Above: Delbert D. Black, an Arleigh Burke-class Flight IIA guided-missile destroyer, named for the service’s first Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) was commissioned on September 26, 2020.
Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite observed: “Commissioning a ship after the first Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy is an honor without equal. The Navy has always been and will always be indelibly influenced by the leadership of our senior enlisted sailors epitomized by Delbert Black.” Built at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., USS Delbert D. Black will be homeported at Mayport, Fla. In recognition of the Navy’s first MCPON, Thursday Tidings has asked Retired Master Chief Jim Leuci for a short overview of MCPON Black’s pathbreaking tenure.
Delbert Defrece Black was born in Orr, Oklahoma on July 11, 1922. He was the youngest of nine children. On March 15, 1941, Delbert D. Black enlisted in the U. S. Navy as an Apprentice Seaman (AS). Assigned to the USS Maryland he witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor:
The view of the harbor was burning oil and smoke, rescues,…USS Oklahoma was tied up alongside Maryland, she capsized and after the raid was over it was a matter of trying to get those people out of the Oklahoma…you could hear the banging on the inside but you couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
Maryland, despite being hit by two bombs, was raised and refloated. The battleship transited to Puget Sound Navy Yard for repairs and modernization arriving on 30 December, 1941. By the end February 1942, USS Maryland returned to the fleet for active service. Black remained with Maryland throughout the war, advancing as a Gunners Mate. After the war he had successive tours in USS Doyle C. Barnes (DE 353), USS Gardiners Bay (AVP 39), USS Boxer (CV 21) ; USS Antietam CV 36. Finally in 1949 he received orders for shore duty in Washington, DC as a drill master in the Seaman Guard, now known as the Navy Ceremonial Guard. There he met Ima J. Nesmith–they were married on December 16, 1949. Ima served in the Navy (1943-1947). She was a Storekeeper First Class at the time of her discharge.
Del Black’s first stateside shore duty was cut short by the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. In July 1950, he was transferred to Ship’s Repair Facility, Yokosuka Japan on a very-short notice unaccompanied tour. He remained in Japan until August 1953 when he transferred back to Washington, DC to attend Gunner’s Mate “B” school. Upon graduation he headed back to sea in successive tours in USS Brush (DD 745); USS Carpenter (DDE 825); and USS Norfolk (DL 1)In April 1958 he reported to Naval Training Center, Bainbridge, MD to attend Recruiter’s school and then he served on a three-year tour of recruiting duty in Shelbyville and Columbia, TN. He made Chief on September 16, 1959 while on recruiting duty.
In 1961, Chief Black returned to sea duty aboard USS Springfield (CLG 7), the U. S. Sixth Fleet Flagship homeported in Marseilles, France. He was appointed as a Senior Chief Gunner’s Mate on November 16, 1963. Senior Chief Black served aboard Springfield for over three years until in January 1965. In 1965 when he was transferred to USS Independence (CVA 62), just in time to deploy to WESTPAC–Vietnam. During the cruise he was promoted to Master Chief. He left USS Independence in April 1966 for shore duty at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center in Dam Neck, VA. Initially he worked as a gunnery-line instructor but within two weeks of reporting, he became the base Chief Master at Arms at Dam Neck.
Looking for a Leading Chief of the Navy
In February 1966, the results of a SECNAV Retention Task Force findings were published. The results contained 115 recommendations to improve the quality of life of naval personnel. One of the recommendations was to establish a billet for the “Leading Chief Petty Officer of the Navy.”The position of the Senior Enlisted Advisor (SEA) of the Navy was created as a result of a study conducted in the mid-1960s looking for ways to improve retention and quality of life of Sailors beyond their first enlistment. At the time, the retention of “first-termers” hovered around 10%. The establishment of the position SEA was considered long-overdue by many Sailors but by others it was simply a waste of time and manpower. Delbert Black would serve as the first MCPON through March, 1971 under three Chiefs of Naval Operations (CNOs).
Nominated for SEA
In September 1966, the initial selection process of the SEA began with the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BuPers) soliciting packages for nominees currently serving both afloat and ashore. Ten candidates were to be selected by the E8/E9 Selection board from the nominee packages received by BuPers.
