Formative Years and Early Naval Career
Richard was born on 9 May 1913 in the high desert town of Mountain Home, Idaho, the first of Milton and Anna Lucy McKenna’s four sons. His early years were marred by poverty, and when he was 14, his father abandoned the family. During Christmas vacation of Richard’s junior year in high school, the remaining McKennas were evicted from their five-acre hardscrabble farm when his mother could no longer make the mortgage payment. The family was forced to live in a tent while Anna Lucy broke horses and took in laundry until she could find a rental.
Highly intelligent, Richard developed a love of reading, libraries, and meeting unusual people. He was advanced a grade in his early school years and graduated high school in 1930 at the age of 17. Although he received a one-year scholarship to the the College of Idaho, he could not scrape up $50, the cost of the next year’s tuition. This was at the height of the Great Depression, when there were few jobs for young men from rural areas. As the oldest son, Richard decided he would help support his mother and brothers and joined the military. On 2 September 1931, he joined the ranks of the enlisted force of the Navy. One of the first things he did was to allot most of his pay to his mother.
McKenna’s impressive test scores after enlisting and finishing boot camp ensured his assignment to Hospital Corpsman School. After completing the course he reported to the naval hospital at Bremerton, Washington, in April 1932. Within five months he transferred to Mare Island. On 17 May 1933, spurred by a desire for sea duty and travel, he abandoned the quiet, clean environment of a hospital for the noisy, hot, greasy, and dangerous engineering work on board a ship.
McKenna reported to his first ship the USS Gold Star (AK-12), station ship for Guam, on 6 August 1933 and began striking (learning through on-the-job-training) for the rating of machinist’s mate. This proved the perfect assignment for a young, impressionable sailor who wanted to travel and learn about different cultures, as the Gold Star’s normal operations had four deployments each year that took her to the ports of Manila, Philippines; Shanghai and Hong Kong, China; and Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, and Miike, Japan.
McKenna quickly learned the skills of his rating and thrived on board the Gold Star. His steadily increasing evaluation marks indicate that senior petty officers and engineering officers recognized his abilities. He honed his observation skills, learned about the cultures he encountered in Asia, and studied the people he met, sailors and civilians alike. A former Gold Star sailor recalled how McKenna, known as “Mac” to his shipmates, would sit on the mess deck before arriving in Japan and educate anyone who was interested in its history. His regular audience grew, and even the commanding officer would drop by to listen.
Mac’s passion for reading never slackened, but most ships did not have many books on board. With his limited income he began frequenting used bookstores. This led to a storage problem, as space at sea was at a premium for enlisted men. Mac hid his books in the nooks and crannies of the engineering spaces, and he continued to do so for most of his naval career.
McKenna extended his enlistment and spent nearly four years on board the Gold Star. He developed a fascination with machinery and enjoyed the company of sailors who shared this passion. He left the Gold Star on 17 February 1937 as a petty officer second class (E-5) in the machinist’s mate rating—a remarkable feat during the Depression, known for its slow promotion years. He decided he would reenlist in the Navy if he could remain in Asia.
After a very short tour on a stateside ship, the Dobbin (AD-3), Machinist’s Mate Second Class McKenna returned to the China Station within the Asiatic Fleet. Many career sailors who desired duty in China wanted to serve on board the gunboats patrolling the Yangtze River. Bluejackets on the China Station sought to gain this duty by working transfers from other larger vessels in the Asiatic Fleet until eventually receiving orders to a river gunboat. McKenna successfully followed this routine: He served on board the Asheville (PG-21) and Edsall (DD-219) before finally arriving at the Luzon (PG-21) on 10 June 1939 at Shanghai, beginning duty in the Yangtze River Patrol. By this time, he had decided he wanted to follow the example of many career sailors in Asia before the United States entered World War II; he would retire in China.
International events interfered with these plans. McKenna could see great changes coming in Asia, and he took a transfer at the end of his tour on the China Station. When he left the Luzon in March 1941, he had spent seven years in Asian waters. He took the examination for chief petty officer (E-7), at the time the highest promotion a sailor could obtain in the enlisted force.
Returning to the Pacific Northwest, Machinist’s Mate First Class McKenna received orders to the troop transport Mount Vernon (AP-22), where he was given the long-awaited promotion. He spent all of World War II in this ship, shuttling troops across the Pacific and then across the Atlantic.
Not an Officer, But a Scholar
The time on board the Mount Vernon proved pivotal in Chief McKenna’s life. He realized the old days in Asia—along with his retirement plans—had vanished. He later said that “It was not a pleasant revelation” to know his “future was suddenly uncertain.” Furthermore, after his efforts to understand Japanese people and their culture, he was shocked to see the treatment of Japanese-Americans in California. These factors inspired him to return to a formal university education. He started a self-study program that included reading nonfiction and working correspondence courses until he became eligible for retirement at 20 years of active service. He also toyed with the idea of becoming a writer.
