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The Citizen's Guide to the U. S. Navy

The Citizen's Guide to the U. S. Navy

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The Citizen's Guide to the U. S. Navy

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Apr 4, 2013


Most Americans know little about their Navy and learning about it can be daunting. But this informative yet highly accessible guide explains the sometimes strange ways of the U.S. Navy in terms civilians can understand. It addresses such things as the many titles military people have, the alphanumeric designations used to identify military personnel, the organization of the Navy and its many missions, the origin and practice of such things as saluting, flag etiquette, and side boys. Also included are an overview of the Navy's colorful history, a primer on Navy ships and aircraft, a guide to "reading" a uniform, and the demystification of the phonetic alphabet and military time. Designed as a quick read for those who want the full story, this handbook can also be used as a handy reference full of essential facts.
Apr 4, 2013

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The Citizen's Guide to the U. S. Navy - Thomas J. Cutler



Military Titles

This chapter will help you understand the many titles that military people have, and how to recognize them in the various alphanumeric designations that military personnel use to identify and distinguish themselves. You will learn the rank structures, what the differences are in such things as pay-grades and ratings, and, more practically, how to properly address military people, both in person and in writing.


One of the things most alien to the newcomer to the Navy is its hierarchy and all of the many titles that military people have. These titles fall into a number of categories, such as ranks and ratings, and understanding the distinctions among them can go a long way toward understanding the Navy as a whole.

To begin with, it is important to distinguish between a billet (or current assignment) and a rank. A billet is much like a job title elsewhere in the world. Just as the head of a corporation might be called a chief executive officer, so a military person might be called a chief (as in Chief of Naval Operations) or a commander (as in Commander 7th Fleet). Some examples of other billet titles (among thousands) are Work Center Supervisor, Combat Systems Officer, Leading Seaman, Executive Officer, Deck Division Chief, Ship’s Secretary, and G Division Officer.

One thing that distinguishes the military from most of corporate America is that military people also have ranks. Those who have worked in the federal government as civilians will find the idea of ranks a little less alien because of the GS (General Schedule) system that gives a government employee a GS rating, establishes what that person will be paid, and places them within a hierarchy of relative authority and responsibility. Ranks in the military are similar but a bit more complex. For one thing, people in the government have to ask one another what their GS ratings are, whereas military personnel wear their ranks on their sleeves, collars, or shoulders. But, like GS ratings, ranks denote a person’s ability to take on responsibility and authority, and they also determine paygrades. In fact, the one thing that military personnel from different services have in common with each other is their paygrade. A man enlisting in the Air Force and a woman enlisting in the Navy will both have a paygrade of E-1 even though he will have the rank of Airman Basic and she will be a Seaman Recruit.

All of this is to say that a newcomer to the Navy should be aware that billets and ranks are related (a person might have to have the rank of lieutenant in order to be eligible to fill a specific billet, such as being the weapons officer on a particular kind of ship) but the two are also separate in their own ways.

There are thousands and thousands of billets in the Navy just as there are many job titles in any large company. But there are a much smaller number of ranks, and you will go a long way toward understanding what the Navy is all about by learning a bit about the Navy’s (and the other services’) ranks.

Before moving on to rank titles, one word of clarification about billets in the Navy. The heads of many units (such as ships, aircraft squadrons, etc.) are known by the generic billet title of commanding officer. This is true of all the armed services. But, with a nod to tradition, the Navy also uses the term captain for many of these billets (as in, He is the captain of that destroyer, or, She is the captain of that cruiser). But you will soon see that captain is also the name of a rank in the Navy (and in the other armed services as well—though at a different level). This means that the commanding officer of a destroyer might hold the rank of commander but still be called the captain of that ship. And the captain of an aircraft carrier usually holds the rank of captain as well.

A word of warning and encouragement. As you can see in the previous paragraph, understanding titles in the military—be they billet titles or rank titles—can be very confusing and therefore somewhat daunting. But keep in mind that seventeen-year-olds come into the Navy every day with no former knowledge, and they learn it—quickly and well. You can handle it!

Perhaps the best way to begin understanding the rank structure of the Navy is to look at table 1.1. After your first reaction of You—have—got—to—be—kidding! we can begin the process of making some sense out of it. (Remember those seventeen-year-olds!)

Table 1.1. Navy Paygrades and Ranks


To begin with, let’s look at the column marked Paygrades. As stated before, these are common to all the armed forces and are what determine the basic pay of a person in the military. There are E-1s through O-10s in all the armed services, though they will be called different things as we shall soon see. A young man entering the Navy will be paid as an E-1 and will be called a Seaman Recruit until he successfully completes Recruit Training (commonly called Boot Camp). His first promotion will be to E-2, at which time he will receive a pay raise and will be then be a Seaman Apprentice until his next promotion.

