The Cadet Meal Ordeals

A special form of Hazing took place at every mealtime in the giant Mess Hall. This 1936 picture taken by a national photographer and published nationally tells part of the story. It helped the American public come to understand the 'rigors' of West Point which all cadets had to endure.

While this training and treatment started with the very first meal during Beast Barracks, it continued throughout all of Plebe Year.

 

Plebe in proper posture in the Cadet Mess Hall
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First of all, every plebe had to sit on the front two inches of his chair. He is at a table with perhaps one or two other plebes, all the rest of those seated are from his company, and knows him by name (such as Dumbsmack Hughes). He has to have mastered over the first month's time at most, gobs of information from what was issued him called "Bugle Notes". Packed with information from the trivial ('How many gallons of water are in Delafield Reservoir?') and nonsensical in answer to questions like "Hows the Cow?" to memorable sayings by past graduate generals such as Schofields Definition of Discipline.

And rattle off those answers when asked,  in a loud 'commanding' tone of voice, while continuing to look downward at the table, never at the upperclassman who asked the question, while ALSO pouring the water or juices into other cadet's glasses and being, in effect, one of the 'waiters' at the table. (The delivery of foods from the kitchen for all 2,500 cadets - during the academic year when all cadets are present - inside 30 minutes total for meals, was done by white uniformed waiters all of whom are male enlisted soldiers assigned to a West Point military unit)

All that goes on at the table, however, was designed to continue the mental conditioning and training of plebes. Eating a satisfying meal, for plebes, was the lowest priority. Many a plebe went pretty hungry between meals.

 

Here is the Schofield's Definition of Discipline which Major General John M. Schofield rendered in an Address to the Corps of Cadets August 11, 1879. And which every plebe has to know, and be able to recite verbatim!

"The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and to give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice to inspire in the soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself."

 

Not only is this an exercise in mental discipline, but sound military wisdom as well!

 

My Company F-2

So at the end of Beast Barracks where the entire organization was built around the training and handling of all the 'New Cadets' - plebes - they were dispersed and integrated into the regular, year round, Corps of Cadets organizational structure. That structure in 1946-50, was divided into two Regiments - the First Regiment being quartered in 'Central Area' (where the famous - or infamous according to cadets who spent lots of time 'walking the area' as punishments - Clock Tower stands). The Second Regiment was quartered in the 'North Area' - complex of newer buildings than those encircling Central Area - whose structures go back to the 1820s. The North Area was built as West Point cadet numbers grew to 2, 500 up as World War II approached. (Last time I checked in 2010, that number was 4,000)

Each Regiment had 12 Cadet Companies - with just about exactly 100 cadets each in them - arranged into four Battalions.

Now one characteristic of West Point right up until the 1970s (I believe), was that - for the look of military perfection, all the cadet 'companies' were sized according to the height of cadets - from perhaps 5'5" for the shortest cadets to 6'7" for the tallest. So each man of 100 in  Cadet Companies A-1 to M-1, each were of the same height,  while the next company's cadets were just a little taller or shorter.

The tallest cadets in the 1st Regiment were in Company A-1, the shortest in M-1, while the shortest cadets in the 2d Regiment were in A-2, and the tallest in M-2. Then, when companies were arrayed side by side on the Parade Field outside the barracks (called 'The Plain") or observed while marching in formation by company in places like Pennsylvania Avenue - the perfectly uniform sized men in the ranks, together with precision marching practice and bodies,with rifles or  swords by the cadet officers,  held at precise angles with perfectly fitting uniforms and dress hats delivered the impressive photogenic reputation that West Point Cadets long had as the most 'military' looking academy in the world. (Only the ceremonial units at London's Royal Family Military units approached it in splendor) The West Point cadet dress - parade - uniforms harkened back to what the Army wore in the 1870s.

Cadets in A-1 or M-2 companies, being very tall were referred to - in the cadet vernacular -  the "Flankers" and the shortest company of cadets of A-2 and M-1 were called 'Runts.' All the rest in between had no special name.

Since I was 5'10" tall when entering West Point, I was assigned to F-2 company at the end of the first summer. I and my 25 classmates of the same height were in that same company all four cadet years based on that original assignment. That was to be our 'permanent' cadet  company. We were neither Flankers or Runts. We thus escaped being named anything by other cadets according to our  heights. We were just 'F-2' company.