Master Chief Black was stationed at Dam Neck serving as the Chief Master at Arms. When the ALNAV message came out announcing the establishment of the SEA position he was in the Portsmouth Naval Hospital recovering from an appendectomy. His nomination package was prepared by two Lieutenants and a Master Chief Yeoman. The package was approved by his Commanding Officer but it got delayed in the mail and actually missed the cutoff date for submission. However, his package was included with the original ten finalists selected by the E8/E9 Selection board.
The eleven packages were reviewed and the final selection made by a panel consisting of a rear admiral, two captains and a lieutenant commander appointed by the Chief of Naval Personnel. (AH 196703) In the end, the board unanimously selected Master Chief Black as the Navy’s first Senior Enlisted Advisor. He was 44 years old had only been a master chief for thirteen months. When asked why he was selected over the other ten other master chiefs, Black speculated that:
… I think what they were looking for was they wanted the experience of someone who has stood all the watches, had been through combat situations, stood the deck watches, stood the wheel watches, and I had been a chief master at arms on a big carrier and the sixth fleet flagship. So I had the background of dealing with flag officers. I had the background of looking after your people throughout the years. The family came in there too because there was a strong write up of what we did and Ima was involved with it in France. So family was very important…Also I was a CMAA, knew military (rules and regulations), been thru Pearl Harbor, Korea, and Vietnam. Understood shipboard duty and recruiting duty and representing the Navy to the Public (via a) 3-man recruiting station…
1967 Appointed Senior Enlisted Advisor of the Navy
Master Chief Gunner’s Mate Black was appointed Senior Enlisted Advisor (SEA) of the Navy by the Chief of Naval Personnel (CNP), Vice Admiral Benedict J. Semmes Jr., on Friday, January 13, 1967. The appointment ceremony took place at Recruit Training Center (RTC), San Diego, CA. RTC was symbolic of Master Chief Black’s rise through the ranks. Twenty-six years earlier, in March 1941, Apprentice Seaman Delbert D. Black, USN arrived at RTC San Diego for basic training–now he was the top enlisted Sailor in the Navy.
The SEA appointment letter in part stated:
…In carrying out the duties of this important office, you will be specifically responsible for advising the Chief of Naval Personnel on matters affecting the morale, retention, career enhancement and general well-being of enlisted personnel of the Navy…
1967 NO GO with CNO
MCPON Black was an advisor to CNP. He probably assumed that he’d be working with and for the CNO, Admiral David L. McDonald. However, he soon found out that wasn’t to be the case. In their only meeting, on March 7, 1967, the CNO told SEA Black that he “never believed in the establishment of the SEA office and told him to “do anything you want to.”
Years later, MCPON Black described his early days in the job as:
I started from scratch as MCPON. No precedence for the role of the MCPON…when I first came up here, I had to feel my way around–who do I work with and who do I work for and I let the CNP know I didn’t work for him and I felt if I did, I wouldn’t be able to do my job–and he agreed.
Within a few months the name of the office was changed from SEA to MCPON after a meeting with Congressman Mendel Rivers in order to conform to similar positions of the Sergeant Major of the Army and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps… (The change) was in a bill where pay was changed from pro-pay to basic pay…uniform allowance…transportation…
Since CNO McDonald did not support the establishment office of the MCPON. That sentiment proliferated down through the officer corps and the chief’ community. Some “old-time” chief petty officers were critical of the concept and considered the MCPON as a “politician socializing with the admirals.” However, many senior officers were cautiously supportive of the SEA concept but still waiting to see how things would work out. MCPON Black mused that initially senior officers had to tolerate him.
The office of MCPON was not in the Pentagon. It was located a mile away at the Navy Annex which was up the hill from the Pentagon and adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery–it would remain there for over forty years. He remembered the early days and the first program he wanted to start as:
…when I went to Washington I was sitting up there in that office and I had no one to contact in the fleet or shore station–no one. If I wanted to find out something, I had to just go out and talk to people. So as I started out, one of the first programs I wanted to get started was a line of communications with each command in the Navy. So when anything come up, I would be able to pick up the phone and say get me “so and so….
