In 1972, a member of the U.S. Navy who's already accumulated several years of service mentions that he's expecting to spend his entire working life in the USN. What does that imply about his expectations for career success?

I realise the answer will depend on whether he's an enlistee or an officer; I'm interested in both cases, but for the sake of discussion we can assume that if he's an officer, he's not a specialist.

Background: in a lightly fictionalised 1973 work, William M. Joel refers to a 1972 encounter with "Davy", who at that time had already been in the U.S. Navy for some time (not stated whether officer or enlistee) and expects to stay there for life. In context, WMJ apparently intends this to indicate that Davy's life and career are going nowhere.

However, my understanding of things is that at least in the modern era, "Davy" could only expect to spend his whole working life in the Navy if he was expecting significant career success in that time. For instance, if Davy is an officer then 1980's DOPMA appears to imply that he would've needed to make Captain to stay in that long.

From googling, I found that the real-life "Davy" (David Heintz) sadly died quite young, in 2003, but neither that nor the 1980 DOPMA rules would've been known at the time of writing. I am interested in what Davy could reasonably have expected as of 1972.

By googling on variations of "us navy up or out history", I found plenty of information about the current situation and possible changes to that, but I couldn't figure out what it would've looked like from a 1972 viewpoint.

  • Reviewing the video, I would say Davy was an enlisted man.
    – justCal
    Commented Mar 13, 2020 at 13:19
  • @justCal - indeed, and long-serving non-commissioned officers are the backbone of any military organization. Lieutenants should always listen to their sergeant or chief petty officer. Ignoring their advice is a career limiting move.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 13, 2020 at 13:37

1 Answer 1


"Most" officers in the Navy (and Army and Marines) get two promotions if they stay long enough. In the Navy, that would be from Ensign (ENS.) to Lieutenant Junior grade (LTJG.) and then to Lieutenant (LT - the equivalent of an Army or Air Force Captain). That's because the first two officer ranks are basically "trainee" positions, and the last one mentioned is the first level with "real responsibility.

That's where the "weeding out" begins in earnest. Only about half of the Navy Lieutenants/Army Captains make it to the mid level, Lieutenant Commander or Major. If you haven't made it to the next level after that by your late 30s, you're on your way out. Around 40, such people retire early from the service at half pay.

Say someone makes it to Commander/Lieutenant Colonel. There is another weeding out point in the mid-40s. If you survive that round, and get promoted to Captain/Colonel, you can be a "lifer." Very few people make it to "flag" rank (admiral or general of any description), but reaching the aforementioned high officer level will allow someone to stay until normal retirement age in the early 50s. The few flag officers do get to retire later than the early 50s.

Enlisted men have similar, though perhaps less stringent, pressures, than officers. As in the case of officers, the first few levels, "buck" Private, Private Second and First Class, or their naval equivalents, are "trainees." These are the grunts that do the "heavy lifting." Most enlisted men serve two or three years in those ranks as an entry to adulthood, then move on to civilian pursuits. And if you can't, given sufficient time, make it past Private First Class, you probably aren't cut out for the military life anyway.

While most privates leave on their own volition, the weeding out for non-commissioned officers starts at "Corporal," (E4), which is roughly the enlisted men's equivalent of Army "Captain." Such people have supervisory authority (over Privates). Not everyone is cut out to lead others, and the Army doesn't want people stuck at that level.

The next two levels, Sergeant and Staff Sergeant, are perhaps the key ones. because is where the decision making responsibilities start. (Staff Sergeants differ from "plain" Sergeants in the scope of their duties, rather than level of authority.) These levels are perhaps equivalent to Lieutenant Commander and Commander in the Navy officer ranks. Again, there is an "up or out" element to these ranks.

The higher level enlisted ranks, Sergeant First Class, Master Sergeant, and Sergeant Major are the "lifer" ranks, equivalent to Captains and Admirals in the Navy. These ranks are fairly sparsely populated. Here, if you've made it past Staff Sergeant, you are allowed to remain at your "level of incompetence."

It is worth noting that "Officer" and "Enlisted" tracks in the military are similar to "managerial" and "technical" tracks in industry. While officers and managers have more authority than enlisted men and technicians, the senior members of the latter group are actually paid more than the junior members of their nominal supervisors.

  • Thanks. Would this also have been the expectation in 1972?
    – G_B
    Commented Mar 13, 2020 at 5:10
  • 1
    @GeoffreyBrent: Pretty much. There are slight differences from one era to another, but the "great divide" was before and after World War II. By comparison, 1972 and say, 2022 would be relatively similar.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Mar 13, 2020 at 5:12
  • If you can expand this answer to cover enlisted men, I'll be happy to accept it.
    – G_B
    Commented Mar 13, 2020 at 21:12
  • 1
    @GeoffreyBrent: Expanded.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Mar 13, 2020 at 22:56
  • 1
    @PieterGeerkens: My understanding is that some exceptions are made in the U.S. for specialists. Usually they are Majors or Lieutenant Colonels, who couldn't make the next higher rank. But it is not a situation where "career Captains" would abound. A passed over Major (for Lieutenant Colonel) is close enough to a 20 year tenure so that s/he would be allowed to "top off" enough extra time to retire with half pay, and a passed over Lieutenant Colonel would be over the 20 year mark, and close enough to normal retirement age to be "carried," if valued as a specialist.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 4:18

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