one has told me what I can or can’t do.”
At the invitation of the Commander, Naval Support Force, Antarctica, Black visited the 1,200 men of Operation Deep Freeze, travelling some 32,000 miles to visit all the major U.S. stations on the continent.
“You know what amazed me?” Black said, commenting in a newspaper article on the morale of the Sailors in Antarctica. “I never heard a single real gripe. I think this is because of the close relationships between the officers and men, the closest I have ever seen.”
In 1968, the CNO and MCPON went to Vietnam. MCPON spent most of his time with the Riverine Forces, telling Sailors there of an “easing of what the Navy’s Inspector General called ‘chicken regulations.’”
He also announced a change in the seniority structure in the enlisted ranks, based on the number of years a man holds in rate rather than on his particular rating. In a change to the BUPERS manual, the distinction was removed between “military matters” and “non-military matters” for determining enlisted precedence and seniority. Under the old system, a boatswain’s mate automatically was senior for military matters to others in his pay grade who had ratings other than BM, because BM was at the top of the precedence list. Quartermasters were number two on the list.
Black made two trips with the CNO. Although he believed that having the admiral along was good “publicity to let the enlisted people know you’ve got the contact,” he found it was difficult to do his job.
“With Admiral Moorer, I would come on first and give a talk but I couldn’t touch on things that he was going to talk about so it limited me,” he said. “Travelling with the CNO, you are here, here and here. I didn’t like that at all, and I wasn’t there long enough to go over to the club or down to the chief’s mess. That’s where you get the information.”
His charter directed him to travel with the inspector general, and he did on occasion, but quickly discovered that being with the IG made his visits look like an inspection. Future MCPONs had the IG removed from the verbiage of the charter, but still referred problems to the IG that couldn’t be handled through other channels.
Another Look at Retention
In March 1969, MCPON was the enlisted representative to a four day Navy-wide Career Motivation Conference at NAS Patuxent, Maryland. Admiral Moorer called the conference through an OPNAV notice, stating that retention was adversely affecting fleet readiness.
“It is true that external factors over which we have little or no control contribute significantly to this,” the notice said. “Nevertheless, in those areas in which we do have a fair degree of control, it appears unlikely that all possible worthwhile actions have been taken. Better retention will result from better motivation. We in the Navy must do a better job at all levels in motivating high quality people to career service.”
The recommendations that sprang from the conference sounded familiar. Many of the them, including increased educational opportunities, improved housing and ship habitability, improved legal and medical services, and personnel management had been made by the 1966 Task Force on Retention. Establishing a meaningful sea pay — in 1969 a mere $15 a month — was among the recommendations. It would be 11 years before sea pay would receive a boost from Congress.
While the recommendations may have had merit and received the blessing of the CNO and CNP, Admiral Moorer explained that many were not implemented “because people were too busy with the war. We were stretching our resources to the limit with our fleet commitments in the PacifIc and the Caribbean. It became a matter of priorities. May have been a good idea but the general attitude was, ‘Don’t bother me with it now.’”
Black encountered similar problems.
“When you made a recommendation, no one knew who was supposed to handle it and who would be the follow up,” he said. “I had to do the leg work on everything that went on. Like with service records. I’d request an individual’s service record after they would write me with a problem. I would get a record with eight other people’s information in there. It was one of the biggest messes I’ve ever seen. So I went up there. A captain was running it, and he and I sat down. We worked on it and worked on it and finally got it going.”
In 1971, the Microfile Conversion Task Force was established to examine the feasibility of applying a micrographics solution to the Navy’s records management problems. Authorization was given for conversion of officer and enlisted records to microform.
In August 1969, All Hands reported that 33,000 enlisted men and 4,000 officers were going to be released early due to budget cuts. More than 100 “old ships” were scheduled for decommissioning, training and other non-combat operations were cut back, and the Navy’s manpower would be reduced by 68,000 enlisted men and 4,000 officers by the end of FY (Fiscal Year) ‘70. Reenlistment quality control went into effect, restricting ship over to petty officers or those in pay grade E-3 who had passed a Navy-wide advancement exam for P03 (petty officer 3rd class). Exceptions were made for non-rateds who had been approved for rating conversion.
Spurred by a recommendation from Black to the CNP, a Petty Officer Review Board was initiated in 1970. During the first board, 4,061 senior and master chief petty officers who had received unfavorable evaluations were screened. Seventy five were considered to be below performance standards and were either sent letters of warning, or letters of warning plus a request for special six-month evaluations from their commands, required to receive the approval of the CNP prior to reenlisting or immediately transferred to the Fleet Reserve.
“We had a problem in those days in the chief’s community,” Black said. “Ten percent of the chiefs were doing 90 percent of the bitching and none of the work. We cleared out a lot of dead wood. The word got around.”
Admiral Zumwalt Takes Over
In June 1970, Admiral Moorer was relieved by Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., and began the first of his two tours as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his parting remarks, he said, “If the Navyman is given a goal and clearly shown the course of his work and the reason for serving his country, he will not only do it well, but do it better than those before him.”
Within two weeks of taking office, Admiral Zumwalt issued the first of his famous policy Z-Grams that would set the tone for his tenure. With Z-02, he established retention study groups (RSG). In 1970, retention for first termers was 11 percent. “No other problem concerns me as deeply as reversing the downward trend of Navy retention rates,” the CNO said, “and I am committing myself to improving the quality of Navy life in all respects and restoring the fun and zest of going to sea.”
