Reflections and Discussion about the US Army Specialist 8/9 Ranks

In response to an email request to Daniel K. Elder about the belief that enlisted men did, in fact, wear Spec. 8 rank at one time.

Dear [Bob] I am of the opinion that the Army never promoted soldiers to the rank of Specialist 8 or Specialist 9. First, I must mention that I suspect the letter signed by “Mark Henderson.” Whoever provided it should be quizzed on authenticity as there are a number of errors in that letter that I could go line by line with and point out flaws, flaws that any Department of the Army employee would not make, especially if they were who they are claimed to be. I respectfully suggest you investigate the source of the letter. But for now, I will be careful not to call it fake news as I do not know Dickie or his character. For reference the museum was never called the “Sergeants Major Museum,” and an assistant curator would know that.

It was officially known as the US Army NCO Museum for many years, and shortened to the NCO Museum, I know I was a longtime volunteer and even served for a few years as the editor and publisher of the newsletter The Chevron. In 2018 when the letter you sent me was supposedly originated it was and is now officially the Noncommissioned Officer Heritage and Education Center. [the historian] confirmed there is not now nor was there an [name] on staff there, but as I mentioned there was a [similar name] in 2018, and he is still there now. And as for sources and citations, though an assistant curator is a respected position that is not the same as a historian. Their duties are much different, and the historians are typically much more learned and academic, and a curator maintains museum holdings. The duties and knowledge levels are not synonymous and when it comes to accurate history, I would usually always go with a historian with the bona fides of [historian].

[Historian] was once a part of a “search” for more information on the history and backstory of Specialists 8/9 in the past and he agrees that they never located any proof of soldiers promoted to SP8, and was unfamiliar with claims of 5 chaplain’s assistants being promoted to SP8 as the suspicious letter claims. An excerpt from his email to me reads (a direct quote): “I can tell you, having spent some time looking (SGM [name] and I both did the research) we have not found ANY record of a Spec 8 in the Army. (I really hate making that kind of absolute statement, but, well, we haven’t.)

In this researcher’s view, the SP8 Chaplain Assistant claims would need a lot more facts and supporting documentation to go along with it for anyone to be able to analyze the authenticity of the claim. Just so you know I cannot find a record of a 9th Personnel Group ever existing. There was a 9th Personnel Detachment but inactivated in the 1950s until the 1980s. And Personnel Groups were assigned to Corps, Army’s, and Theaters, not the Chaplain Corps. And finally, according to the official history of the Chaplain Assistant they did not have their own MOS until 1967. So, you have that to consider. Again, rookie mistakes.

I feel the only credible document in all that you sent me was the Army Information Digest and the article “By Their Stripes You Shall Know Them.” I have seen that document and used excerpts from it in my 2011 analysis of post-1958 enlisted rank and insignia. It is a known record to historians and researchers of enlisted history. Additionally, I have in my records a second unpublished document from the same organization (Command Info) that had the same text from the same period reporting that “a few” soldiers were promoted to SPEC8 in 1958. This is the claim that I choose to focus on in this response.

First the obvious, the changes listed in the command info paper you sent me not implemented in Sept. 1965 as stated. I have a copy of the handwritten note from the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold Johnson (included) who did not sign the order to make those changes because it would have taken stripes away from 38,000+ noncommissioned officers (22% of the force). Notice in his memo Gen. Johnson mentions to “Coordinate w/CINFO…”.On Aug 10, 1965 (two weeks after he penned that note) the Secretary of the Army officially canceled the changes listed in the April 1965 article. Instead, the Army embarked on a 2-year study of the enlisted rank and grade problem. From that study, which was classified CONFIDENTIAL, to be declassified 12-years later. It is a huge multi-volume report called the Enlisted Grade Structure Study published in July 1967 from the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, the Army’s HR Department. Volume VI, Annex E is the eponymous study of the entire enlisted ranks and insignia from 1775 to 1965 and clearly states there were never any promotions to Specialist 8 and Specialist 9. It is from that official document and supporting research, that I suggest is credible, authentic, and close to the period in question. In my view, it should be the final say for the discussion of the idea that SP8 or SP9 ever was bestowed on a soldier.

Anecdotally, the acknowledged “first soldier” promoted to E-8 was Theodore Dobol. Looking at his records it shows he was first “temporarily” promoted to E-8. The old soldier said in his oral history many years after the fact that it was done “unofficially” after a “selection” board was held. However, we now know that in his oral interview he was off by a year (the memory fades) and the tape cut off while he spoke of it. I believe he was promoted to E-8 in 1958 but not April 1st, the public law was not published until May 20, 1958 and effective June 1, 1958.

According to both he and the first Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA) William O. Wooldridge, who I personally interviewed over 2-days Feb 6-7, 2001, and asked the question of his promotion to E-8 and E-9. Again, they both lived through the time and were senior sergeants in the Army and present while this swirled around. This is a public record. As recorded from Wooldridge, and the same recollection came from Dobol, was that they were promoted before “gyroscoping” to Germany, which occurred in 1958. The 1st Infantry Division was mostly complete deploying to Germany by December 1958 but they both were clear they were promoted before their battle groups left Fort Riley Kansas while they were preparing to go overseas. I still have not gotten to my archives, but I have seen Dobol’s promotion certificate, it clearly states that he was “temporarily” promoted to E-8, but the orders have the effective date wrong.