That traditional system of assigning cadets to cadet units according to their height was changed sometime in the 1970s.  The powers that be at West Point decided that, in spite of the perfectly uniform crowd-pleasing appearance of cadet formations, there developed a long term tendency  right through all West Point graduate's Military Careers for cadets to associate - hang out -  with classmates the same height. A kind of clannishness built up that contradicted the ideal that 'all' cadets were equal, and to be judged on their individual military merits, not their group physical appearance. So the sizing was stopped. And it HAD to stop when, after 1976, women cadets were admitted to West Point. As a whole they were smaller and much shorter than the men cadets anyway.

So the 100+ year tradition of perfectly uniform West Pointers in ranks marching or in formations during ceremonies, went by the boards.

We who remember our cadet days when the Cadet Corps gave the stunning appearance to visitors, family members, and each other, of uniform military perfection - wince at seeing a today's Cadet Company pass the reviewing stands on parade where a 'runt' female who also takes shorter steps marching next to a 6' 5" male cadet  mars the original visual perfection of a marching company of 'West Pointers.'

'We' who were assigned to "F-2" company got another accidental distinction. Our quarters were in the farthest northeastern section of the 'North Barracks. It was called the 'Lost 50s' - the vertical 3 story barracks buildings that housed both F-2 and G-2 companies. The vertical apartment sections were numbered 50-54. Since we were the furthest from Central Area, we were envied as living furthest away from where eagle-eyed upperclassmen, or Tactical Officers were likely to encounter plebes or other cadets running around outside.
 

In other words  living  furthest away from the Central Area within which was the Cadet and Tactical Department Headquarters - where the Commandant Paul D Harkins was officed we least risked running the daily 'gauntlet' that cadets marching to class or simply walking across the Central Area toward Grant Hall where dates could be met ran, opened up to scrutiny by  any tac officer or senior cadet, or especially the dreaded 'Cadet with the Sash. With the strict and incessant discipline for which West Point was famous - even in the most minor of details - '  those officers could spot - from a distance - the tiniest infraction by plebes or cadets (improper uniform, hat not put on squarely, or walking sloppily), and could give official write ups - or 'quill' - regarding the  cadet, leading to awarding of demerits. The 'Man with the Sash' was the rotating Cadet officer of the Day who was 'on duty' operating out of a central office in Central Area. He not only wore a bright red sash to go with his mark-of-authority cadet saber, but during his 'tour' was honor bound to report ANY infraction he observed. He mostly ranged in Central Area and the nearest Barracks of the North Area. Very seldom was he seen in or near the 'Lost Fifties.'

Running the gauntlet of Central Area was to be avoided by cadets if possible. We of F-2 in the Lost Fifties naturally ran that risk least. But one problem I personally had, was that the 'Camera Club' darkroom was in a basement in Central Area. As I more and more relied on that darkroom to develop film I took - and became very well known for among all cadets - I ran the risk most.

Quill and Walking the Area

Even the term 'quill' as a noun and a verb was a convenient handle for the act of a superior 'writing up' a subordinate cadet for some - any - infraction. It was rooted in the days after 1802 - the beginning of West Point as a military academy, when officers had to resort to ink quill pens to record or 'write up' anything. Cadets today may write on computer word processors, but even the act of an upperclass cadet writing up an infraction by a plebe, is to 'quill' him.

 

Punishment Tours
Cadet "Walking the Area" on "Punishment Tours"

 

Walking the Area Punishment Tours for some Infraction or too many Demerits.

Whoever ordered this cadet to do his tours required he read something - like Bugle Notes or UCC Regulations until he mastered whatever he was deficient in - or disobeyed. I walked my share of Tours too! And once missed the great Army-Michigan Football Game where a fraction of the Cadet Corps was transported to Ann Arbor to watch Army win in an upset.

The first order of business when we carried our gear in duffle bags from where we had been all summer, was getting two other roomates. I didn't know any other plebe that I had served with that got assigned - by height - to my new company - F-2, so I just got the luck of the draw - two stranger plebe classmates who made it through beast barracks at least this far.