Note that there are some alternatives in title that depend upon what occupational part of the Navy the young person is slated (by desire and qualifications) to serve in. For example, a young woman who enters the Navy with a follow-on assignment after Boot Camp to attend a school in shipboard engineering and then to serve in a ship as a gas turbine technician would become a Fireman Recruit (instead of Seaman Recruit) upon entry, and her first promotion will be to Fireman Apprentice. Those who will be working in aviation occupational specialties will be Airman Recruits; those who are slated to work in construction related occupations (known popularly as SeaBees, or CBs, short for Construction Battalion) will be Constructionman Recruits; and those who will be working in medical or dental occupations will be Hospitalman Recruits.

Officers and Enlisted

Looking at table 1.1, it might at first seem obvious that Sailors would start at the bottom (E-1) upon entering the Navy and move up through the various levels until they either reach the top or leave the Navy for another career or retire. But of course it couldn’t be that simple! Note that the table does not go from E-1 at the bottom to E-something at the top. Instead, it shifts from E to W and O scales along the way. This is because the Navy (like all the services) has enlisted Sailors and officer Sailors (with warrant officers in between). In earlier times—before the United States of America changed the world with its successful democracy—the militaries of Europe differentiated between officers and enlisted based upon social class. If you were of so-called noble birth and entered military service, you would be an officer, and as a result of good performance (or too often because of whom you knew), you could aspire to reach the levels of command and perhaps go beyond to become a general or an admiral. If you were of more common birth, your only choice was to enter the army or navy as a foot soldier or deck hand, and though you could be promoted, there was a glass ceiling you could never penetrate because of your social class.


Even though our Army and Navy were modeled after the armies and navies of Europe, this class system was obviously not going to work in a democratic America. Various means of emulating yet changing this system were tried—including the election of officers—but what eventually evolved was a system based primarily upon education. Although not quite this neat and simple, a reasonable way to look at the system that evolved (and which is still basically in effect today) is to think of officers as those individuals who enter the service with college degrees already completed and enlisted as those who enter the service without a degree. There are numerous exceptions and variations to this rule and those lines are blurring today for a variety of reasons, but it is still a reasonably accurate way to understand the system. Another analogy that is not entirely accurate but may be helpful in understanding the differences is to think of enlisted and officers as roughly equivalent to labor and management respectively.

With the above in mind, you can see that a young man fresh out of high school who decides that he wants to serve in the Navy and work on airplanes would enter the service as an Airman Recruit with a paygrade of E-1. After completing Boot Camp, he would be promoted to Airman Apprentice (E-2) and subsequently move up through the enlisted paygrades (E-3, E-4, and so on). A young woman fresh out of college on the other hand would more likely enter the Navy as an officer, beginning her service as an Ensign with a paygrade of O-1. She could then move up through the officer ranks as a Lieutenant (Junior Grade) (O-2), then a Lieutenant (O-3), and so on.

In a normal career, the young man who enlisted in the Navy could aspire to make Master Chief Petty Officer (E-9) in a very successful career. The young woman could reasonably hope to become an Admiral in her very successful career.


Keep in mind that there are many exceptions to this simple pattern I have described. One exception is that a person may enter the service with a college degree but may prefer to be enlisted rather than become an officer. Another exception is that some young men and women who have demonstrated the appropriate potential may receive appointments to the U.S. Naval Academy, in which case they will enter the service without a college degree but will earn one at the Academy and become an O-1 upon graduation. There are also many ways that enlisted Sailors can become officers part way through their careers. One example is the Seaman to Admiral Program, which selects enlisted Sailors (with the right qualifications and desire) to earn a college degree at the Navy’s expense and then become an officer upon graduation.


Yet another exception is for enlisted Sailors to be recognized as so proficient in their Navy occupations that they are promoted to Warrant Officer. These are indicated as W-1 through W-5 paygrades in table 1.1. One would think that an individual selected to be a warrant officer would become a W-1 on the paygrade chart in table 1.1, but such is not the case. For reasons too complicated to explain here, the Navy no longer uses the W-1 paygrade; Sailors selected to be warrant officers go directly to W-2 (Chief Warrant Officer) and then move up to W-3, and so on. This is the sort of thing I was referring to in the loving parent speech I made earlier. When the Navy decided to go from three to four warrant officer ranks, it did not shift back to using the W-1 rank, but instead created a W-5 rank!


People who enlist in the Navy are generically called enlistees or enlisted personnel and serve specifically contracted periods of time called enlistments.

