Sergeant Major, Gunnery Sergeant, and Platoon Sergeant

Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

February 27th, 2005, 6:15 pm #1

Marine Corps Gazette
June 1949

Exhume the Gunnery Sergeant

By LtCol Robert D. Heinl, Jr.

Nobody—except a few administrative
zealots and perhaps the Washington office of
International Business Machines—is satisfied with
the present Marine Corps nomenclature for the
first three enlisted paygrades.

If you question the foregoing
assertion, just go up to ex-Sergeant Major
Fieldesk, and ask him how he likes being
addressed as “Master Sergeant,” or, if you want
some firm, well-clarified views on the subject,
flag down former Gunnery Sergeant Buttplate.

The fact is, from the top of the
Marine Corps to the bottom, all hands feel ill at
ease with the present staff NCO titles, just as
they sense a deprivation in the loss of such
institutions as the gunnery sergeant, or, though
he is beyond the scope of this complaint, the
Marine Gunner.

Just how did we come to jettison the
cranky, anachronistic, well-loved titles by which
Marine staff non-commissioned officers have been
so long known?

There are two main answers to that
question, even though the lower echelons and the
rear ranks may have been inclined to suspect that
the departure from our established way of doing
things in this respect was another one of those
“it’s just our policy” changes.

The first, and prime justification
for dehydrating our enlisted rank structure of
its colorful Drum Majors, Sergeant Majors,
Quartermaster Sergeants, Paymaster Sergeants,
Gunnery Sergeants, Supply Sergeants, First
Sergeants, and Platoon Sergeants, arose as an
incident—almost—in the long-delayed (and much
needed) overall shakeup, which is still sweeping
cobwebs, litter, and dead cockroaches out of
Marine Corps personnel accounting procedures.

As an essential element in this
paperwork catharsis, it became apparent that an
IBM machine could do the work of 10 file-clerks
and could outthink, or at least out-remember,
almost as many officers. But an obstacle to
introduction of machine records was the number of
variables presented to the machines by our array
of differing ranks in the first three pay-grades.
Moveover, however much we liked the soldierly
sound of the familiar titles, it was a fact that
the diversification and increase of military
specialties had to far outrun the dozen-odd
titles that—even with such modifying subtitles as
(Mess), (CP), (Band), (QM) and the like—the
existing rank structure had stopped being
adequately descriptive of what staff NCO jobs
actually were. In a nutshell, therefore, the
administrative ratcatchers found that the
pre-1947 top noncommissioned rank-titles were too
many to permit efficient streamlining of records,
machines, or procedures, and far too few to be
descriptive, title by title, of what each
noncommissioned officer really did. In face of
this, the Marine Corps chose to adopt one name,
indicative solely of pay-grade, for each of the
three senior ratings, and let the SSN do the

With the reasoning which prompted
this decision, neither I, nor, I imagine, any
marine who goes into the question at all, can
find any fault. But at this point, it becomes a
matter of interest to examine the choice of the
three names which were selected to indicate the
three pay-grades, that is, why did we hit upon
Master Sergeant, Technical Sergeant, and Staff

It seems apparent—and I would like to
see what arguments could be produced to the
contrary—that, in selection of those three
particular rank-names, the Marine Corps went
overboard for the deceptive principle that
inter-Service uniformity in itself is an
important virtue. That is, simply because the
Army and the Air Force—as of 1947—had certain
mutually uniform rank-titles with some standing
(but not much, as it turned out) within their
particular enlisted rating ladders, it appeared
suddenly attractive to our own administrators
that the Marine Corps adopt the same titles.
Only because of the illusory fool’s-gold of

The nature of the trap into which we
had fallen soon became apparent. Within less
than two years of our imitation of the Army’s
rank-titles, not only the Army itself, but the
Air Force as well, had adopted wholly revised,
and mutually different, names for the ratings we
had just gulped down. The net result of all this
which is the situation we are not confronted
with, is that the Marine Corps finds itself
saddled with rank-names that please nobody, have
no roots in Marine Corps tradition,, and are just
as non-uniform as if we had never pusillanimously
abandoned the gunnery sergeant or the sergeant

Admitting that the situation is
unsatisfactory in terms of traditional value,
that is, of morale value, although properly
efficient from an administrative standpoint, it
seems to me that there exists a remedy which
would please the traditionalists (which includes
99 percent of the Marine Corps), keep the
administrators happy, cost nothing, and require
no change in the IBM machines.

