Billy Sanders went in the Air Force out of high school in 1954. A friend joined the Navy at the same time. Three years later, he and his friend went home with their discharge papers to Montgomery, Alabama. His friend was an E‑6; he was an E‑4.
In 1958, after picking up a few college credits, Sanders decided to go back in the service. This time, he joined the Navy. Six months after his four-year anniversary as a sailor, he sewed on an aviation electronics technician first class crow. Six years later, he was a chief; three years later, a senior chief; and three years after that he was a Master Chief Avionics Technician. “Joining the Navy was the best decision I ever made,” Sanders said.
Throughout his career, Sanders made good, solid leadership and career decisions based on common sense and what he felt was right. In June 1979, 21 years after joining the Navy, he was serving as command master chief for Naval Air Station Pensacola and Training Air Wing Six. In Washington, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas B. Hayward announced the names of six finalists in the competition for a relief for MCPON Bob Walker. Among the six were two aviation master chiefs, AFCM Thomas S. Crow and AVCM Billy C. Sanders. The nod went to Crow and a year later Sanders took over as command master chief at Naval Air Facility Lajes, Azores.
Shortly before his tour ended at Lajes, Sanders hosted a visit from the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. Crow was nearing the end of his tenure and nominations were already coming in for his relief. He took Sanders aside and recommended that he put in for his job. Sanders told him that he had already been through that once before and did not see any point in doing it again. But the commanding officer at Lajes submitted a nomination package for Sanders anyway. Meanwhile, Sanders was transferred to the Naval Education and Training Program Development Center at Pensacola, Florida, in February 1982 to serve as the special projects division officer.
By July, the E‑8/9 selection board had whittled the nomination packages down to 35. The special board chose four finalists: MMCM(SS) Norman “Shorty” D. Garoutte, SUBLANT Force Master Chief; NCCM Courtland R. Johnson, Command Master Chief, Commander Patrol Wings Pacific; HMCM(SS) William J. O’Daniell, staff, CINCPACFLT (Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet) Headquarters; and AVCM Billy Sanders, Chief of Naval Education and Training Program Development Center, Pensacola.
Sanders and his wife, Mozelle, made their second trip to Washington for a week of interviews, briefings, and tours. At the end of the week, CNO Admiral James D. Watkins announced that he had chosen Master Chief Billy Sanders as the next Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy.
In making the announcement, the CNO described the candidates as “the best the Navy has to offer,” and said that his decision was a “very difficult one.” He also noted the increasingly responsible position of senior petty officers in the Navy, citing the newly instituted chief petty officer indoctrination course, the Senior Enlisted Academy, and the new third class petty officer indoctrination as examples.
“We are seeing the final moves toward cementing the chief’s hat to its rightful place on the Navy leadership pedestal,” the CNO said.
Much Work to be Done
Sanders agreed with the CNO that the Navy was on better footing than it had been in a long time, but he also knew there was still much work to be done.
“I stepped in at a good time,” he said. “Admiral Hayward and the people who worked for him, including MCPON Crow, had brought back the Navy to a point where there was pride in serving in the Navy. We were still having problems in the area of discipline and leadership. In my mind, we had just let that get out of hand in previous years. It’s difficult to change something in a short period of time.”
Sanders reported to Washington a month before Crow’s retirement ceremony. Together, they travelled to a few bases and Sanders sat on the sidelines, watching and learning from Crow as he talked to sailors and their leaders. In Washington, Crow took Sanders with him on his rounds in the Pentagon or in the Naval Military Personnel Command (NMPC), formerly BUPERS (Bureau of Naval Personnel).
During the week prior to the change of office and retirement ceremony, the CNO Master Chief Petty Officer Advisory Panel came to town. Sanders remembers his first impression of the panel: “There were so many master chiefs in this one room and all of them trying to get their say in, I was a little bit taken back. It was my job to chair the conference because MCPON Crow was leaving. I did the best I could with it. I wasn’t really pleased.”