I barely remember the blond headed southerner who was one of them. And as soon as academics started in September, and we went off to class, he got into trouble. An Honor Violation. The ultimate no-no at West Point.

I still don't know exactly what he did - caught cheating in class, or lying anywhere else at West Point. But somebody turned him in, and swiftly the Cadet Honor Committee met.  He appeared before them - all fellow cadets - while evidence against him was given to the committee, he was declared guilty - and he was gone and off the post by sundown. The swift reality of the punishment meted out by violations of the Honor Code was impressed on me early in my four years.

Another large difference between the period when I was a cadet, and later - in the 1950s and beyond, was that the findings and rulings of the Cadet-run Honor Committee was law. Those found guilty and expelled had no route of appeal to the West Point Military Officer Chain of Command - from Tactical Officers through the Commandant of Cadets, to the Superintendent. The Honor system was run entirely by cadets themselves. While the Chain of Military Command above Cadets could and would deal with violations of USMA Regulations, or Military, or Civil Law, Honor violations were matters only for the Cadet Corps.

Changes were started in this increasingly litigious society when parents of Cadets would retain lawyers and sue West Point and the Department of the Army for what the Parent 'thought' was 'unfair' violations of the Cadet Honor Code that led to expulsion. Which then forced the Army right down to West Point's Superintendent to defend the strict cadet Honor code. Over time this became so onerous that West Point was forced to officially ratify or not, the findings of the Cadet Honor Code before ordering the expulsion of a cadet for infractions that would not be, in the US military a punishable Court's Martial offense, or a breach of civil law - such as a false statements under oath.

In effect the Honor Code was diminished and its administration taken out of cadet hands after 200 years. Another grevious loss for West Point.

During the rest of my four years at West Point I never knew, face to face, any other cadets who were thrown out, much less accused of a Honor Violation, though there was a constant attrition.

Already, by September 1946 there was attrition for many other causes. As a Class we entered West Point in June 1946 with 922 men who had been admitted as cadets. There was a large drop of cadets during Beast Barracks from simple resignations by plebes who just couldn't or wouldn't handle the intense 'Beast Barracks' pressure. Some broke down physically and resigned if a hospital stay followed by too long rehab was too much. Even I risked that when, during Beast Barracks while I was running with my fellow plebes wearing a very hot rubberized raincoat in a drizzling rain,  under which I was sweating profusely in the oppressive summer heat of New York,  which as a Coloradoan I was not used to.  I passed out and fell. Apparently dehydrated. Upperclassmen and a standby medic quickly got me to the Post Hospital where, overnight, with enough fluids, I recovered. And joined my classmates the next afternoon. (I think they phased out those gawdawful rubberized raincoats.)

Of course later there were drops of cadets for academic failures all four years.

In the end 252 of the 922 - or 27% of tbe cadets who had fought, some for years trying to get into West Point by 1946 , fell by the wayside, while 670 of us graduated four long years later and were commissioned 2d Lieutenants in the US Army, including the Army Air Corps.

So I got a replacement roommate. And as I recall, after several other F-2 company plebes quit West Point, the rooms were shuffled a bit, and I got two roommates that I then had for the next three years - Norm Smedes from Idaho and Grady Bannister from Alabama.

Developing Leaders

Now the organization of cadets into 100 man companies had, and still has,  more profound military significance than just as a way to organize cadets. It has to do with the way West Point teaches military leadership. During the four years a cadet is at the Point, utterly apart from academic study of 'leadership' in classrooms, or by observing military leaders, cadets, serve in progressively, higher cadet rank positions in their cadet Companies, at the battalion, and regimental level, and one becomes each year the 'First Captain.'  That  opens up the opportunity for every cadet to practice and perfect their own 'leadership' traits by visiting them on subordinate cadets all four years.

 

Each cadet moves progressively up in rank and responsibility for other cadets. Plebes - freshmen cadets - are taught - as much by 'upperclassmen'  how to be obedient  'followers' - how to take orders, be disciplined, and get the job or tasks done - from as simple as being required to shout out in the barracks the number of minutes left to the time of a formation, the delivering of messages to other cadets, to keeping of ones kit - uniform, bed, storage, shoes - in perfect condition. And of course anyone who has seen movies about West Point are familier with how 'upperclassmen' deliver to plebes an endless parade of commands, demands - accompanied in my day at the top of one's lungs so 'in ones face' that such behavior bordered on serious 'hazing' of cadets by other cadets. By 1946 severe physical 'hazing' such as Douglas MacArthur suffered when he was a cadet which brought him to the verge of serious total collapse with permanent injuries had been banned. Mental 'hazing' substituted for it. And ever inventive upperclass cadets became virtuosos at that.

