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Code Breakers: Fact vs Fiction
BACKGROUND: The made for television movie, "Code Breakers," was based upon the book A RETURN TO GLORY. The documentary, "Faces of Sports: Brave Old Army Team," contrary to prior statements, wasn't based upon the book but was researched and produced entirely separate and apart from the television movie, although late in the documentary production process I gave the production company a copy of the book.
The sports network, ESPN, premiered "Code Breakers," on Saturday evening, 10 December 2005 following its filming, which began on 6 June 2005, and a 6 December telecast of the documentary, then subsequently released both on a Hart Sharp DVD, 11 JUL 2006.
Since those releases numerous questions have been asked about fact vs fiction with respect to the book's and movie's telling of the 1951 honor incident. I eventually became deeply involved in both productions, but didn't learn of the documentary until I was called by its producer, Winnercom in Tulsa, OK, in October 2005, late in its production, and asked to interview on screen. In November, the week prior to Thanksgiving, the documentary producers called and asked me to be the fact checker for the documentary. Winnercom was able to edit out some of the errors I found, but unfortunately, there were some fundamental errors in the documentary that couldn't be corrected because it was too late in the production process.
I had hoped to answer the questions about the movie sooner, but was delayed by other writing projects. Finally, after preparing a paper to send to the Army's Cadet Command along with a copy of the book and DVD, for their possible use in character development and battle command training in the ROTC and JROTC curriculums, I was able to prepare the paper below, which highlights and explains most of the key differences between "fact of life" and the movie dramatization of the 1951 incident.
FOR CONTEXT, SOME IMPORTANT HISTORY: Before you read the paper, I believe it necessary to point out some important history and context surrounding the incident, as well as emphasize the incident's continuing relevance to today.
Though Coach Earl Blaik managed to swallow his wounded pride and shattered record of accomplishments, suppress is frustration and anger for his remaining eight seasons at Army, and return the Army team to the national spotlight, he never gave up his determination to right what he perceived to be wrong, and his books, You Have to Pay the Price 1960 and The "Red" Blaik Story (1974) clearly reflected his deep-seated, angry feelings. His books, read by his many admirers, were filled with incorrect information and harsh attacks on the men who had the unpleasant duty of investigating and making decisions regarding the actions needed to resolve the complex issues raised by the events in the unfolding disaster. His books also contained negative, argumentative material, and incorrect assumptions regarding the Honor Code and System. And sadly, like all but a very small number of Academy graduates, he was uninformed as to the facts of the matter. Investigations were all conducted behind closed doors, Board members were prohibited from divulging information regarding it's proceedings, and the Collins Board members instructed witnesses not to discuss their testimony with anyone once they were excused from their hearings. They didn't obey the Board President's admonition, and some of them used their knowledge to great advantage, and with unfortunately the intent to undermine the proceedings. Blaik knew what his players told him, and little else about the conduct of the investigation. He accepted their version of events, and forcefully and effectively defended his players, an error that would later have other profound effects, both upon him, the young men involved, and the Academy.
In the meantime, once corrective actions were judged complete, the incident's all-important records were separated and scattered in the Academy and National Archives. The Academy, anxious to get the incident and the related sensational and negative media reporting behind it, and wishing to give the men discharged the opportunity for a new beginning, fell silent. The Collins and Bartlett Boards were classified "Confidential" and "Restricted" respectively in September 1951, effectively muzzling any further analysis of the event or any public revelations as to what really occurred that year.
Ironically, in his testimony before the Bartlett Board in Washington, DC on 4 September 1951, Colonel Harkins responded to the two Board members' final, and perhaps one of their most important questions in the entire investigation. They asked, "In the light of our discussion here, have you anything to add that will help us in our recommendations for preventing a recurrence of such an incident?"
His reply, found on page 45 in the Board testimony and never published, was both stunning and prophetic. "I might answer by making a general statement that I think it should be emphasized somewhere along the line that the Corps of Cadets discovered this and brought it to the attention of the authorities, and it was the honor system working. If it hadn't been for the great moral courage of two young men this thing might have grown and disrupted everything good about West Point. At least it would have negated the honor system, which is the keystone in the foundation of West Point."
Harkins then went on to say, "I think, too, that very soon, and the sooner the better, the graduates of the Academy should be told the story in the true light. This has not been done, to my knowledge. I think that some of the statements made by the cadets involved, and some persons who are apparently backing them and trying to make martyrs of them, should be refuted because they are filled with half truths. Nowhere along the line have I seen a statement from the Superintendent, Dean, or the Commandant, giving the complete facts as they occurred. I think graduates should know that this was an organized ring, that they used passwords, that they left class early to get information to others so that others could make use of it, and that some of these cadets lied under oath. The whole case should be presented to the graduates on a factual basis. I have had many inquiries from officers here in Washington or officers who were passing through, as to what the real story is that I am sure we owe the true story not only to the officers but to the public in general."
