By today’s standards, reading Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy William H. Plackett’s bio, he would seem a fairly ordinary Master Chief (if that remarkable achievement could be described as ordinary): joined the Navy from a small town (Paxton, Ill.), went to A school, served at a variety of
commands and staffs afloat and ashore, attended advanced rate training, made rank rather quickly, earned an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree, etc. That he did all that in the 60s and 70s when programs to assist Sailors in those endeavors were scarce and hard to get, is what sets him apart and makes him, looking back, a rather remarkable Sailor.
Also, unlike most of his contemporaries, when he enlisted in the Navy on Oct. 18, 1956, he was already married to his high school sweetheart Karen Mullinax who spent the next 32 years at Plackett’s side as he navigated a course to and served as the Navy’s sixth Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy.
“He, and his wife, the charming Karen Plackett, were a strong team who always had the very best interests of the Navy Enlisted Family at heart,” said former Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Admiral Dudley L. Carlson.
When he assumed the office on Oct. 4, 1985, the Navy was on a bit of a high, the Reagan build-up of the military was well underway and earlier in the year Operation El Dorado Canyon launched successful strikes on Libyan targets in retaliation for the rogue nation’s involvement in terrorist attacks. Still, Plackett warned fleet enlisted leaders to not “go to sleep at the switch” and spent his three year term focused on improving leadership among the enlisted corps, enhancing quality of life, and clearly communicating opportunities as well as leadership priorities to the deck plates.
His interest in leadership can probably be traced back to his experience at his very first command where he met a Sailor named Radioman First Class Travis Short. Plackett was impressed by Short’s drive for personal self-improvement.
“He started out just about like I did, a non‑high school graduate from a small town. He came into the Navy and with his boot straps, pulled himself up. He made chief and was selected for Limited Duty Officer. He retired as a lieutenant commander. He had a very positive impact on me,” said Plackett.
So it is probably no surprise that when he became MCPON, Plackett set out to strengthen and build opportunities to grow and develop leadership skills among Sailors of all ranks. He supported and in some ways strengthened the command, force and fleet master chief program, despite stating in a Navy Times article that it was his hope Navy leaders and command structures would one day mature to a point where it was no longer necessary to appoint a single individual at every level in the Navy to ensure the chain of command takes care of its people.
But he was strenuously committed to improving leadership training for junior Sailors. Drawing from his own experience as a junior petty officer when he found himself responsible for a team and realized he had never received any training for the job, he sought to improve what in the mid-80s was known as Leadership Management and Education Training (LMET). Plackett believed the program was essential to the development of good petty officer leadership skills and pushed to make attendance a prerequisite for advancement to the next pay grade for senior petty officers. But he wasn’t satisfied with the program’s curriculum which he viewed as to “touchy feely”
“We need to teach human behavior, practicality of human behavior, we need to do case studies to show situations and let people work the situations. We need to do role playing and those kinds of things. But we don’t need to try to make a brain surgeon out of a boatswain’s mate. What we need to teach is practical leadership skills that work,” he said
In addition to improving LMET training, he was also a proponent of leading by example. He believed Informal mentorship, combined with formal leadership training would build a stronger enlisted force.
“If we can provide role models, the opportunity to get leadership experience, and formalized instruction in leadership skills, reinforced at various stages in career development, then we can foster the development of professionalism; the rounding‑out of the enlisted community as a totally professional military community,” he said.
Plackett also believed a key component of effective leadership was communication up and down the chain of command. Two of the major issues he asked spouses to discuss during a CNO Master Chief Advisory Panel involved communication. Chaired by Mrs. Plackett, the first spouse conference discussed eight specific areas of concern: the impact of limited family housing; the effectiveness of Family Service Centers; spouse perceptions on quality of life issues; the effectiveness of Navy publications; internal information; spouse employment issues; the Family Advocacy Program; and overseas screening.
While their husbands were studying and forming recommendations on policies impacting the overall quality of Navy life, the spouses put together their own recommendations for improvements. Their point papers were presented to the CNO at the end of the week, along with the final report out by the CNO Master Chief Advisory Panel.
During his three year term, Plackett addressed a number of other issues including enforcement of the Navy’s drug and alcohol abuse prevention programs, women in the Navy, and High Year Tenure.
Plackett turned over with MCPON Duane Bushey on Sept. 9, 1988.
“During my two‑year tour as the Chief of Naval Personnel it was my great privilege to receive the forthright, candid, and always accurate advice of Master Chief Bill Plackett,” said Carlson. “It was Bill Plackett who first suggested mentioning real Sailors’ names and problems when testifying on ‘The Hill.’ Like all his advice, it was good, right on the mark, and helped us gain support for important personnel improvement initiatives.”
Based on the amount of energy he brought to his work, his determination to seek self-improvement throughout his career, and the fact he made it to the top of the Navy enlisted corps, there is no doubt MCPON Plackett was an extraordinary Sailor in a field of extraordinary Sailors. News reports from his tenure indicate he was motivated by a singular drive to improve his Navy, an institution he regarded as already being among the best in history.
But one account points toward another motivation.
During a visit to Memphis, Tenn. For the Navy Memphis Khaki Ball, Plackett fielded a question from a young Sailor who wanted to know why he had stayed in the Navy so long.
“Well, there are a lot of reasons,” answered Plackett, “but it’s mainly because no matter where I am or what I do in the Navy, I’m always having fun.”
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy William H. Plackett passed away peacefully March 4, 2016.