When he took over as MCPON, he went to the CNO with a recommendation; the panel was too large, the number of fleet and force master chiefs needed to be reduced. The CNO told him that, politically, he could not do that.
“He told me that he couldn’t go to Admiral ‘X’ and tell him that he no longer has a fleet or force master chief,” Sanders said. “I told him that I understood that but one thing we could do was reduce the number coming in for the panel. He agreed and asked for a recommendation. I looked at the structure and saw that there was a lot of overlapping. I selected the ones that could give the CNO a better overall picture and still cover the Navy. When I submitted my recommendation, he bought off on it. In my mind, we had a solid group, fewer people, same inputs but better stated.”
Sanders quickly learned that the CNO had many more things on his mind than working with the MCPON.
“I had been in the job for about a week and I had not heard from the CNO, except for the initial office call, nor from the CNP,” he said. “I was going to work reading up on the issues from the staffing papers in the office and waiting on orders. I asked myself, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do? I’m sitting here having a good time reading but who is going to tell me what to do?’ Well, I soon found out that no one was going to tell me what to do. In all my time in the job, I really never had specific orders on what to do. I soon found I could do what I wanted to. I could go where I wanted to go. I could tackle whatever issue I thought was worth tackling. I could sit there in the office for three years and maybe no one would call for me. So, you get busy, you get around to the offices, with the CNP, you propose things that you think you should do, places you should go visit, issues you should talk to. I was never told no.”
Selecting a Staff
One of his first tasks was to select a staff. He inherited Crow’s staff, but they were all under orders and would soon be gone.
“Inheriting someone else’s staff is not the best thing,” he points out. “When you go in, you’re fresh and these people have been working the issues for some time and they are attuned to doing things in a certain way. You’re the new kid on the block. There could be some conflict so I started looking for a replacement for an executive assistant immediately.”
Several people recommended YNCM Tim Brady for the job. Sanders called up his record, along with a few others, and found Brady’s record “superb.” Brady was working in Unaccompanied Bachelor Housing and Military Housing Policy, OP‑153, located in the Navy Annex. Sanders went to see him.
“I was busy working when I turned around and saw the MCPON standing in my work space,” Brady recalls. “I had always held the MCPON in great esteem, had heard of the MCPON’s reputation. When he asked me if I would be interested in the job as his executive assistant, I said, ‘Let me think about that ... yes!’”
“Tim was probably my best decision the entire time I was in the Navy,” Sanders said. “Bringing him onboard, his expertise in the Navy, in the administrative field, personnel field, and housing. I just couldn’t have selected a better person.”
The only member of Crow’s staff that Sanders kept was JO1 Don Phelps. YN3 Margarita Santana became the other member of the staff.
Making His Rounds
As he made his rounds through the different offices in NMPC, Sanders found there was “still a lot of apprehension in some of the offices” that his job was to “put them on report.”
“I made it clear to them from the beginning that I used the chain of command,” he said, “that I wasn’t going to go over their heads with an issue unless they couldn’t or wouldn’t assist me in the matter. I think after about a year I was well received, they saw that I did what I said I was going to do.”
Sanders and Vice Admiral Lando Zech, Chief of Naval Personnel, developed a good working relationship.
“He was in his last year when I came on board. I felt that he was totally supportive of my role. I could go see him at any time and he would make time on his schedule to see me. I certainly received good advice from him on how to do my job, where to take certain problems. I felt he started me off in the right direction,” he said.
Basic Common Sense
In his first year, Sanders began addressing the two issues he came into office hoping to improve: senior enlisted leadership and the Navy’s voting record.
His own brand of leadership revolved around “basic common sense.”
“I tried to address each and every issue in a common sense manner,” he said. “Certainly if you are well informed you are better prepared to apply more common sense to any situation. I always felt that I was a master chief in the U.S. Navy, no more than that. I believe in a strong chain of command, with a clear division between the enlisted and officer communities. My energies were directed towards representing the enlisted.”
When he first came on board, he became aware of a growing perception “that the Master Chief of the Navy had a chain of command, a separate chain.”