Ironically, perhaps some of the most compelling testimony heard, albeit right at the end of the Bartlett Board's deliberations, from the man who possessed the most credible evidence and relevant institutional memory regarding weakened cadet support for the Honor Code and System in the years immediately following World War II, was virtually ignored by the Board. The Board, by that time, was convinced. They had found both the underlying and proximate causes for the cheating incident of 1951. Overemphasis on (winning) football.
From everything I've learned through nearly 13 years of research, writing and reflection regarding the 1951 incident, based on an additional five plus years of investigating various forms of incidents and accidents, including 14 major aircraft accidents in which there were only five total survivors, hundreds of other incidents and accidents involving aircraft, a train wreck, literally, complex and controversial military and civilian personnel complaints, Congressional inquiries, difficult and controversial management system evaluations and audits, and controversial civilian complaints against military personnel, there is far more to be learned about the 1951, 1965 and 1976 honor incidents.
THE TELLING OF THE TRUE STORY NEVER OCCURRED. Regarding the 1951 incident, a lack of sunshine for 49 years. The telling of the "true story" never occurred, not until purely by happenstance I began researching and writing A RETURN TO GLORY, forty- two years later. Nor did Harkins ever know that General Irving had requested the Army staff to permit him to hold a press conference to explain what had occurred, but his request had been denied.
An outcome even more serious, the failure to publicly tell the full, true story of the 1951 honor incident, resulted in the growth of rumors, innuendo, half-truths, and in some instances, outright deliberate fabrications, which in turn gave rise to a deep and continuing split into two fiercely contending groups among Academy graduates, a split that has reached all the way back to classes well before the class of 1941.
I first learned of the two groups' existence among Academy graduates during a background interview in 1994, and repeatedly encountered graduates clearly rooted in the two, and who sometimes heatedly expressed their facts and opinions as to why they believed as they did regarding the events of 1951. Though there are many shades of opinion between and among the two groups I mention, they can be said to fit into the pro-Blaik and anti-Blaik groups.
They echo the classic story of the jock vs the academic, tension and sometimes acrimonious, three-way conflict between academic departments, university administrations and intercollegiate athletic departments, which can be found all too frequently on college and university campuses where the necessary leadership and institutional teamwork are lacking. Such a conflict was becoming increasingly in evidence at West Point in the years following World War II, before the 1951 honor incident exploded, and was later clearly given voice in the Bartlett Board report.
As to the relevance of the incident to today's world, one need only consider the periodic, repetitive, devastating of breeches of private and public integrity and trust: corporate, government, sports, private and professional scandals. The principles of honesty, integrity, and honor, or whatever one chooses to call it, remain unchanged. How it is acquired, taught, learned, shaped, and addressed when violations occur are, always subject to discussion, debate and change. The battle to keep conspitorial malfeasance, theft, fraud, bribery, kickbacks and other similar activity under control will continue.
My earnest hope is the paper that follows will answer most of the questions regarding historical fact vs film dramatization.
All the best,
USMA Class of 1955
Author, A RETURN TO GLORY
(17 OCT 2006)
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10 October 2006
To: Curriculum Review Board
U.S. Army Cadet Command
55 Patch Road
Bldg 56 ATTN: ATTC-TR-L
Fort Monroe, VA 23651
A Return to Glory and "Code Breakers":
The made for television movie, "Code Breakers" was based primarily on the first three chapters, plus excerpts from chapters 8, 10, and 20 and other factual information found in the appendices of the book, A RETURN TO GLORY. Fundamentally accurate in portraying the essential truths and key figures in West Point's 1951 honor incident, the film story does, for several reasons, differ from the book in a number of ways, and should be pointed out in use of either or both the book and DVD in classrooms.
Historical Fact vs. Dramatization
First was the need to evenhandedly portray an important, unprecedented, complex, and potentially controversial event in history in just 90 minutes of screen time, not an easy task. Second, because the real story was truly complex and potentially confusing to audiences unfamiliar with the Military Academy, its mission, methods of education and training, honor code and system, and intercollegiate athletic programs, the story had to be simplified while retaining both its integrity and dramatic impact. Third, the producer made an extraordinary effort to recreate the era, make the film a "period piece," in which the events occurred, which required a great deal of detailed effort during a compressed filming schedule. Fourth, holding to people and events just exactly as history was, would have resulted in a much larger cast, and an unacceptably large increase in budget.
