Subscribe
USS Kitty Hawk Master Chief Petty Officer Ashley Smith, seen in his on-ship office, is the Navy’s “Old Tar” — the Navy’s longest-serving enlisted surface warfare specialist.

USS Kitty Hawk Master Chief Petty Officer Ashley Smith, seen in his on-ship office, is the Navy’s “Old Tar” — the Navy’s longest-serving enlisted surface warfare specialist. (Allison Batdorff / S&S)

USS Kitty Hawk Master Chief Petty Officer Ashley Smith, seen in his on-ship office, is the Navy’s “Old Tar” — the Navy’s longest-serving enlisted surface warfare specialist.

USS Kitty Hawk Master Chief Petty Officer Ashley Smith, seen in his on-ship office, is the Navy’s “Old Tar” — the Navy’s longest-serving enlisted surface warfare specialist. (Allison Batdorff / S&S)

The "Old Tar" award features "The Chief" statue standing on original planking from "Old Ironsides," the USS Constitution.

The "Old Tar" award features "The Chief" statue standing on original planking from "Old Ironsides," the USS Constitution. (Allison Batdorff / S&S)

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Daring folks on the USS Kitty Hawk call Master Chief Petty Officer Ashley Smith “Old Salt” in deference to his 32 years of Navy experience.

He’s pretty sure the young sailors he works with call him “Old Fart” in reference to his age, said the 53-year-old.

But he’s actually an “Old Tar,” and there’s just one in the U.S. Navy.

“But nobody really calls me that,” Smith said. “To be honest, I didn’t know there was such a thing until I applied for it.”

The “Old Tar” is the Navy’s longest-serving enlisted surface warfare specialist (ESWS).

The word “tar” is slang for sailor. And while folks disagree on where the term came from — some say it’s short for tarpaulins that sailors used to keep things dry, others say it’s what sailors used to grease their long hair — most agree that “old tar” means old sailor.

Smith got his ESWS pin in 1979, the program’s first year. The program was started as a voluntary way to test sailors beyond their regular duties.

After a successful general knowledge examination on naval heritage, U.S. Navy organization, combat systems and a range of other subjects that deal with keeping ships ship-shape, sailors earn an ESWS silver cutlass to wear on their uniforms. When Smith got his, the pin was so new that people confused it with the “dolphins” worn by submariners, he said.

ESWS status now is required of any sailor wanting to advance past E-5, a move with which Smith agrees, he said.

“It’s good for the sailors and it’s good for the ship to have sailors with a broad knowledge base,” Smith said. “Some people make the system harder than it needs to be, but I tell every sailor to do it. You only have to do it once, and re-qualifying is much easier than getting your pin.”

But the Navy’s “Old Tar” award has more heft than the pin. The “Old Tar” gets a replica of “The Chief” statue that stands on the original planking from the USS Constitution masted frigate.

It’s currently on the Smiths’ dining room table, waiting to be given back. Smith has just a little more time with his “Old Tar” title, as he’s retiring May 22 and moving stateside with his family.

He has been the Navy’s “Old Tar” since 2005, and if he had one wish for his successor, it would be to appreciate the tar out of U.S. Navy tradition, he said.

“Some people are annoyed as heck when we pipe under way or ring the bells,” Smith said. “But tradition is all that separates us from the civilians on the sea, and we owe it to those who went before us to keep them.”

For more information on the “Old Tar” award, contact the Surface Navy Association at 2550 Huntington Ave., Suite 202, Alexandria, Va. 22302. Nominations are due May 30.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up