People who enter the Navy as officers (or later become officers) are referred to generically as officers and are said to be commissioned. Their commissions come from the President of the United States and are open-ended in time, ending only when the officer resigns, or is retired, or is dismissed from the service. Although officers do not sign on for specific enlistments as enlistees do, they do sometimes incur periods of obligated service—as payback for going to the Naval Academy or flight school, for example—that prevent them from resigning before that obligation is met.

People who are selected to become warrant officers from the enlisted ranks are generically called warrants. When there was a W-1 paygrade, those individuals were said to receive warrants from the Secretary of the Navy, but the existing W-2, W-3, W-4, and W-5 ranks all receive commissions from the President as do the officers with paygrades O-1 through O-10.

Although there are different terms used to distinguish officers and enlisted, all people serving in the Navy on active duty or in the Navy Reserve are known as Sailors.* You can never go wrong calling anyone in a Navy uniform a Sailor. This was not always the case. In the past, the term sailor was often used to describe only enlisted people. But in more recent times, Sailor now applies to all Navy personnel in uniform—although you may encounter a dinosaur who still makes the old distinction.

One holdover remains, although it may eventually go away: when making a distinction between enlisted and officer personnel, the term enlisted Sailor is often used, but officer Sailor is not usually used. So you may encounter something like, Many enlisted Sailors were there, but not many officers attended the seminar.

Ranks, Rates, Ratings, and Other Titles

Now for some more confusion. Though the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps use ranks as one would expect, the Navy (and Coast Guard) also use the terms rate and rating in distinctive ways. Rates are very similar (if not identical) to ranks and are the titles used to describe the various levels of paygrade for enlisted Sailors. Ratings are titles that apply to enlisted occupations.


We have already defined ranks as specific titles linked directly to paygrade and representing degrees of authority and responsibility. In the discussion above, we used the term rank to describe the various levels illustrated in table 1.1. But you should be aware that in the Navy (and the Coast Guard) there is another distinction sometimes (but not always) made. Adhering strictly to tradition, officers have ranks, whereas enlisted people have rates. This may be a dying tradition that will not be missed once it reaches its final demise, because it serves no useful purpose and is often confusing. But you will still encounter it, so it is helpful to understand it.


The use of the term rate becomes even more confusing when we consider that there is yet another term used in the Navy (and the Coast Guard)—this one with a more distinctive and useful purpose. Rating (as opposed to rate) is the term used to describe an enlisted Sailor’s specialty or occupation in the Navy, based upon knowledge and skills. In the other services, these specialties are commonly called MOS (for Military Occupational Specialty).

These ratings have specific names—like Gunner’s Mate or Sonarman or Yeoman—and each has a specific symbol that is (unlike MOSs in the other services) actually worn on the uniform as part of the rating badge (see chapter 3). It is beyond the scope of this book to go into great detail regarding ratings, but the Navy’s current ratings, with their symbols, are included in figure 3.4 in chapter 3 if you are interested in learning more.

There are numerous ratings in the Navy. The number varies as occupational needs change; for example, there once was a Sailmaker rating, but that has been discontinued for obvious reasons. Most are obvious by their titles, such as Intelligence Specialist, Electronics Technician, and Musician. But others—like Quartermaster (navigation specialist)—are less so. Some can be misleading, such as Fire Controlman, which one might surmise is a firefighter but is actually one who controls the firing of guns or missiles (firefighting specialists in the Navy are Damage Controlmen).

Rates change as a person gets promoted, but ratings carry over with each promotion. A memory aid that may help you to remember which is which of the two similar terms of rate and rating is to realize that rate and rank both have four letters.

Tying It All Together

Officer ranks are pretty straightforward. A person is an Ensign with a pay-grade of O-1 or a Commander (O-5), and so on. But enlisted titles are a bit more complex.

As already explained, at the E-1 through E-3 levels, a Sailor can be a Seaman Recruit (E-1), a Seaman Apprentice (E-2), or a Seaman (E-3) if he or she enters the Navy with the expectation of serving in various occupations relating to ships. But if he or she is going to be working with aircraft, E-1 through E-3 become Airman Recruit, and so on, instead of Seaman. Other options include Fireman (engineering occupations), Constructionman, and Hospitalman.