“I tried to lay that aside,” he said. “I’m the senior enlisted ... I don’t have a chain of command as MCPON other than the one everyone else has. I worked for the CNO and no one worked for me, no one. I was the eyes and ears for the CNO and the fleet, force and command master chiefs certainly could advise me and give me a clear picture of what was happening in their particular area. I could pass information to them, not to subvert the chain of command but by passing it directly to them, we could get it moving before the official word came down. We would be ready to act on it. My goal was to get the senior enlisted leadership back on board, taking care of people and getting in tune with what was happening in the Navy today.”
He encouraged leaders to care about their people, to lead and prepare them for a future Navy when sailors would be “smarter, more professional, and leaders of the highest quality.”
While Sanders was comfortable that the credibility of the office had been well established by his predecessors, he knew that he would have to build his own credibility with the senior enlisted leadership.
“Senior enlisted will listen to what you say, they also will judge you and pass judgment quickly,” he said. “They will either accept or reject you. While some may have a different opinion, I felt that I was accepted. Only time will prove that.”
Sanders was pleased with the Navy’s return to the jumper and bell bottom trousers. To him, it sent a positive signal that the Navy was recovering from the wild pendulum swing of the Zumwalt era.
“Admiral Zumwalt did a lot of good things,” he said. “I believe because of him, the Navy turned a corner from operating solely as efficient workers to a Navy of work being done by people. We had to start understanding people issues if we were going to retain good sailors in the service. I believe most of his initiatives were right on target.”
But like many of his peers, Sanders believed that the speed of the changes “caused a lot of disturbance.”
“We went from a traditional Navy to a radically new Navy and we weren’t prepared for that,” he said.
He cited “imagery” as the primary victim in the change from bells to the coat and tie uniform.
“People recognize the Sailor because he—and I’m saying ‘he’ because at the time the Navy was comprised mostly of men—was identified with the ‘crackerjacks,’” he points out. “Some may not like to call them that but it was always crackerjacks to me. While the other uniform was a nice coat and tie, it wasn’t the one recognized worldwide as ‘Navy.’ When Admiral Hayward brought back the traditional uniform, pride and professionalism seemed to be centered around that.”
In October 1982, just as Sanders was taking over from Crow, service dress blue and service dress white jumpers became mandatory for E‑1 to E‑5 men. Effective April 1, 1983, summer blues were deleted for all Navy personnel. On October 1, 1983, service dress blue coat and tie style uniform was no longer authorized for E‑6 and below.
“There will be no major uniform changes in the immediate future for the Navy,” Sanders told a group of E‑6s and below in Yokosuka, Japan, during his WESTPAC swing in 1983. According to an article in The Seahawk, the newspaper at U.S. Fleet Activities, Yokosuka, Sanders told the group that the CNO had made it a major priority to work for uniform stability.
“The CNO has been around the Navy for a long time and is just as sick of all the uniform changes as you are,” he said.
Grooming standards also tightened. In the 1984 Uniform Regulations, beards were no longer authorized for “persons in high visibility positions of leadership such as COs [commanding officers], XOs [executive officers], C M/Cs [command master chiefs], etc.” Sanders was glad to see them go.
“Each time that I would come back from a trip,” he said, “I would report to the CNO that there were a lot of senior people out there who thought beards should be terminated. Admiral Watkins finally made that decision. He didn’t make it lightly. He studied it for some time, calling in all of his flags with warfare departments to get their opinion. When he made the decision, it caused some upheaval but it was short lived. It didn’t cause as much turmoil as we thought it would. We went into it gradually with just the high visibility positions. Then the decision was made to apply the policy throughout the Navy.”
Beards were prohibited for everyone in the Navy after January 1, 1985. Exceptions were allowed for health reasons (i.e., pseudo‑folliculitis barbae) when authorized by a commander/commanding officer on the advice of a medical officer.
In the January 1984 issue of The Direct Line, Sanders analyzed the early phases and effect of “Pride and Professionalism” and the direction it would take in the future.
