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By Richard Gaines
October 18, 1998
Every once in a while the subject of the old rank structure (E-1 thru E-7) will come up, usually by a Marine who was just coming into the Corps around the time (1959) of the transition from the old to the new rank structure; newer Marines not having any knowledge of it at all. At the time, it was a source of confusion to us, and it must have been even more so for new people just coming into the Corps at the time of the implementation of this change.
Here's what I recall of it. I was a staff sergeant three times. I made SSgt on Okinawa in 1957, then I became an Acting SSgt (E-5) some time, I guess, between July of '58 and July '59. Finally, I made SSgt again under the new rank structure in 1962.
The old rank structure (without the crossed rifles in the chevrons) consisted of pay grades E-1 thru E-7 -- Pvt, Pfc, Cpl, Sgt, SSgt, TSgt (Technical Sgt--but, usually referred to as Gunny) and MSgt. (MSgts filled the billets as 1stSgt/SgtMaj in each unit.) The new, and present, rank structure consisted of pay grades E-1 thru E-9 adding the rank titles of LCpl, 1stSgt, MGySgt and SgtMaj--with the new chevrons with the crossed rifles.
We did NOT just get up one morning and put on the new chevrons when the rank structure changed. There was a transition period where we continued to wear, for several years, the old chevrons until promoted. However, our rank title was changed to the use of the word Acting preceeding your rank, and followed by the paygrade. For instance, a Cpl would then be known as Acting Cpl (E-3), a Sgt as Acting Sgt (E-4), etc. And so we had, all at one time, both Acting Cpl (E-3) and Cpl (E-4), Acting SSgt (E-5) and SSgt (E-6) and so on up and down the line.
Most of the lower ranking NCOs disliked the new system--we pretty much were happy with things as they were--but nobody much liked the idea of just putting on the new chevrons either, which would seemingly drop us down a rate. Especially we SSgts who would apparently lose our SNCO status. The trasnsistion period involved some confusion as even some commanding officers did not agree on the interpretation of directives involving the transition period. I recall one case where an Acting SSgt (E-5) had been reduced one grade by his CO to Cpl (E-4). This bust was soon overturned by higher authority, but the Marine was reinstated, not to SSgt (E-5), but to Sgt (E-5). But other commands handled certain cases differently.
Most of us were promoted again prior to the cutoff date of the transition period, and so that solved the problem for us. But there were some who were not promoted in time and were required to revert to the new rank structure at the time of the cutoff date, late 1962 or '63, I think. Just prior to the cutoff date, however, provisions were made in that former SSgts (E-5) would retain their SNCO privileges (although then wearing the new sergeant chevrons) but I know that this did not always work out that way for those concerned. Again, everybody had a different perception as to what the directives said and meant.
In my opinion, the one lasting problem caused by the rank structure change was that Marines tended to begin referring to one another by paygrades rather than rank title ( originally, just to simlify things, if anything). But this trend apparently stuck, despite efforts then and there to stop it. I had thought that this was by now a problem long gone. Not so.
Not that long ago I was seated in BurgerKing (or whatever) at the MCX complex at Camp Pendleton. I happened to hear, to my amazement, some young Marines at a nearby table referring to other Marines as "that E-4", and/or "that E-5." This really surprised me, the original cause of this lingo being so long gone and apparently forgotten. But habits die hard.
This reminded me of something that happened back in the '50s when things had gotten a bit lax just after the Korean war when all the "draftees" had just left the Corps, etc. Then General Randolph McCall Pate became CMC, he quickly put out a directive requiring Marines to use strict Naval terminology--e.g., walls would again be referred to as bulkheads, floors as decks, etc. That, and a few other things, did the trick; discipline was soon back to peacetime standards. But, like I said, habits die hard, and if you're not careful some things can almost become tradition.
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