RSGs were made up of young officers and enlisted men representative of all branches of the officer corps and a cross section of enlisted ratings. The group brainstormed policies or practices which had a bearing on retention and morale. Their recommendations and reports were presented to the CNO and other key Navy officials on a regular basis.
Most of the 119 Z—Grams that followed during the next four years were based on recommendations from RSGs. Before MCPON Black’s retirement in March 1971, 80 Z-Grams had been issued. Among those having the greatest impact on personnel were: Z-04, 30 days’ leave authorization for all PCS (permanent change of station); Z-05, civilian clothes aboard ship for PO1s; Z-06, dependent air charter program; Z-07, Navy sponsor program; Z-09, meritorious advancement in rate of career POs; Z-12, civilian clothing on shore establishments; Z-15, statement of earnings; Z-21, compensatory time off; Z-25, forces afloat liberty policy; Z-32, reenlistment ceremonies; Z-57, eliminating abrasive regulations (Mickey Mouse); Z-66, Equal Opportunity; Z-75, sea/shore rotation; and Z-80, MCPOs on E-8/E-9 selection boards.
Black addressed the rapid changes in his “From the Desk of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy” article in the December 1970 issue of All Hands.
“There comes a time when tradition becomes a hindrance and change is necessary. I believe we have reached that time. Changes are taking place in the military and in the Navy today which will bring about a better Navy tomorrow. In the CNO’s change of command speech, he stated that his two primary objectives are: to achieve a balance in force levels in order to meet the present threat as well as the acquisition of new ships and weapons to meet future threats; and to achieve a balance between the demands we make on our people and the rewards of a naval career. His stress on people as a major priority in these objectives can only mean a change in our way of thinking about the Navy’s men and women.”
While Black believed the changes were needed, in retrospect, he believed, like many in the fleet, that the rapid fire approach taken by the CNO was creating problems for commanding officers and the chain of command.
“Z-grams were coming out of Washington as message traffic,” he said, “so the Sailor in the communication center would be the first to know. Sailors on the mess decks would be talking about ‘Z’s’ latest changes before the skipper even saw the message. That created quite a bit of heartburn in the chain of command.”
Strong Leadership Needed
Black knew the Navy would need strong leadership to weather the changes. “The chief petty officer can, and should, take the responsibility of keeping every man under his leadership informed,” he wrote in one article. “If one of his men has a problem, he has a problem. There should be no excuses. There is a solution to every problem, and it should be pursued until his man is satisfied that every means has been exhausted in the effort to find a solution.”
He advocated leadership training: "I feel very strongly that we need to improve our leadership abilities to keep pace with the high level of technical skill. The rapidity of advancement has caused a need for establishment of more leadership classes at the command level. My feelings are that we must have a chain of command from top to bottom, but even more important, we must have a channel of communication and understanding.”
Black’s comments on leadership inspired response from the fleet. One chief stirred the pot with his letter to All Hands: “In recent years we seem to have become obsessed with the ‘let’s keep this one, big, happy family’ idea in our approach to discipline. It has reached a point where many of our personnel seem to be willing to overlook faults in their juniors or bypass anything that may cause people to think that they are not ‘nice guys.’ We are all in a military organization, not a popularity contest!”
Another chief [petty officer] wrote: “Officers and petty officers become nice guys for the following reasons: the decisions they make are not supported; they do not know how to lead and their seniors don’t know how to teach them; or they have been shorn of their authority.”
A first class wrote: “Making a decision that will please everyone is next to impossible. Some young men who enter the military service today seem to spend as much time learning how to circumnavigate the rules as they do learning them.”
Like the opening of floodgates, communication became the bi-word of MCPON Black’s tenure. It wasn’t enough to turn the tide of retention nor to turn back the problems in leadership, drugs, and discipline that surfaced in the seventies, but it was a beginning. The Navy was beginning to learn that just because things had always been done a certain way didn’t mean they had to be done that way in the future.
The MCPON’s office had been established with credibility, doors had been opened, and changes were being made.
In his farewell message prior to leaving office, Black wrote: “The office of the MCPON is at a point now, and it has been for some time, where cooperation with various branches and offices here in the bureau is at its best. What has been accomplished is a good example of the importance of teamwork and working through people for people. It appears to me that the time to ‘stay Navy’ has never been better. I can tell you about many career Navymen about to retire, who are wishing they could stay on longer. I am one of that group. But there comes a time when every Navyman must take his leave of active duty. It just seems that NOW is such a tempting time to linger on a bit longer.”
During his retirement and change of office ceremonies held at the Washington Navy Yard, Secretary of the Navy John H. Chafee, Admiral Zumwalt and Vice Admiral Dick H. Guinn made remarks. The CNO presented Black with the Distinguished Service Medal.
Today, MCPON Black and Ima are retired in Winter Park, Florida. Still active in the Fleet Reserve Association and as a member of the USO board of directors, he continues to be available to help Sailors with their problems. Ima is also an active member of the FRA Auxiliary, the Navy Wives Club and the CPO Wives Club.
Note: MCPON Black passed away on March 5, 2000. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.