West Point (3)
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Of course West Point does not overlook one's 'moral development' important to an Officer. Depending on one's religion - Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant, every cadet, Cadre as well as Plebes, were marched to Chapel every Sunday. (all four years, matter of fact) And if one claimed no religion, he was, nevertheless obliged to attend Protestant Services in the Great Gothic Chapel that towers over the Plain and is the most recognizable structure at West Point.
While I wrote down 'Christian Science' as my preferred religion, that was not recognized separately enough so that I would be able to attend those Sunday morning 'readings' instead of Protestant Services. I could attend both, but always the Protestant Service in the Chapel.
Here is a picture I took from the rear level of the Chapel (one gets there by car usually, parks, and then goes in the main doors which are to the left off the picture.) The cadets march up the hill to it. Every Sunday, all four years.
Even though, in a law suit filed by some cadets in the 1960s 'mandatory' Chapel was found 'unconstitutional' (separation of church and state) and cadets could no longer be obliged to attend, I certainly was not harmed by the experience - and I doubt if any other cadets - atheist - or not were harmed by exposure to Sermons which reminded all, that even though they are soldiers who kill and order the killing of America's enemies, that even Christianity carefully justifies the 'Morality of War' - while protecting - the right of religious pacifists to not engage in war, or be drafted to do so.
THE West Point Chapel
By the end of July, I was getting even more ‘in shape’ than I had ever been before, even having run 1 and 5 miles stretches in high school.
We usually had to run during Beast Barracks –called double time and in step and in formations large and small – everywhere. To further the conditioning of plebes and to get to every corner of the Academy we were supposed to go together – athletic fields, mess hall, gymnasium. Sometimes when it rained, we wore the cadet gray raincoat with matching cap cover. The trouble was the cadet raincoat was impervious, rubberized fabric which didn’t ‘breathe.’ When it was raining, I was running and getting heated up, and the temperature was the usual Eastern Seaboard summer high, with high humidity, it could get to me. On one occasion I blacked out and fell to the side of the formation onto the grass.
Immediately the cadre, quickly deciding I was overheated got me to the close by hospital, where after one night in bed, it was clear that was a temporary thing, and I was released the next morning – to resume plebe year. It struck me that, while the upperclassmen were as hard as they could be in demands on we plebes, the minute they thought a plebe was in actual physical distress, they got him to the medical staff. No fooling around or second guessing. And let the professionals decide the matter. The lesson was clear – and that trait of ‘leadership’ of West Pointers in training or combat, stuck with me.
And West Point, showing good sense, dropped that type of raincoat about that year.
All we plebes learned rapidly to get, and keep, our rooms, uniforms, beds, lockers in perfect order. As upperclassmen constantly barged into our rooms inspecting everything. And each upperclassman had his own way of making life hell for the plebe.
|Me, Cadet David Hughes, 1946|
Me in Dress Parade Uniform with Rifle. I am a 'Yearling' (Sophmore) cadet in this picture (Notice the single yellow sleeve stripe, denoting Yearling. Plebes have no such stripes)
Of course, Parades were held several times a week. Once plebes learned their marching movements, individually and then in ranks, with every move drilled to perfection by the upperclass cadre, the ‘4th Class’ (first year men) parades began to take on the visual precision that would be melded with the upperclassmen, and give the onlookers a taste of marching perfection.
|Cadet Company Passing in Review on the Plain|
I remember those first parades, wherein we were marched onto the parade ground called The Plain, in progressively more elaborate uniforms, until we wore the full dress uniform, with tall ‘Tarbucket’ hats set just so on everyones head and in dress coats with very large buttons and crossed white cotton belts fastened at the front with a highly elbow-grease polished clasp. Then with identical black striped trousers, and equally elbow-grease polished black shoes. We started looking like the public image of ‘West Pointers’
And standing there in formation on the Plain, looking first across the green grass at the reviewing party, but more impressively looking at each other wearing the gray in uniforms that dated back to the classic American Revolutionary War Uniforms, participating in a very traditional Parade ceremony, looking at the tall granite gray buildings that rim the Plain, and finally up at the towering Cadet Chapel high of the hill above, the meaning of being, now, a West Point cadet started to sink in.
|Cadet Command Group Salutes the Colors as they Pass in Review|
By the end of 'Beast Barracks' - designed to reduce all we plebes - regardless of where they came from, or what they had done before entering West Point - to the lowest common 'cadet' denominator - before the upperclassmen started to build them back up into the preferred 'West Point' physical, moral, intellectual, military officer mold - I had taken stock of my classmates.