“P&P I,” Sanders explained, brought a “return to our traditional uniforms,” and “P&P II” brought “Not in my Navy,” and “Because it is the right thing to do.”
“Often I’m asked, ‘Do we need P&P III?’” Sanders wrote. “The CNO Master Chief Petty Officer Advisory Panel received this challenge from Adm. Watkins when we met last November.
“Our report to CNO stated that we did not recommend a P&P III. We have on board at this time enough tools (i.e., rules, regulations, instructions) to get the job done. Unfortunately, there are those that fail to use them; either through nonuse, selective enforcement, or ignorance.”
Sanders stressed the importance of conducting and practicing “realistic and meaningful military training ranging from General Quarters drills to teaching the proper way to salute.”
Physical fitness came into its own during Sanders’ term of office. In 1981, the health and physical readiness program was directed by DOD Directive 1308.1. Stamina, cardio‑respiratory endurance, strength, flexibility, and body composition were evaluated and tested. In 1982, SECNAV Instruction 6100.1 and OPNAVINST 6110.1 were implemented, making annual physical readiness testing (PRT) mandatory. Guidelines were set for body composition assessment.
In his February 1984 issue of The Direct Line, Sanders addressed the “Fitness for Life” program, providing insight to a forthcoming revised version of OPNAVINST 6110.1 and the problems incurred in the implementation of the new program.
“As with any new system or program,” he wrote, “problem areas are going to surface upon implementation.” It was determined that some revisions were needed. One element of the program that caused concern was the percent body fat standards and how the percentage was obtained.
“Some members, particularly in the more senior levels, could not fathom how they could be within standards on the OLD height/weight chart but out of standard using the body fat percentage.”
He went on to explain how the revised instruction would help to determine a more accurate figure in body fat.
“A modified procedure for estimating body fat percentage has been included in the revision,” he said. “For men, the procedure includes neck and waist measurements which are compared to a height chart. For women, measurements are taken at the neck, hips, and ‘natural waist.’ These measurements are then compared to height chart for women to determine the body fat percentage. Keep in mind that all body fat percentages are estimates to be used as a baseline.”
He concluded by encouraging commands to “support and encourage members who need assistance in achieving health goals.”
“Exercise time, good nutritional food choices, and non‑smoking areas should be provided,” he wrote. “The bottom line is the self‑responsibility each of us has to ensure that we do not succumb to the insidious effects of sedentary jobs, lax attitudes, and neglect of preventive maintenance procedures for ourselves. This program will help our great Navy prevail in the face of adversity and enhance the overall professional and personal quality of life of every member.”
Military educational assistance became a major concern of sailors in the early 1980s. With the expiration of the Vietnam GI Bill, Congress began looking for new ways to extend educational assistance to everyone in the military.
“Much interest is being generated by a bill introduced by Congressman G.V. ‘Sonny’ Montgomery of Mississippi,” Sanders wrote in the March/April 1984 issue of The Direct Line. “The bill, H.R. 1400 will establish a new educational assistance program to help recruit and retain quality military personnel in all branches of the Armed Services. To a lesser degree and in keeping with previous GI bill programs, the bill would assist veterans in readjusting to civilian life following their military service.”
The bill, if passed, would provide for a basic benefit of $300 a month with a maximum of 36 months of entitlement for military personnel who serve three years on active duty, or two years on active duty and four years in the Selected Reserve. (A non‑refundable $100 month reduction in pay for the first 12 months of enrollment would be required from non‑prior service personnel.) Eligible individuals must be high school graduates or have a high school equivalency certificate by the completion of the qualifying period of service. Use of benefits while in‑service could begin after two years of active duty. The bill passed and became Public Law 98‑525 on October 19, 1984. Subsequent revisions expanded eligibility and adjusted the participation fees.
Issues such as the GI Bill and pay increases gave fuel to the fire that Sanders was trying to build under sailors to motivate them to vote. During a visit to his former command in Pensacola, Florida, the MCPON hit hard at voter apathy in a meeting with chief petty officers. The Gosport, NAS Pensacola’s newspaper, ran a front page article in its June 17, 1983, issue about his visit.