At the E-4 through E-9 rates, it gets a little more complicated. Once Sailors are promoted to E-4, they become rated, meaning that have a specific rating (that is, an occupation such as Gunner’s Mate). At that point they actually have two titles: Petty Officer Third Class (see table 1.1) and Gunner’s Mate Third Class. They will usually remain in that rating for the rest of their careers, promoting to Petty Officer Second Class (E-5) and simultaneously to Gunner’s Mate Second Class, then to E-6 (Petty Officer First Class and Gunner’s Mate Second Class), E-7 (Chief Petty Officer and Chief Gunner’s Mate), and so on. These titles are pretty much interchangeable. The good news is that you do not need to know all of these titles to get by. There are many ratings, and few people have them all memorized. Just knowing the levels of petty officer and recognizing that ratings may be used in their place is sufficient. How to do this is explained in more detail below.

One word about usage. You can reverse the terminology, depending upon the circumstances. For example, if you know someone who is an E-5, you would speak or refer to them (formally) as Petty Officer Second Class Jones, but when referring to them without their name, it is also appropriate to call them a second class petty officer (in other words putting the second class before the petty officer). For example, in conversation you might say, This is Petty Officer First Class John Jones. I first met him when he was a third class petty officer at the Pentagon. This is a small point but worth knowing to avoid confusion.

Keep in mind that chief petty officers are always referred to in that order, never Petty Officer Chief. But you may (particularly when in less formal circumstances) drop the petty officer part. For example, the following is correct: "This is Chief Petty Officer Jane Jones. Chief Jones and Senior Chief Smith were shipmates together in USS Independence back before they were promoted to chief."

Warfare Specialties

Another title common to many Sailors of various ranks, ratings, and so on is their warfare specialty, obtained through an additional qualification process (involving schooling, practical experience, or a combination of both). Both officer and enlisted Sailors may have one or more of these specialties. These are in addition to, and independent of, their rank, rate, and rating. Some—but not all—of these specialties are surface warfare, air warfare, submarine warfare, and special warfare. Enlisted Sailors append identifying letters in parentheses after their rates (for example, BMC (SW) John P. Jones USN); some examples of identifying letters are SW for surface warfare, AW for air warfare, and SS for submarine warfare. Officers do not append their warfare specialties to their ranks, but staff officers do append them after their names (see below).

For the most part, you can ignore these in routine communications, but it does not hurt to be aware of them.

Additional Officer Titles

As mentioned above, officers do not append alphabetic representations of their warfare specialties to their names as enlisted personnel do. But staff officers do add letters to indicate their specialties.

Officers can be roughly divided into two groups: line and staff. The term line officer stems from the days of sail when groups of ships would form lines of battle to face each other in combat. The officers who commanded (or aspired to command) these ships were referred to as line officers. Staff officers were those who were less likely to be on the line of battle but would instead support the Fleet in other important ways.

Today, generally speaking, line officers are those who are eligible for command at sea; they command or may someday command ships, submarines, aircraft squadrons, and so on. Staff officers fill important support functions as doctors, lawyers, chaplains, supply corps officers, and more. These staff officers often append letter combinations (such as SC for Supply Corps, CHC for Chaplain Corps, JAG for Judge Advocate General [lawyer], etc.) to their names (for example, LT Clarence Darrow, JAG, USN).

As with the abbreviations for enlisted warfare specialties, these can be ignored in routine communications but are nice to know on occasion.


Having gained some understanding of the different kinds of titles used in the Navy, it is now time to crack the code on all the cryptic abbreviations that go along with those titles. I call them alphabet soup, but in truth alphanumeric soup would be a better description.

By the time we are finished, such things as BM2 (AW, SS, SW) John P. Jones USN and RDML Wendy T. Door, CHC, USN will make a lot more sense. Understanding these things will permit you to communicate more effectively in the Navy and will ease that unsettling feeling of being somehow excluded from the secret society. Some of the ability to decipher these alphanumeric codes will rely upon simple understanding and a bit of memorization, but we will also come up with some shortcuts and hints that will simplify the task.

The first thing to realize is that for most purposes you need only concentrate on the letters and numbers preceding a Sailor’s name. Those other letters in parentheses following the person’s name are specialties and you can ignore them for basic communications. The last group of letters (USN, USCG, etc.) merely identify a person’s service (Navy, Coast Guard, etc.). Just keep in mind that when addressing military personnel, it’s what’s up front that counts most.

Addressing the Navy

There are rules for addressing Sailors in the Navy and, unfortunately, they vary somewhat with circumstances. Let’s begin by expanding table 1.1 a bit and calling it table 1.2. Keeping this table handy and referring to it for a while will eventually lead to your using these forms of address as second nature. As with table 1.1, we see the paygrades (E-1 through E-9, W-1 through W-5, and O-1 through O-10) and the names of the ranks (also known as rates for enlisted Sailors). But this table has some additional useful features.