That change, in a sentence, would be
this: retain the three single rank-titles for
the three pay-grades, but readopt three of the
distinctively Marine names—and goodbye, master

Since we have acceded to the
principle that rank-names themselves cannot
attempt to be descriptive of duties, there would
be no more incongruity in having a gunnery
sergeant doing quartermaster duties than in
having the same man called a technical sergeant,
and with the same SSN. Moreover, to the
cold-hearted IBM machine the names of the ranks
are merely electro-mechanical impulses anyway;
only the fumbling human being requires a name.
It would be a matter of indifference to the
machine whether we called our man a Kleagle or a
sergeant major, a Grand Wizard or a technical

To get down to cases, I propose that
the rank of master sergeant be given the deep,
deep six, and that we entitle all first pay-grade
noncommissioned offices from 1801 to 1947. I
propose that technical sergeant be abolished in
lieu of gunnery sergeant. I propose that we
substitute platoon sergeant for staff sergeant.

Considering the first pay-grade, we
would then have all our presently uhappy master
sergeants answering to “sergeant major.” An
immediate, almost automatic objection to this
would be that only a certain number of these
sergeants major in rank-title would, in the
functional sense of the term, truly be doing
sergeant major’s duties. This would be true,
but, you remember, we have just agreed that the
name of an NCO rank can no longer possibly
describe the particular military occupational
specialty of the man who holds that rank. In
terms of tradition, the use of sergeant major as
a non-paperpushing rank has ample validity.
Before the days of master gunnery sergeants (a
title which dates only from 1935), sergeants
major performed field and troop-leading duties as
well as office work. Going back even further,
there was a time when, except for a few non-Line
rates (such as drum major or supply sergeant),
sergeant major was the single top NCO rank in
both the Army and Marine Corps, and the title had
no connotation other than that of the leading or
most senior noncommissioned rank, regardless of
particular duty being performed.

A second objection to sergeant major
as a first pay-grade rank asks how is it going to
look if we have NCOs called sergeant major doing
first sergeant’s work in a company or battery.
My answer is, first, that, with elevation of the
first sergeants to the first pay-grade, that
there has been considerable blurring of
definition between first sergeants and sergeants
major, even functionally speaking. Second, I
would point to the quite logical British system
in which you have a company sergeant major, a
battalion sergeant major, and a regimental
sergeant major. If necessary, to prevent
needless confusion, we could well redesignate the
first sergeant—functionally speaking—as the
company sergeant major. Finally, if a clincher
is needed, I believe that the majority of Marine
noncommissioned officers (regardless of
specialty) would prefer to reach, as their final
goal, the rank of sergeant major, which in the
enlisted marine’s eyes very properly has the same
pulling-power as the rank of general has to an

The gunnery sergeant is a case by
himself. Probably no single change in Marine
Corps rank aroused so much general disapprobation
within the Corps as the abolition of gunnery
sergeants. For the second pay-grade, therefore,
the choice, almost by acclamation, is that
gunnery sergeant displace the technical sergeant.
It is only a pity that we cannot have it in
administrative discretion to make a similar
change back from warrant officer to marine
gunner—a rank the title of which is fixed in law.

The only reason why some marines
might not want to restore gunnery sergeant rank
on the foregoing basis is again the question of
function—and the anger is the same as for
sergeant major. Let the SSN describe the
function, and let the rank tell merely the
pay-grade—and most important, proclaim that the
holder of that rank is a marine. Nobody is going
to mistake a gunnery sergeant for a member of an
Engineer Special Brigade.

Probably the weakest case in the
group is that for platoon sergeant, largely
because that rank-title represents less Marine
tradition, having, in fact, been officially
adopted only in 1935. Some, in fact, would
probably argue that staff sergeant is about as
satisfactory as platoon sergeant even from the
viewpoint of Marine traditionalism. My choice of
the former rank derives solely from the fact that
platoon sergeant was uniquely a Marine rank,
whereas staff sergeant has associations with
other Services.

Well, there it is.

The proposal is harmless, even to the
administrators and the IBM machines, and, if
adopted, would prove to be a shot of adrenalin to
the individual morale of a good many NCOs, not to
mention the general esprit of the Corps. What is
more, now is the time to act. Within less than a
year, there will be new tables of organization
and a new Marine Corps Manual. If we change the
ratings after these have come out, just imagine
the blizzard of pen-changes which would result.

If you want your gunnery sergeant
back, it is now or never.


R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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