The year 1948 was another milestone in Chief McKenna’s life. His article titled “Post-War Chief Petty Officer: A Closer Look” won the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings’ Special Enlisted Prize Essay Contest. By this time, he had 17 years of naval service with 15 years at sea, largely in Asian waters. That same year, McKenna received his first shore duty since 1933 when he reported to the Navy’s Great Lakes Training Station and eventually was assigned to the public information office. Once again, he quickly impressed senior officers with his abilities—this time not machinery-related, but writing. As the executive officer of the station wrote in his evaluation of McKenna, “one could hardly expect” to see a machinist’s mate assigned there, as they “rarely have the qualifications useful in this field.” However, with no formal writing training, Chief Petty Officer McKenna proved “among the most versatile and valuable enlisted men observed” in the office—and this included “journalists specifically trained for the duties.” Moreover, the executive officer noted, “By ability and intelligence, although not by college degree, he is qualified for commission and is strongly recommended.”
Chief McKenna submitted his papers for retirement in 1951 and, in anticipation of a positive decision, had already enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the goal of becoming a writer. Once again, international events interfered. With the outbreak of the Korean War, Chief McKenna received an involuntary two-year extension. He once again went to sea, this time on board the Van Valkenburgh (DD-656), and saw combat off the Korean Peninsula. He retired at the end of the commitment on 15 March 1953. On the advice of Captain John S. Keating, with whom he had served at Great Lakes, McKenna enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, graduated with high academic honors, and married Eva Grice, a university librarian.
At the age of 40, McKenna began his writing career. He started in science fiction and then moved on to short fiction pieces based on his time in Asia. He was successful in both genres. In 1962 his monumental novel The Sand Pebbles, whose protagonist is an enlisted sailor on the Yangtze Patrol in the 1920s, was published to largely glowing reviews. It also won the Harper Prize. McKenna once wrote that his stories were part of his lived experiences; this is especially true of The Sand Pebbles and his short stories featuring sailors. He was working on his second novel, based on his Gold Star years, when he died of a heart attack on 1 November 1964 at the age of 51. Two years later, a film based on The Sand Pebbles was released to critical acclaim.
A Hero Nonetheless
Richard McKenna’s short life was not filled with heroic feats in combat. But, a voracious reader and keen observer, he took the time to educate himself, making him a role model to many sailors. On active duty, he could discuss books with the finesse of an English major, and he earned high scores in advanced mathematics correspondence courses. He also enjoyed poetry.
McKenna’s constant reading and intellectual curiosity set him apart from his peers, which could have resulted in his being shunned. But he never hesitated to join his fellow sailors at their usual haunts in port cities. He never flaunted his knowledge. If a bluejacket wanted information, he gave it freely and without arrogance. This made him well liked by his shipmates, and their acceptance meant he was free to interact with and observe them, experiences that informed his depictions of enlisted sailors in his writing. McKenna served as an enlisted sailor for 22 years. In his later letters, he did not hide the fact that he enjoyed going ashore to colorful-sounding establishments in China such as “Nagasaki Joe’s.” He also enjoyed the company of the Japanese and Chinese women he met on shore leave, and considered marrying one of them.
All of this would make it seem that McKenna was the epitome of the proverbial sailor, but his indomitable will to surmount adversity made him unique. The average person might well have given up. Not so McKenna. Despite an impoverished background, his native intelligence and determination allowed him to cultivate a love of learning and writing. His fascination with machinery, respect for others who enjoyed engineering, willingness to join shipmates in their adventures ashore, and desire to observe and learn other cultures also informed his writing.
While Chief McKenna focused largely on the enlisted force, his work applies to anyone in the military, but especially those in the Sea Services. Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, a longtime contributor to the Naval Institute Proceedings’ yearly listing of notable books, best summed up McKenna’s life and work as “a virtual training ground for those who must encounter other cultures in their travels, and a study in human character with a particular relevance to those who wear uniforms.” What Chief Petty Officer McKenna accomplished in his short life was to make a vast audience view the enlisted force of the Navy as recognizable people, no longer faceless, stereotyped non-entities. He richly deserves a place in the pantheon of naval heroes.
LTC Thomas J. Cutler, USN (Ret.), “A Dozen Navy Classics,” Naval History, vol. 22, no. 6 (December 2008), www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2008-12/dozen-navy-classics.
Frederick S. Harrod, Manning the New Navy: The Development of A Modern Enlisted Force, 1899–1940 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press 1978).
Thomas Heggen, Mister Roberts (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin: 1946).
Richard McKenna, selected and edited by Eva Grice McKenna and Shirley Graves Cochrane, New Eyes for Old: Nonfiction Writings by Richard McKenna (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1972).
Dennis L. Noble,“The China Sailor’s Homer,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 128, no. 4 (April 2002), 74–77.
Dennis L. Noble, The Eagle and the Dragon: The United States Military in China, 1901–1937, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990).
Kemp Tolley, Yangtze Patrol: The U.S. Navy in China (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984).
Correspondence Files, Richard McKenna Collection, Richard McKenna Charter High School, Mountain Home, Idaho.
Personnel Record, Richard M. McKenna, National Personnel Record Center, Courtesy of the U.S. Navy, St. Louis, Missouri.