“Voter apathy, according to Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Billy Sanders, is the number one reason why military personnel lose some traditional benefits and fail to obtain others,” the article began.
“The Navy’s top enlisted man said his research into Navy voting habits revealed that during the last elections only 20 percent of Navy people voted.”
The article quoted Sanders, “We are our own worst enemy. We cry and moan about not getting a pay raise or other benefits, but yet we are willing to let the civilian community pick our leaders for us. I’m here to tell you that there are a number of anti‑military elected officials in Washington and, unless we are willing to take a few minutes and fill out that absentee ballot or go to the local polls and cast our vote, we will continue to fall short on the benefit scale.”
Sanders told the chiefs that those who failed to vote or failed to encourage their troops to vote were “being negligent in their duties,” according to the article.
Sanders also encouraged sailors to write to their Congressmen.
“Most people forget that the CNO has a chain of command that is a civilian one. He answers to the Secretaries of the Navy and Defense and the President of the United States,” he told a group of sailors in Yokosuka, Japan. “You can bet that a Congressman would pay more attention to a letter from a constituent in his own district who has the power to vote him out of office than someone testifying in front of the Congress as a body.”
“Another good reason to write to Congress,” he commented, “was that it gives representatives a feel for Navy life.”
“Two‑thirds of the current Congress has had no military affiliation whatsoever,” he said. “They don’t know what you do or about your work day. Anytime you write Congress, it keeps them that much better informed.”
In his last year in office, Sanders said he could see the tide beginning to turn.
“There were a couple of Senate races and some in the House during my last year that were won through the absentee ballot,” he said. “I felt we were on the right track, but it was one of those things that you can never give up on or you’ll slide backwards very quickly. I think it should be part of our strategy to let the youngsters know how important it is to vote. Not tell them how to vote but tell them how important it is and certainly push to get them registered.”
Sanders, who privately admitted that he was “fairly senior” before he voted for the first time, wasn’t sure how effective he was during his testimonies before Congressional committees.
“I went with my counterparts from the other services and we testified mainly on pay, morale, and housing,” he said. “It was my job to represent the enlisted force, not to give them the party line but to give them the sailors’ opinion. It’s hard to tell whether we made a difference or not. I think the staffers to the Congressmen are the ones that really influence them.”
But according to his assistant, Master Chief Brady, Sanders was very well liked by the Congressmen with whom he had contact.
“He came across with the believability of an Abe Lincoln,” Brady said during a recent interview. “They considered him to be an honorable, moral, and ethical individual.”
One of the issues that Sanders and his counterparts took to the Hill was the need for a dependent dental care program. A trip report submitted on December 29, 1983, following the MCPON’s trip to New London, Connecticut; Newport, Rhode Island; Brunswick, Maryland; and Keflavick, Iceland, lists a dependent care program as a primary concern of the sailors he had visited.
“During most of my question and answer periods, the issue of dental care for dependents surfaced,” he reported. “This is now a real problem for our sailors with dependents, especially junior enlisted. I have become aware of several legislative efforts concerning this problem. I do not believe relief in a form similar to medical care is in sight for dependent personnel. Perhaps it is time to investigate the possibility of some form of a DOD contributory program.”
On August 1987, a preventive dental program for spouses and children of active duty members was offered through Delta Dental. The program is managed by the DOD through the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services (CHAMPUS).
Return to Tradition
Like his predecessors, Sanders never missed a chance to stress the importance of senior leadership when he visited a command. At Pensacola, he told the chiefs that the CNO was pushing for a return to the CPO’s traditional role in training junior personnel.
“That doesn’t mean just junior enlisted,” he said. “The CNO mandate to return CPOs to their traditional role includes training of junior officers. After all, what is a junior officer except a better educated airman, seaman, or fireman! When a junior officer walks into your work center, he has no more expertise than that E‑3. It’s the job of the chief to train him, so he or she can become a good division officer.”
