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A matter of rank

April 29 2009 at 6:49 PM
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Nelson  (no login)

Response to USN flag officers: Part II. Admirals Wiley, Binford, Talbot, and Parker


I shall try to address these two points as far as my knowledge--such as it is--allows, but be forewarned about grave limitations in both degree and extent. On the always difficult matter of rank, I did consult a friend who is more familiar with the numeroso vicissitudes, only to be told simply that rank is confusing (really helpful). So....

Robert (and Jim):

Rank is a mess, because in both military and naval service, there were (and are) regular, brevet, militia (in military service later differentiated as Army of the United States versus U.S. Army), temporary, and even unit ranks, such that it has been possible for an officer to hold three different ones at, for all intent, the same time. Even when regular, i.e., mostly service-academy-educated, officers were promoted, their new rank was not permanent for a period of some years (two familiar examples below). Admirals who were assigned command of fleets were "fleeted up" in special recognition of fleet command...and so they would be equivalent to fleet commanders of other navies, friendly and not so friendly, with whom they would interact on distant stations. When it was time for such admirals to sail a desk and for other admirals to get such command experience (a wise policy against the day when, as at Guadalcanal, two admirals were KIA and needed replacement pronto by admirals fully qualified for combat sea duty), they got "fleeted down" from that temporary rank.

I think we see a similar sort of thing with Commander Paul Talbot, recently ComDesDiv 59, Asiatic Fleet, when a bit later as XO aboard USS WEST POINT and promoted to the rank of captain (but NOT to the position of ship's captain) on June 17, 1942, but still designated as commander in the WEST POINT's newsletter of July 4, 1942. Of course, there are a number of sound explanations for this discrepancy, including the ship had not yet received word of his promotion or the Bureau of Personnel (previously the responsibility of the Bureau of Navigation) being behind in its notifications, either one perfectly reasonable. But I personally believe that his promotion was either delayed until he had left the ship for new assignment, so to keep the exec junior to the skipper, who held the rank of captain, or it was back-dated after he had left the ship for much the same reason.

I could go on, but in direct response to your question about rank bump-up at retirement as a result of winning an award for valor, I have only a partial answer for a specific time period: World War II and the several years postwar. The policy then in place was that an officer (and perhaps enlisted ranks, too) who had during war conditions received--not merely recommended for--an award for valor, as countenanced by the/an appropriate executive board, would be promoted one rank upon retirement from active service. Now that having been written, there do appear to be both strict guidelines in the prosecution of that policy as well as exceptions thereto. I do NOT know what specific medals qualified for sufficient valor under said guidelines, other than the obvious ones of Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, likely Silver Star, etc., to bump up one rank at retirement. What is shown by the Navy Registers before the list of retired officers disappears ca. late 1950s is that, for example, most captains retired at that rank, but those who had received, for example, the Navy Cross, were promoted to rear admiral on the retired list because of that award for valor and are SO NOTATED in the Register, including Captains Herbert Wiley and Paul Talbot, boosted to rear admirals upon retirement. Similarly, Rear Admiral Thomas Binford, as a recipient of the Navy Cross, was promoted to vice admiral on the retired list.

Now there appear to be caveats on both ends of the spectrum. (1) I think this elevation to the next rank ended with the rank of vice admiral, such that the four-star and the ultra-rare five-star ranks remained sacrosanct (= they must have been EARNED in active service). After all, Vice Admiral Edward N. Parker, the recipient of three Navy Crosses for extreme courage, made it to vice admiral "on his own" (i.e., during active service in the U.S. Navy), but was NOT further promoted at retirement or death, according to info I was able to garner from the Navy Registers and tombstone info that Jim Broshot provided (thanx Jim). Admittedly, I'm doing a lot of guessing on this point, and see below. (2) From more casual information that I have, this strict policy of promoting an officer to the next rank for valor alone seems to have been relaxed in more recent years, and thus officers who performed valuable non-combat service or were well regarded (or even well liked!) were given retirement promotions (and the practical advantage in augmented retirement pay hardly needs mention). One possible example is that of Herbert V. Wiley, who seems to have exhausted his valor promotion to that of rear admiral, but in more than one source is indicated as (the late) Vice Admiral Herbert Wiley (which may of course be in error).

There is also the matter, alluded to above, of temporary versus permanent increase in rank. After the end of WWII, even academy grads and medal winners had to obey the same rules. Two examples: Thomas Binford was promoted to rear admiral on March 1, 1948, but retained the permanent rank of captain until sometime in 1952, when his permanent rank became rear admiral. Upon his retirement in June 1954, he was promoted to vice admiral on the basis of gallantry in action, but his active rank is still noted as rear admiral. Similarly, Edward Parker, promoted to rear admiral on September 1, 1952, but retained his permanent rank of captain until 1956. Now he was promoted to vice admiral on August 19, 1960, assumedly with the permanent rank of rear admiral, and retired in 1963. It thus could be that no valor promotions were permitted above the rank of vice admiral, as I suggested previously, OR Parker was simply "promoted" to the permanent rank of vice admiral upon retirement and that was considered sufficient. Don't want to fool anyone, however, that I know what I'm talking about here, because these questions of rank continue to confuse me greatly. Anyone wants to pitch in and tell me I know not from where I speak (or write), fine by me.


I do hear what you're saying about the confusion wrought on the service academies (and the necessity for early commissions) by the needs of World War I. I know a great deal more about what happened at West Point. Early on, after we declared war on Germany in April 1917, the upper classmen (juniors and seniors) were commissioned, and several months later, the yearlings and plebes were similarly commissioned. The reality is that once someone is commissioned and does good and honorable service, he (or currently she) is not uncommissioned. The survivors from the war Over There were brought back to the USMA as commissioned students, now wearing U.S. Army officers' garb, but with a distinctive orange hat band (and thus nicknamed orioles). There were rules peculiar to the post-WWI years that governed their conduct toward instructors while back at the Point, and the conduct of new cadets, initially plebes of course, toward the orioles. That decision, made by a hard-nosed Chief of Engineers (in those years who had charge of the USMA), was not popular, but of course was absolutely necessary to complete the education of young army officers who at that point in their careers were mostly combat savvy. During the next war, the academies were not stripped of their students and they continued in pretty much normal fashion (as far as I know), graduating their classes in standard order. I know much less about the naval academy during WWI, so perhaps you will expand a bit more on it. For one thing, were the midshipmen given early commissions, as were the cadets at the Point?

While I acknowledge the mess the war caused, and the prolonging of regular graduation dates, I must ask if the dates you provided for the officers under discussion are correct, because those dates differ from those in other published sources. I have noted that in those days, most midshipmen (and cadets) graduated at age 21 or 22 under normal circumstances, given that a lot of guys graduated from HS a year earlier than in subsequent times (for one thing, as kindergarten became a reality in American schools). Specifically, are you certain that Herbert Wiley graduated from the USNA in 1915, at the age of 24? After all, World War I would hardly have affected academy graduation dates in the U.S. that early. On your side, however, I have long noted that Thomas Binford, a year younger than Paul Talbot, nonetheless graduated from Annapolis a year after Talbot, which I have heretofore believed to be the result of when each was appointed to the USNA.

As I have writ, most confuzin' all around, and I think I have only some of the answers.


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  • ooops - Nelson on Apr 29, 2009, 8:36 PM
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