Move to scrap beloved US Navy titles tossed overboard

Malaysian businessman Leonard Francis -- dubbed "Fat Leonard" is at the center of a corruption and bribery case to ensure US Navy ships stopped at ports where his firm operated (AFP Photo/Paul J. RICHARDS) (AFP/File)

Washington (AFP) - The US Navy is keeping its yeomen, boatswain's mates and masters-at-arms.

The quartermasters and legalmen will stick around too, not to mention the hospital corpsmen.

After months of withering criticism from rank and file, officials on Wednesday announced a course reversal from an earlier decision to scrap the storied tradition of calling enlisted sailors by their naval occupations.

The contentious move in September was supposed to unite sailors under a simple ranking structure to remove the baffling array of titles -- known as ratings -- and make various job names sound less gendered.

Whereas other troops in the military have relatively easy-to-recognize ranks, such as private, corporal or sergeant, the Navy had stuck to its own system dating back centuries.

It currently has 89 different ratings, many going back to America's youngest days.

For instance, boatswain's mate and gunner's mate formally started in 1794, though the titles are borrowed from Britain's far older Royal Navy.

A boatswain (pronounced bosun) is responsible for the handling of equipment and cargo on a ship's deck.

More modern titles include cryptologic technician and aircrew survival equipmentman.

When Navy Secretary Ray Mabus first announced the changes, he said it was to help expand sailors' opportunities so they weren't pigeon-holed by rating titles.

He also argued sailors leaving the Navy would find it easier to explain to land-lubber civilian bosses what their rank and responsibilities were.

Reaction could hardly have been more negative.

- Political correctness? -

Sailors take pride in their ratings and were aghast at the thought of losing them.

Many complained the move was political correctness gone mad -- because women now can serve in any job in the US military, services have been looking for gender-neutral titles.

"If the Navy would not have bowed to the Political Correct BS. This would not have happened," wrote Facebook user Richard Fauble, who said he was a proud former naval air-traffic controller.

"The military is not a social experiment, it is a fighting force. It is also not a touchy feely humanitarian effort."

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson acknowledged protests had been a dominant theme of conversations with sailors, and had become a distraction.

"We have learned from you, and so effective immediately, all rating names are restored," he said in a statement.

Senior Republican Senator John McCain welcomed the move and said Richardson had made the "right decision."

"Revoking these titles, many of which have been a part of the Navy's identity for centuries, defied basic common sense and distracted from the real challenges confronting the men and women serving in our Navy," McCain said.

While ratings titles will remain -- at least for now -- officials stressed the Navy would forge ahead with broader modernizations to its personnel systems and make career paths more flexible.

And Richardson did not rule out revisiting ratings titles in the future.

"We must not shy away from adapting to meet the needs of a 21st century Navy -- including the way we manage our people," the Navy's Chief of Personnel Vice Admiral Robert Burke said.

In a Christmas message announcing the reversal Wednesday, Richardson said the move reflected a willingness to learn from enlisted sailors of all stripes (and ratings).

"I guess the bottom line is we are going to preserve all the good, we are going to throw all the distractions overboard and we are going to move on, stay on course," Richardson said in a videotaped message to sailors.