By the second 'Yearling' year the 25 sophomore cadets continue the harassment of plebes in their company, but begin to think about how one should best 'motivate' other men to do what is required. Some 'Yearlings' got the reputation of forever being loudly in plebes' faces, while others began to give orders in a calmer manner and lowered voice. This is the time when cadets begin to try on their 'command personalities'

By the 3d year some of the 'Cows' - the juniors - begin to differentiate themselves from each other in the way they give orders. Some are made cadet 'Corporals' as they begin to be recognized by other cadets and, more significantly by the US Army commissioned (and most often a graduate)  'Tactical Officers' under whom every Company is assigned.  As I went through West Point the two 'Tac's\' that were assigned to company F-2 were full fledged Lieutenant Colonels who had experience in combat units during WWII.

Then senior Cadets 'First Classmen' are awarded, as much by their performance in the three earlier years, Cadet Ranks as Sergeants, Lieutenants, and one Captain - Company Commander. Where they are expected to 'run' the company as a cadet replica of what they will be doing as real Lieutenants in the Active Army after graduation and commissioning.

Over them, and all but out of sight most of the time, each company has a commissioned 'Tactical Officer' who insures that order is kept, cadets are counselled, and punishment is meted out at his level for cadet infractions of regulations - such as trying to sneak off post after hours - and getting caught.

But apart from my daily academic grind my first year,  my memory of 'Plebe Year' while in F-2 Company Barracks in the "Lost 50's"  is a distant blur. I have a clearer memory of what happened in the last three years while I was a cadet, when my mind was clearer than when I was submerged being a new cadet.

Blanchard and Davis

Then came the highlight of weekends. Football season! I was really looking forward to watching Army's famed team - that had been National Champions the year before I entered West Point. And I was not disappointed.

If the team was at home, we watched it, after the obligatory Full Dress Parade for the crowds that came to see West Point, in Michie Stadium. Which was named in the memory of Dennis Michie, who was born at West Point as the son of a professor, attended and graduated, played football for Army, but then was killed in action as a lieutenant leader in the Spanish American War.

 

And if we were lucky and the game was in New York, almost every plebe was able to see the game, after parading on downtown  avenues. West Point parades and football were (and in most ways still are) great American pageants.

I will never forget my first game in Michie Stadium. It is a small stadium, and because of that, cadets have to sit, in many cases, behind the goal posts.

At the first game Army was playing Villanova. Army was, of course heavily favored, but Villanova was a 'regular' top bracket, college team.

I will NEVER forget the first kickoff, to Army while I was sitting right behind the goal posts in the north stands. Far up enough to look down at an angle on the entire field.

Doc Blanchard, already an All American fullback from the previous year took the ball and started from the near goal line, right up the middle toward the distant Villanova-end goal posts. He did not vary ONE YARD left or right, but ran, laser-light straight, the entire 99 yards those distant goal posts, while Army players knocked down EVERY Villanova player attempting to reach him. Nobody touched him. And in probably 12-15 seconds it was the first TOUCHDOWN!

I decided I was going to like watching my West Point Army Football team in action from the get go!

Of course the entire Cadet Corps watched every home game held in Michie Stadium - all 2,500 men who marched onto the field in military formations  for the presenting of the Colors and National Anthem.

For the 'away' games - especially the ones involving travel to the midwest - sometimes only half of the Corps would attend.

But two important games saw all the cadets attend, including me. The Corps was bussed there. The Army-Notre Dame game, which was predicted to be one of the great ones, was played at the Polo Grounds in New York City in the fall of 1946.

It was the greatest game I ever saw - as Davis and Blanchard led Army and Johnny Lujack through a titanic battle of unbeatens that ended in a 0-0 tie!

And then I saw my first Army-Navy game in Philidelphia. Another titanic battle, which Army won in a last minute squeaker. In fact Army never lost to Navy all four years that I attended West Point.


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