Here is what Wooldridge told me “The division got its first allocation for E-8s in 1958, and I think I was –I was either –and lid have to look this up. I’ve probably got a warrant or an order somewhere in here. I think I was –I was either promoted in May or June, and I am not sure which. But whenever the division was authorized to make those promotions. But the 1st Division was marvelous about heritage and prestige. So, they said Doble will get the first E-8 because he’s always been the senior.”

So, with all that said, I suggest between temporary and permanent promotions of that era, the uncertainty of the new ranks and super grades, I could see that after June 1, 1958, it is not incomprehensible to believe that SOMEONE was temporarily promoted to SPEC8. However, according to Dr. Ernest Fisher Jr, a historian from the US Army Center of Military History in his book Guardians of the Republic, on pg. 311 of the second edition, he notes that on ”July 1, 1958, the Army once again authorized permanent enlisted promotions, thereby providing added stability and recognition to noncommissioned officer and specialist grades (note: should be ranks, NCO and specialist are ranks, not grades) then held on a temporary basis.”

He cites the source document as “Summary Of Major Events And Problems, 1960” from the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel on file at the Army Center for Military History. He also notes “another step taken at that time” (which I assume he is implying as July 1, 1958) that the Department promoted all soldiers to grades E-8 and E-9. He is saying that from that point on that there could not be local promotions, except those authorized by the Department of the Army and the personnel command. So, one might think that there was a 30-day window from June 1 to Jul 1, 1958, maybe, that someone a well-meaning commander slipped in or promoted someone to Specialist 8 in the rush of things as the Army Digest article would lead one to believe. But hold on.

Fisher says on pg. 307 that the Army “upgraded”” duty positions to the new E-8 and E-9 grades in three phases, starting with the noncommissioned area, the second phase to upgrade the technical positions (meaning specialists) and the third phase was to review job structures to be current and realistic. Fisher actually lived in these times, was a WWII soldier, and after demobilizing went to work as a historian for the Army for his entire career. His later life’s work was studying and writing about the history of the NCO Corps. The point being, that the policies and procedures being put in place were FIRST in regard to noncommissioned officers, not specialists. There were no rules or policies in place by June 1958 regarding specialists because rule for noncommissioned officer were the first priority (phase). Commanders had nothing by way of rule or policy to govern how to promote someone to this brand-new specialist rank because nothing like it existed before. Fisher has never given indication there were SPEC8 in the Army or reported otherwise, nor have I, Dr Dague or any historian focusing on the enlisted man or woman in all our extensive research, interviews and study found one mention of an actual promotion to SP8.

To reinforce that, Fisher wrote on pg. 312 that the Army first wanted to give MOS codes to the new positions, it was not until the following year (1959) that it addressed “the status of specialists (note: the emphasis is mine) in the higher grades.” Remember, we already had a master sergeant, graded at E-8 and a first sergeant graded at E-8, and for the first year (1958-1959), we had troop sergeants major graded at E-8. And because of the new Specialist ranks, he noted there was a more pressing need to distinguish between the master sergeant and sergeants major than to differentiate between the technical or specialist counterpart.

Fisher also writes in his book that there was considerable push back from the Continental Army Command and highlighted long-standing differences of philosophy concerning the rating of specialists with noncommissioned officers. Established in 1955, the Continental Army Command (CONARC) was responsible for all the active units and armies in the continental United States. SPEC8 and SPEC9 were not popular in all circles and some famous Army generals, like Bruce C. Clarke (read the book Clarke of St. Vith) were staunchly opposed to senior specialists and made their points be known to CSA Gen. Johnson. The idea that some soldiers “slipped through the cracks” is fun to “armchair quarterback,” but in my view it seems unlikely understanding the culture of the Army of the time.

Remember why E-8 and E-9 super grades were created, there were rank and grade compression in the military services (grades affected all services). The Army was struggling to keep enlisted men in the force so to “improve the prestige” and encourage WWII era veterans to want to stay in the Army the E-8 and E-9 super grades were created. And people loved and understood the grizzled sergeant, the technicians and specialists were, and sadly still are, often an after-thought. That is not saying the people are, but history has shown the technician and specialists, of which I was one, have always been second fiddle over the combat noncom.

In going back, one must realize the problems the new grades caused. The Army did not align people’s stripes to their new grades from the beginning and there was a 10-year problem identifying people by their true pay grade. Specialist 8 and Specialist 9 would only add to that confusion. Realize that there were much resistance and problems starting up these new grades.

So, let us imagine. If there was for a few days or weeks somebody promoted to SP8 the rank insignia was not sorted out at the time either. As you probably know the SP8 and SP9 stripes were not designed and approved until 1959. Actually, specialist (E-4 to E-7) for the first year after the Military Pay Bill of 1958 became Public Law 85-422 continued to use the original specialist insignia created in 1955 until 1959, so the likelihood that anyone ever officially (or temporarily) wore a SPEC8 stripe is completely false. Even if they were promoted locally or unofficially to Specialist Eight in June 1958. Dobol called his “promotion only “on paper,” there was no rank present (his stripes remained three up, three down). The interviewer ran out of tape at the moment and quit for the day, I was pulling my hair out wishing there were 5 more minutes of the interview to hear the rest.

To me, it always seems harder to prove something “didn’t happen” than did, especially when there is a slight bit of doubt. I have to wonder if there is a sliver of truth in the Army Info digest of April 1965 where people in the know were likely still around who remember the days of 1958 changes, but so far I have never been able to locate anything but dead ends. People are going to believe what they want to believe even when presented with the facts. Thanks for reading, these are just a few of my random thoughts on the topic. Good luck stay safe.