…one of the hardest jobs up there was convincing the COs that whenever I’d go anywhere, that they should appoint a senior enlisted advisor to whom I could come with in case they had a problem…I said I’m not here to put you on report, I’m not here to cause trouble, if I find anything wrong you’ll be the first to know…but I’d certainly like, in case you have problems later have someone I could communicate with…
That is how the senior enlisted advisor program started and that’s how it developed into the command master chief and force and fleet master chief programs…That program I think has done the Navy more good than any I’ve seen since I’ve been in the Navy…
MCPON did have many supporters, many in the Congress including: Congressman Mendel Rivers, Russ Blandford (River’s legal assistant), Senator Stennis, Congressman Albert, Bob Noland (Fleet Reserve Association FRA), Retired Officer’s Association.
Since he didn’t have the full support of the CNO, MCPON Black went to civilian leadership of the Navy for support. He started with Assistant Secretary of the Navy (for Manpower and Reserve Affairs) James D. Hittle …”and I let him know what I’d like to do, what help I needed and he said, let’s do it.“
Black “spent the first few months in the office reading letters and getting briefed…when I went out into the fleet, I was the spokesman and I had to know what I was talking about…” Initially, many of the concerns brought to his attention in the form of letters and phone calls from Sailors–many dealing with personal problems.
Initially, MCPON Black began travelling to visit the fleet and shore establishments, mostly alone. However, wasn’t long before he was travelling with the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the Navy Inspector General, and later the Secretary of the Navy. He put it this way:
…Secretary of the Navy Nitze asked me to travel with him…he asked me, I didn’t ask him…I eventually travelled with (SECNAV) Chaffee quite a lot. Those were times when to get things done–and the only way to get them done was through them…
MCPON Black estimated that he spent about 75% of his time in office travelling throughout the fleet. In 1967 there was no formal senior enlisted structure within the Navy. He had no official contacts to communicate with the fleet–there was no command master chief program except in submarines–Chief of the Boat (COB).In 1967, the role of the MCPON was not fully understood by fleet commanders. On a few occasions, while visiting a Navy command, he’d be scheduled to speak only to the officers instead of the enlisted Sailors. There was also a concern that he would report any problems or “dirt” back to Washington.
When asked “(Initially) how did the Fleet react when you came out?” He replied,
It (the office) was accepted by those who had been reading the periodicals that had been putting out the information on the office and it was accepted very good…but then of course you had the critics…what can a chief petty officer do up there?…and it was overcoming these nay-sayers and getting their cooperation…that became the challenge.
So I went out with the purpose of letting them know that I was working for them…and whatever they wanted, to let me know… and eventually they more or less thought that you’re not up there for political gain or anything…so you’re really interested in us and what we want…
…the impression that I tried to leave no matter where I went…was that the enlisted personnel were the most important part of the job…and if anything was going on that involved and affected the enlisted personnel I wanted to be part of and have my input…I took quite some time but the farther along we got the more you would see the turnout to be there and the questions where changing…less bitching and a lot more questions of substance to get things changed not on a personal basis but things that affected the entire Navy…
1968-70 New CNO New Role for MCPON
In September 1967 Admiral Thomas H. Moorer became CNO. The new CNO was fully supportive of the MCPON and interested in improving the quality of life of enlisted Sailors. From that time on through the present, the MCPON has worked for the CNO and as an advisor to CNP. Admiral Moorer served as CNO through June 1970 when he was selected to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff–the first naval officer to hold that position since 1957. Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., relieved Moorer as CNO and served in that position until July 1, 1974.Establishing lines of communication with the fleet was one of the MCPON’s first objective. During his tenure he made 3 trips to Vietnam. He travelled overseas to remote places where Sailors were stationed such as Adak, Alaska. He even went to Antarctica to visit deployed Sailors in Operation Deep Freeze. MCPON Black communicated to the fleet through articles and occasional interviews in All Hands Magazine. (27:35 Direct line 1991 2B)
Getting the Ball Rolling
Seniority by Precedence Abolished: One of the first policies that MCPON Black influenced was the Navy policy of determining seniority, for military matters, based on rating precedence. Seniority was based on a Sailors rating. The Navy maintained a list of all ratings in numerical order of seniority. Seniority by precedence, as it was called was not based on time-in-rate (TIR) and most Sailors did not know where their rating stood in “the pecking order.” MCPON Black was influential in getting that policy cancelled, replacing it with the TIR policy we have today.