The Abbreviations column lists the proper abbreviations of the ranks as they are used by the Navy. Be aware that you will see other abbreviations used elsewhere; civilian book publishers do not like to use all capital letters because they feel it is distracting on a printed page, and though the Navy’s abbreviations have a certain military logic to them, they are not always clear to people not familiar with the Navy. As a result, you will often see such things as Lt. Cmdr. (instead of LCDR), or Vice Adm. (instead of VADM), or Smn (instead of SN). But when dealing with or within the Navy, you will have more credibility if you use the Navy’s versions of abbreviations as shown in table 1.2. These abbreviations are used fairly often in the Navy on official forms or in documents. They are also used on the outside envelope when addressing letters to people in the Navy.

If you were going to send a letter to Seaman Apprentice Grace Hopper, you would write her name on the outside of the envelope as SA Grace Hopper USN. Inside the letter, you should again use the Navy abbreviation in the address part of the letter, but in the salutation, you should use the spelled-out form provided in table 1.2’s column labeled Dear—. See the example below:

30 August 2007

SA Grace Hopper USN

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76)

FPO AP 96616-2876

Dear Seaman Hopper:

Your copy of The Bluejacket’s Manual was found in this office and is enclosed.


John Q. Adams

Table 1.2. Navy Paygrades, Ranks, Abbreviations, Salutations, and Forms of Address

The last column in table 1.2 (Direct Address) tells you how you should address a Sailor in polite conversation, as in, Good morning, Captain Halsey, or, Chief Gatlin, would you please explain why you have all those stripes on your lower left sleeve?

When introducing a Sailor to someone else, you should use his or her full title the first time but then use the direct address form from then on. For example: Doctor Thomas Dooley, this is Lieutenant Commander Stephen Decatur. Commander Decatur is headed for the Mediterranean next month.

Note that these addresses are mostly logical and simple, but there are a few quirks. In most cases, brevity rules. Lieutenant Commander becomes simply Commander, Seaman Apprentice becomes Seaman, and so on. Note, however, that you should not address a Senior Chief Petty Officer as Chief and that Master Chief Petty Officer does not become Master.

There are a few other quirks you should be aware of. There is only one Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, and he or she is the most senior enlisted Sailor in the Navy. More by convention than anything formal, he or she is referred to as the MCPON and is often addressed as MCPON. As indicated in the table, this is pronounced mick-pon (pon rhyming with john, not loan).

Note that there are multiple forms of E-9 and that their addresses require a little extra attention. This is a case where billets and ranks overlap a bit. A master chief petty officer who is assigned as the principal enlisted advisor to the commanding officer of a ship or some other unit would take on the title of Command Master Chief Petty Officer (more frequently referred to as simply the Command Master Chief). A master chief who has been assigned as the principal enlisted advisor to a fleet commander would be the Fleet Master Chief. People filling these billets not only take on the new rank names as indicated, but they also wear different rating badges on their left sleeves.

Warrant officers present another challenge. They are often called by their specialty as indicated in table 1.2, and you will probably have to learn these on a case by-case basis.

I have included the rank of Fleet Admiral in table 1.2 because it technically exists and was once used. In World War II, Admiral Leahy, Admiral King, Admiral Nimitz, and Admiral Halsey were promoted to Fleet Admiral (also known as five-star Admiral) but no one has been given that rank since, and it is doubtful it will ever be used again.

Note that a newly promoted admiral becomes a Rear Admiral (Lower Half) and, if later promoted, would become a Rear Admiral (Upper Half). These odd titles are compromises reached after years of trying different titles. An O-7 was a Commodore during World War II; at one time, O-7s and O-8s both had the title of Rear Admiral with no distinctions in title; and, for a while, an O-7 was called a Commodore Admiral. The titles in table 1.2 are the currently correct ones. A good-natured rear admiral (lower half) who had just received word that he had been promoted to rear admiral (upper half) quipped, That’s great news. Now I can wear my shoulder boards on my shoulders instead of my hips!

One last clarification. As noted above, Commodore was a rank in the Navy for a time. Though that has changed, you may still encounter the term; but if you do, be aware that it is probably associated with a billet rather than a rank. This comes about when an officer who is not an admiral is given command of a group of ships (such as a destroyer squadron). Each ship has its own commanding officer (also known as Captain as explained earlier), so to avoid confusion (and to grant a degree of honor), the officer in charge of the group is called the Commodore. She or he may hold the rank of captain but is referred to as Commodore by virtue of commanding more than one ship.

Cracking the Codes

Making sense of all that alphabet soup surrounding a Sailor’s name is a bit daunting, but there are some ways to make it easier. Remember to concentrate on the letters and numbers preceding the person’s name to keep things simple.

As mentioned above, officers are pretty straightforward.

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