While Sanders was generally pleased with the direction the Navy was taking during his three years, he was troubled by a “force out” program similar to high year tenure and accelerated promotions in certain critical ratings.
“We had a ‘force out’ for people who could not advance,” he said. “I didn’t agree with that. I used to work for and with some old timers who were professional second classes. Clearly, they had been in for several years but they were some of the best second classes we had. Us youngsters could look to them for leadership and advice and especially for professional expertise. They were good role models at that time... not in the field of advancement but they knew what they were doing and they were the best damn second class petty officers in the Navy. When we lost those petty officers, we lost some stability. There are people that just can’t take tests and some really don’t have the ambition to go any further. They are happy in their niche in life and they do a good job with it. The force out started before my tenure and continued on through it.”
On the other side of the coin, Sanders saw other petty officers advancing too rapidly.
“There are sailors that go through the schooling process and come out as E‑5’s,” he points out. “They are paid well and perhaps we need to do that to retain or attract them into the service, but they are not petty officers second class. Once they get out to the fleet, they realize that they are not prepared to meet their military duties. Some of the seamen out there eat them up because they are rookies— inexperienced as petty officers.”
“I wish there was a program, similar to the old pro pay system, wherein we could reward these bright young sailors without promoting them at such an early stage in their Naval career. I have a lot of respect for third and second class petty officers. They should be mature, have leadership abilities and earn the respect of the people who work for them. Third class petty officers should have seasoning, hands‑on work and be part of the command, not just products of the school system.”
Sanders heartily approved of the school system developed through the Senior Enlisted Academy. After a trip to Newport, he reported via The Direct Line that “the instructors are superb professionals,” the curriculum “covers a wide range of subjects which provides the students an educational and practical experience to enhance their leadership abilities” and the students are “extremely knowledgeable and highly motivated.”
Sanders left his mark on the academy by replacing the officer assigned as director with a master chief petty officer. He also worked to get funding for construction of a new building to house the academy.
When Sanders needed special guidance or assistance with a particular problem or issue, he turned to the CNP’s executive assistant, Captain Jeremy “Mike” Boorda.
“I felt particular akin to him for a couple of reasons,” he said of the captain who was destined to become one of the Navy’s most popular and outspoken Chiefs of Naval Personnel. “He was a very personable individual and he appeared to always shoot straight. He wasn’t hesitant to talk with me so I felt I had an ally. If I was doing something right, he would so say. If I was heading in the wrong direction, he would so say. I felt comfortable with him and I am very pleased to see him in the position he is in today.”
Time to be Navy
Sanders was genuinely concerned with the future of the Navy. He could see the trend to downsizing and the growing need for quality people. He placed the responsibility for building quality squarely on the shoulders of the senior enlisted leadership. In his November 1984 issue of The Direct Line, he advised his readers that the Navy had asked Congress for a 12,064 increase to end strength. Only 6,500 was approved.
“This shortfall,” he wrote, “coupled with the neglect of the past, challenges the Navy to use its assets to the maximum if we are to continue to meet all commitments. This is especially true with personnel.”
While he noted that quality of first termers was at an all-time high and “retention of our highly skilled technical complement personnel has never been better,” he pointed out the “driving force” would continue to be the career Navy professional.
“Master Chief, Senior Chief and Chief—the Navy has never needed you more,” he stressed. “It’s clear that from your years of service you have made a career decision to remain in the Navy—THAT’S NOT ENOUGH! It’s time to be a professional military man/woman. It’s time to be Navy.
“There is no fat, no excess, no fall back position. Sailors must be properly trained and led. They must be able to perform the duties they were hired on to do. Nowhere is this more true than in the chief petty officer ranks. Chiefs can and make the difference; it’s our Navy, it’s our responsibility. Although our CPO creed states, in part, ‘these responsibilities do not appear in print,’ they should be indelibly stamped in our hearts.”
In his final word in the October 1985 issue of The Direct Line, Sanders said: “Our Navy is on a proper and true course. KEEP IT THERE!”