U.S. Navy enlisted personnel—unlike those in the other services—wear their jobs on their sleeves. A Marine machine-gunner wears similar collar rank as the rest of his fire team; unless you ask him, or see his military occupation in his file, one could never know his job specifics just by looking at his uniform.
Not so in the Navy.
Each job has its own unique title—such as Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Jones—and an insignia denoting the rating included on his or her uniform.
What makes the system so confusing is the constant creation of new jobs, the merging of jobs or eliminating them entirely as the service requires.
For example, in the last several years the Navy has created ratings for unmanned vehicle operators and cyber-warfare technicians while losing or merging jobs such as patternmaker and boiler technician.
The following is a collection of former Navy ratings (and one defunct officer rank) made mostly obsolete by advances in technology and occasionally by more modern stances on race, gender, and—at least in one case—child-labor norms.
Powder MonkeyThe name most likely comes from the boys’ ability to quickly scamper over and under obstacles on the cramped decks of a ship—like monkeys swinging through trees. They were usually given the rating of Boy, which actually referred to a sailor’s lack of experience at sea rather than his age (many newly recruited adults of slight stature also served as powder monkeys).
The Boy rate was disestablished in 1893 and the Navy became more strict about keeping underage sailors from joining crews. By World War I, shipboard elevators were commonly used to deliver shells to guns.
Chemical WarfaremanThey were trained to repair equipment, initiate decontamination procedures, and administer first aid to gas casualties. The first version of this rating was established in 1942 because of fears that the Japanese and Germans held large stockpiles of weaponized chemical agents. The rating was further refined after the war and existed until 1954, when the duties were consolidated and assigned to the rating of damage controlman.
Loblolly BoyIn a practice adopted from Britain’s Royal Navy, they were also responsible for feeding sick and wounded sailors a thick meat and vegetable porridge known as “loblolly,” which is how they earned their name. (Loblolly was also called by the utterly unappetizing name of “spoon meat.”) Loblolly boys remained until 1861, when the rating went through several name changes before evolving into hospital corpsman.
Admiral of the NavyIncidentally, two men have been made general of the armies—General John “Black Jack” Pershing (following WWI) and General George Washington (though he had been dead for 177 years when he received the promotion).
Airship RiggerThe airship crews included riggers who were responsible for maintaining the infrastructure of the dirigible and repaired any tears in the gas cells or skin. Used to escort convoys in the Atlantic during World War II, the airships proved to be an effective deterrent to submarine attacks but were superseded by advances in heavier-than-air planes as well as radar and sonar.
The airship rigger rating was disestablished in 1948 and the entire airship program was abandoned in 1961. However, airships were resurrected in 2011 when the Navy again began to experiment with them as surveillance platforms.
International Business Machine (IBM) OperatorWith a need to better calculate gun trajectories, ensure accurate accounting, and handle mass logistics, the Navy turned to IBM tabulating equipment during WWII. The move gave birth to the rating of International Business Machine operator. The rating only existed for about a year before it was it changed to the generic but even more unwieldy name of punched-card accounting machine operator, but IBM continued to develop new products for the Navy. In 1944, IBM introduced the nation’s first large-scale electromechanical calculator (the automated sequence controlled calculator or the “Harvard Mark I”) that was used by the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships. The operator rating went through several transformations until becoming the current information systems technician.
Jack of the Dust
Aviation Carpenter’s Mate
Coal HeaverTons upon tons of coal.
Coal heavers came into service in 1842 and hauled coal from a ship’s bunker to the boiler furnaces. A coal heaver could make up to 50 trips a day with a full bucket weighing about 140 pounds. Since it was hot, dirty and dangerous work, the members of the “black gang” received substantially higher pay than other sailors. In 1893, the rating was changed to the less strenuous sounding (but probably equally backbreaking and dirty) coal passer. The duties were incorporated into the rating of fire 3c in 1917.