In 1948, Chief Machinist’s Mate Richard McKenna had a bone to pick with the Navy. Postwar personnel assignment policies—probably made inevitable by massive adjustments in the wake of a global war—were having a deleterious effect on the morale and consequently on the performance of chief petty officers in the Fleet. Admitting that his preliminary research was “confined to general conversation over the coffee cups in a half-dozen CPO messes during the past two years,” McKenna decided that it was time to give those messes a voice. Taking pen in hand, he wrote an essay titled “The Post-War Chief Petty Officer: A Closer Look” and submitted it to the Naval Institute.
Chief McKenna’s essay was chosen as an Enlisted Prize Essay winner and was published in the December 1948 issue of Proceedings. In retrospect, this was not a surprising outcome.
As a young boy, McKenna had haunted the library in his home town in Idaho, reading nearly every book and even persuading the librarian to give him first crack at newly arriving ones. His mother did not share nor understand his bibliophilia, limiting his habit to two books per week, a decree he nearly always ignored.
With the Great Depression in full swing, McKenna joined the Navy in 1931 to support his mother and two younger brothers. On board ship, he lined the bottom of his bunk with magazines and squirreled away books in every conceivable nook. Like most addicts, his habit would not be denied, so when the key to the ship’s library bookcase was lost, he kicked in the glass.
Richard McKenna was not the only sailor who liked to read, and while enlisted authors were not common to Proceedings in that era, he was not the only enlisted man to appear in the open forum this magazine provides. But he was unquestionably an iconoclast and destined to do things a bit differently from most of his peers.
His service in the Navy included duty on a troop transport during World War II and a destroyer during the Korean War. On liberty, his excursions ashore often included a careful reconnaissance in search of secondhand bookstores, and he unabashedly admitted that English poetry kept his mind alive.
On retiring from the Navy in 1953, he went to college, graduating from the University of North Carolina with (no surprise here) a degree in English. Continuing this emerging theme, he then married one of the university librarians and settled down with her in Chapel Hill to translate all of that reading into tangible writing. Several of his short stories were published in the Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, and other magazines, but it was in 1962 that his literary obsession and his naval experience came together in what would become a classic naval novel. Set in 1926 China on the eve of revolution, when U.S. Navy gunboats patrolled the Yangtze River to protect American missionaries and to show the flag, The Sand Pebbles was awarded the coveted Harper Prize, kept station on The New York Times bestseller list for seven months, and was made into a classic motion picture starring Steve McQueen as the machinist-mate protagonist, Jake Holman.
Unfortunately for the literary world and for sailors who appreciate really fine “sea stories,” McKenna passed away in 1964 from a heart attack—only 51 years old—while writing his second novel.
Comparisons to the likes of Jack London and Ernest Hemingway are likely deserved, but to those of us whose blood runs with an extra dose of salt, the very first line of The Sand Pebbles says it all. How does one put down a book that begins with: “Hello, ship.”