Many seemed older than I was at just 18 years of age. I learned that fully 50% of my classmates had prior military service. Which meant many were not only both older but also substantially more experienced militarily than I, just a green kid just out of high school with a modicum of military school experience. Thus they were more 'militarily' mature than I was. And so rose in cadet ranks faster than I did - all four years.
Because they could be as old as 23 on their day of entry into West Point and a substantial number of those 922 men who entered with me on July 1st, 1946, had one or two years college education before they entered the academy, I was well behind the maturity and academic curve than the majority of other classmates. While I was just a wet-behind-the-ears 18 year old high school graduate. So I would have to work hard to succeed in what was regarded as the toughest military and academic institution in American. It was a competitive institution. Everyone was graded on the curve - not in just absolute, individualistic, terms. The academy which had turned out Ike Eisenhower, Curtis Lemay, Lee and Grant had a deserved reputation among its graduates - if one made it through the first uncompromising four cadet years.
But there was one thing we 1946 plebes all had in common. There was no illusion that we would be serving in the Great War which had just ended the prior August with the Japanese surrender. We might spend our entire military careers in peacetime assignments at low rank - and corresponding pay - on various assignments, such as on occupation duty. Having read enough about the history of West Point and its graduates as I prepared to enter the academy, I realized that many a graduate between the 1890s and 1918, and again between 1919 and 1941 had toiled as slow-promotion officers of a peacetime Army in dull assignments on remote frontiers, and never served in a shooting war. Images of still-young West Point officers, like Custer, serving on the plains of Kansas with only periodic Indian engagements in the 1860's filled my mind.
Yet, when the time came as it did after Pearl Harbor, the Army had to be quickly expanded and it was well known how rapidly West Pointers had to rise in rank and rise to accept large responsibilities and to handle, command, and win with the vast - 8 million American man Army required to meet the demands of World War II. Dwight Eisenhower rising from Lieutenant Colonel to four star General in just nine years - 1936-1945 was understandable. By 2010 rising to that rank with far more reliance on advanced weaponry, technology and diplomatic maneuvering, than the sheer numbers of soldiers, would usually take a 35 to 40 year career.
I also began to sort of understood the concept, and need, for of military 'readiness' and thus the need for already trained and experienced officers and NCO's between wars. I didn't yet have a handle on the parallel concept of the 'military profession' as distinct from a 'military career'. But I would start to learn that soon enough too.
'Beast Barracks' continued at an unrelenting pace. We learned, and were required, to duplicate the precise making of our beds, arrangement of our clothing lockers, the shining of our shoes, the hanging of our clothes - all while being barked at by upperclassmen whose faces were within inches of our noses.
Of course the leadership theory of West Point is to, first, break down the individuality of every plebe, and through a long year to get the cadet to be instantly obedient, forthcoming but to ‘put out’ the maximum energy to do things right. And at the Academy, ‘right’ means ‘perfect.’ Building the cadet back up to become an officer, would come in the 2d, 3d, and graduation years.
Even the routine daily 'shower formations' are part of that 'break down' method. All the plebes in a Beast Barracks company - perhaps 25 - have to rush into the long and wide open basement shower area stark naked to soap and wash down after a hot sweaty day while several dressed upper classment keep up the verbal harranging - to make the plebes shower, soap up, wash down, and get out of there to make room for others without delay. No false modesty then, no 'privacy' in the shower. Everyone the same, without even clothes to differentiate them.
|Shower Formation for Plebes|
Finally all the other three classes of cadets who had been either on leave home, or on advanced military training at other Army or Air Corps, or Navy bases start coming back to West Point. Then the full 2,500 cadet corps was present, we were assigned to our 100 man cadet companies where plebes were approximately 25 strong in each company. And we all experienced the full sized parades on the Plain when 24 companies marched together, fluttering the hearts of all the ‘femmes’ who came up to West Point.
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