Fifty years ago, "All Hands" magazine highlighted 11 men as the "cream of the crop," calling them the top enlisted men of the Navy.
The feature introduced the master chiefs to the fleet as potential holders of a new rank: the Navy's first senior enlisted leader (SEA), better known as the master chief petty officer of the Navy (MCPON).
The new senior enlisted advisor would advise the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) on the interests of the enlisted force, providing a constant stream of communication between the Sailors in the fleet and top Navy leadership.
Master Chief Gunner's Mate Delbert D. Black would ultimately be selected for the new role. Like all of the candidates, he was a veteran of World War II. In fact, together the 11 men had served a total of 288 years of service by 1967.
Most of their careers began before the outbreak of World War II, all by the summer of 1943. Although none of them served together, their paths are undeniably linked. They even fought in many of the same battles.
Black himself enlisted in March 1941 at the age of 17. He saw the start of the war firsthand as a young seaman aboard USS Maryland (BB 46), which was moored along battleship row in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that fateful morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
Black served out the entire war aboard the Maryland, which earned seven battle stars, fighting at Midway, Tarawa, Kwajalein Atoll, Saipan, Leyte Gulf and Okinawa.
During another well-known battle of the Pacific Theater, the Battle of Guadalcanal, which lasted from August 1942 to February 1943. Sailors and Marines alike pushed back against the rising sun of the Empire of Japan, and Boatswain's Mate Calvin Baker helped take and defend the island. He was also part of the initial landing party at Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, in 1943 when U.S. and Allied forces ousted Japanese troops. Baker's valor in the Pacific island campaigns earned him three Presidential Unit Citations.
In another grueling battle, Soldiers and Sailors prepared to storm the volcanic black sand beaches of Iwo Jima in early 1945. During the ferocious fight that followed, Hospital Corpsman Arthur Abbey, who was serving with the 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, braved enemy small arms and mortar fire to assist with the evacuation of wounded service members from the landing beach. He received the Navy Commendation Medal for valor, and Marines described Abbey as "fearless."
His medal citation says Abbey "made four trips with wounded men across open terrain and, with complete disregard for his personal safety remained among the wounded casualties throughout the day to administer first aid and to direct their evacuation." He was wounded in the process, earning the Purple Heart and Presidential Unit Citation for his actions.
At the same time, Corpsman Frederic Andrews was off shore aboard the hospital ship USS Samaritan (AH 10), treating many of the 17,000 troops wounded on Iwo Jima.
Those casualties might have been higher had it not been for the 800 naval ships bombarding the island. Boatswain's Mate Garry Vandenberg was there, on the mine layer USS Howard (DMS 7). So was Sonar Technician John Robinson, aboard the destroyer USS Ammen (DD 527). Robinson had also guarded the Atlantic with the patrol gunboat USS Saint Augustine (PG 54).
Torpedoman Samuel Bledsoe also spent time in the Atlantic during World War II, sailing beneath the waves aboard the submarine USS Skipjack (SS 148).
He wasn't the only submariner to compete for the top enlisted job.
Torpedoman Samuel Bledsoe maintained the USS Torsk's (SS 423) torpedoes, which enabled Torsk to sink four enemy ships totaling 6000 tons. Bledsoe was then awarded the Bronze Star and Presidential Unit Citation for his actions on USS Queenfish (SS 393), which sank a Japanese aircraft carrier and rescued 18 British and Australian prisoners of war from a sinking transport ship. Bledsoe served aboard nine submarines with a total of 14 war patrols throughout World War II.
Not all of the first SEA candidates served aboard a ship, however. Aircraft Maintenanceman Harold Noe enlisted in June 1942 and reported to his first squadron, VB-144, flying 25 combat missions and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also served with a bombing squadron, acting as not only a tail gunner, but a mechanic, receiving four Air Medals for missions against Japanese forces in the Caroline, Marshall and Gilbert Islands.
Just two months after Noe enlisted, Avionics Technician Jack Candland joined the Navy ranks. While serving with Patrol Bomber Squadron 117, Candland earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with four gold stars. He served with four bomber squadrons in the South Pacific throughout the war.
The legacy of the first MCPON candidates continued into the Korean War as well. Gunner's Mate Peter De Hart had served aboard the battleship USS Idaho (BB 42) from 1936-1940, returning to active duty in 1943. In 1950, De Hart was stationed aboard the cruiser USS Rochester (CA 124) and took part in the bombardment of Inchon, Korea. By 1967, De Hart had spent 28 years in the Navy, serving on five cruisers, a battleship, two destroyers and one destroyer tender.
Boatswain's Mate Stanton Smith was at Inchon as well. He had first arrived at Naval Base Tutuila, Samoa, in July 1942, and served the first 21 years of his career overseas. In 1950, he served aboard the cargo ship USS Algol (AKA 54), which took part in the amphibious assault landings at Inchon. Smith returned to the continental United States in 1963, serving as an instructor at Fleet Training Group in San Diego, California.
Twenty-plus years after the war, an E-8 and E-9 selection board nominated these 11 men to take on the challenge of leading the Navy's enlisted ranks, later choosing three as finalists. The chief of naval personnel made the final decision.
Black served as the first MCPON from 1967 to 1971. During his tenure, he wrote the first forward for The Bluejacket's Manual - the basic handbook for Sailors and began a tradition of representing the Navy's enlisted force at the highest levels of government.
Black passed away, March 5, 2000 at the age of 77 and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. A half century after Black first took the office of the Navy's highest enlisted position, 13 men have passed the cutlass from one to the other. Master Chief Steven S. Giordano currenly holds this title as the Navy's 14th MCPON.