Looking Back

By Paul Stillwell

Personnel then were quite low-priced by current standards. I think my first rate of pay as an enlisted man was something like $3 a day, plus a bunk and three meals. One consequence of the 1960s pay structure was that ships were manpower intensive and far less automated than those of the present day. Subsequent increases in the pay structure, and the enhanced opportunities for minorities and women, are definitely improvements over the Navy of 40-some years ago.

Another memory, though not directly related to the Navy, was the relative ease of air travel. In the late 1960s, by which time I was an officer, the airlines made it simple for military people to fly on leave or liberty. To get a flight, one just showed up at the airport not too long before flight time, presented an ID card, and bought a half-price ticket. After the passengers with reservations boarded, the rest of us flew in standby status. No screening at all—just walk aboard the airplane. That is a rosy memory indeed.

What brings all this to mind is the recent spate of changes in Navy uniforms. In the past few years, we have seen a dizzying array of wear tests and Fleet studies of various outfits. My own grumpy-old-timer reaction has been one of disappointment. I still look fondly on the traditional combination of white hat, jumper, neckerchief, and bell-bottom trousers. One of my lasting mental images is the pride I felt while marching at boot camp and seeing my moving shadow with the hat atop it.

When I see a Navy man or woman wearing the new combination of black trousers, khaki shirt, and nearly invisible metal collar devices, the look is no longer distinctively Navy. The individuals now seem anonymous. From a distance I used to be able to make a quick identification by looking at a rating badge and a batch of hash marks and service ribbons. The combination provided a mini-biography of an individual whom I would not know as an acquaintance but with whom I felt a brief connection as a fellow mariner.

The camouflage uniforms leave me even more stupefied. There are titles such as "woodland" and "desert" and "digital," sometimes in combination and apparently continuing to change. There is without any doubt a need for camouflage uniforms for special-warfare forces and for those serving in individual augmentation billets in Iraq and Afghanistan. But do we really need camouflage suits on board ship and on stateside shore stations ? One smiling Sailor recently gave a tongue-in-cheek explanation: The Navy suffers from "camouflage envy." When I attended a ship commissioning recently, security was provided by rifle-toting personnel in camouflage. When I got close enough, I could see that their breast-pocket labels read "U.S. Navy." The Marine Corps is concerned to make sure that all these new Navy designs don't encroach on its territory. Marines understandably take great pride in being distinctive.

Having said all that, I recognize that a number of the recent changes have been in response to expressed preferences of the currently serving Sailors—obviously an important consideration. They like the comfort of the new working uniforms. They like the ease of taking care of the black-and-khaki uniform. It reminds me of a conversation years ago with the late Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a Navy icon in the computer world. At that time the uniform in vogue was called "salt and pepper." It featured a white shirt and either black trousers or skirt. Hopper recounted that she had been chatting with a male officer while standing in an ATM line. She was complaining that white skirts or pants showed dirt too easily and needed to be cleaned more often than black ones. The man responded: "Oh, that's no problem. I just have my wife wash them."

Hopper wryly shot back, "I don't have a wife."

 

Mr. Stillwell is a contributing editor to Naval History

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