Enlisted representation on boards: In the late sixties, enlisted personnel were generally officially not involved in shaping Navy policy. Enlisted men did not sit on the Navy Uniform Board or the Navy Exchange Board. The E8/E9 selection board’s voting members were all officers–the master chiefs had no vote. Black pushed for enlisted representation “in every function that has to do with enlisted personnel…”
CPO Screening Boards: He also was critical about the “good ole boy” network and poor performance by chief petty officers. As he put it:
We had a problem in those days in Chiefs community–10% of chiefs doing 90% of bitching and none of the work and that’s why I started the CPO screening board. We got rid of a few of quite a few of them and the word got around…we went back and started screening records–so many records a year…and if their record wasn’t “up to snuff” then they received a letter (from CNP) that they better get on the ball…if their proficiency wasn’t up to standards…and that cleared out a lot of your deadwood…you got a bunch of them out of the Chiefs community…
Focus On Families: MCPON Black also focused on Navy policy for families. Del and Ima Black had been involved in family matters for many years. When MCPON Black’s nomination package contained an endorsement by his commanding officer, Captain H. J. Stansell commenting on Ima stating:
GMCM and Mrs. Black have been married for 17 years and have on son, age 9 years. Mrs. Black actively participates in civic and church affairs. Presently, she is active in Cub Scouts and teaches Sunday school at the Plaza Baptist Church, Virginia Beach, Virginia. She is the former President of the Enlisted Wives Club of the USS Independence. According to GMCM Black’s service record, while stationed with the Sixth Fleet, Mrs. Black presented to the European Community one of the finest examples of American good-neighbor policy. During this period they were both noted for their ability as splendid leaders of the enlisted community in all activities ashore…
Ombudsman and Sponsorship programs: In the late 1960s, the old adage “if the Navy wanted you to have a wife, they’d have issued one to you with your seabag” was still the attitude of some naval personnel. There was no official Sponsorship or Ombudsman programs. Families often had to rely upon themselves to find housing and schools for their children. Ima Black did not have any official role, such as Ombudsman at Large, that the MCPON’s spouse is today. Ima described the situation as”……I was still only his wife…the wives were not supposed to participate…I was his wife and that was it…I had no function as the wife of the Master Chief of the Navy…” She didn’t travel with Del
…because they couldn’t go because justify me flying on that plane…I did not go…I was respected…if we went to some function I sat at the head table with him…I had no function, that all evolved later…Actually, I think it began with Zumwalt…he recognized the families…we were invited to the CNO’s house for some social functions.
Quality of Life for Sailors: Admiral Zumwalt became CNO during Del’s last 10 months in office. Del generally supported the changes Zumwalt championed to improve conditions for enlisted personnel. However, he was less supportive of the way the CNO communicated with the fleet via Z-Grams stating:
Zumwalt, with his Z-Grams, improved quality of life…allowed beards, mustaches and long hair…civilian fads at the time…”doing my own thing”… The downside was not what was done but how it was done…felt we lost control of the chain of communications/chain of command. The Z-Grams were getting out to the ships and to the crew before the CO would see them…”it was most unusual and certainly not in the best interest of how our Navy was to be run”…”the old timers weren’t ready for such a drastic change so rapidly. If it had been phased in over a longer period of time and had been handled differently I don’t think you would have saw that much resistance to it…
…A lot of recommendations “kicked around” before Admiral Zumwalt took over (in 1970). …Biggest concern on his operation was not on what was implemented but on the speed and direction which bypassed a lot of people–chain of command. He’s send out those Z-Grams and they’d go everywhere. “That was one of the big disagreements I had with him.” Also, I “didn’t go along with the haircuts and beards.”
Master Chiefs as voting members on E8/E9 Boards: One of the last official acts was influencing a change in policy that future E8/E9 selection boards would be comprised of officers and master chiefs as full participating members. Admiral Zumwalt announced, in Z-Gram 80 (Z-80) two weeks before Black retired that
during his tenure as Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, his efforts on behalf of Navymen and their wives and families have helped improve every facet of Navy Life…he leaves behind a Navy which he helped to better…
MCPON Black retired on April 1, 1971, after thirty years of service. He and his family moved to Orlando, Florida. He and Ima remained involved with the Navy after he retired through the Fleet Reserve Association and USO and the CPO community. He continued to visit and speak Navy commands and CPO messes. He worked and advised MCPONs helping to shape policy affecting enlisted personnel.
The Navy is and always will be a part of my family. I never consider myself retired from the Navy, just less active. Anything I can do to help Sailors, it is my privilege to do, and I always will. MCPON Black died on March 5, 2000 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.