While there are some marked differences between the book, A Return to Glory, and "Code Breakers," the differences don't detract from the fundamental truths derived from and portrayed in the book.
The following highlights some of the major truths accurately portrayed, and a small number of relatively unimportant flaws I found in the film because specificity and facts were sometimes omitted from the presentation:
o The movie accurately revealed that the cheating ring was in fact a conspiracy, in which a hard core group of cadets agreed among themselves to deny any knowledge of organized cheating at West Point, and if questioned, to deny the existence of organized cheating or that they had participated in cheating.
o As portrayed in the film, a number of cadets found guilty of cheating, did lie under oath the first time they appeared before the Collins Board, though the movie didn't say how many lied. The official investigation by a board of three Army lieutenant colonels from the West Point class of 1938, all World War II veterans, found 22 cadets lied under oath in their first appearance to give sworn testimony to the board, which later took the name of its president, LTC Arthur S. Collins, Jr. Some of the men found guilty repeatedly lied.
o Clearly implied but not specifically, factually highlighted in the movie was the fact that third classmen (sophomores) involved in cheating in three cadet companies deliberately schemed to elect one of their group as company honor representatives. This occurred in three cadet companies, B-1, B-2, and K-1. The film dialog indicates the honor committee "was stacked," or "they've compromised the honor committee." The elections were in fact successful in two of the three cadet companies, B-1 and B-2, which meant, had they not been found out, the honor committee would have indeed been compromised when the class of 1953 became the senior class.
o One cadet honor committee member in the class of 1951 was repeatedly named in testimony by underclassmen as involved in the ring, or sympathetic to them. However the strict rules of evidence required for a courts martial, rules the board was required to adhere to, plus the lack of corroborating evidence, prevented proof of the underclass allegations against him. The unprecedented investigation proceeded under the assumption the cadets might be court martialed as a result of evidence gathered in the investigation. Thus board members sought hard, corroborated evidence that "would stand up in court."
o Contrary to the film's portrayal, no member of the football team was on the cadet honor committee. However, in point of fact two cadets who were among 25 cadet academic tutors for the football team were found guilty of cheating, and one of the two was found guilty of "false swearing," that is, lying under oath then later recanting previous testimony - twice falsely given.
o There were at least two portrayals in the movie of threats or intimidation of witnesses, but both portrayed the events in manners inconsistent with fact. The scene in which Brian Nolan (fictitious name used in both the book and movie), the cadet who reported the ring's existence, was hit in the head by a shoe shine brush thrown from an upstairs window was a dramatization of other events. Brian Nolan was in fact threatened by an accused classmate and football player in Company K-1. The threat was conveyed in person in Nolan's room and was so serious Nolan reported it to LTC Collins, and the classmate was detained for questioning by the FBI for four hours.
o As a result Colonel Harkins did in fact confine Nolan to his cadet room, for Nolan's own protection during June Week, and placed a second class member (junior class) guard outside his room.
o The other blatant use of intimidation, which wasn't portrayed in the film, involved two of the first few witnesses to appear before the Collins board. One of them was the classmate Nolan first reported, a member of the Academy's fencing team. Approximately twelve men in the ring called a meeting in a room in Company A-1's first division of barracks, the evening of the first day's testimony. They demanded to know what the two men told the board, and also wanted to know what they had been asked during the proceedings, to help them prepare for their testimony - though the Collins Board had specifically instructed all witnesses not to discuss any aspect of the proceedings with anyone after their testimony.
In the meeting, the angry ring members who confronted the two men, particularly the cadet from Company K-1 who told them he had told the complete truth to the board. The ring members demanded, under threat of physical harm, that the two men return to the board, recant their previous testimony, say they were the only two involved in cheating, and "take the fall" for everyone else.
The threat backfired in the one case. Nolan's classmate in K-1, who had told the whole truth in testimony that morning, that evening, after the meeting, called LTC Collins on the phone to tell him of the threatening incident. The next board session Collins and the board members confronted the second cadet when he attempted to perjure himself a second time. His corrected testimony began the unraveling of the conspiracy.
o In the film, Brian Nolan is portrayed as the only cadet involved in disclosing the existence of the cheating ring, reported his football player roommate, and then "following Colonel Harkins' order to 'go under cover', joins the ring to verify the existence of the ring and obtain hard evidence against those found participating in cheating." There was in fact a second cadet in Company H-2, who was on the swimming team with Nolan, and volunteered to join in the undercover investigation for the Commandant, Colonel Paul D. Harkins.
Of the two men who went under cover, the cadet in H-2, had a far more difficult life than Nolan, after the cadets in organized cheating found out who the two men were who "ratted on them." Over the years, the real Nolan had several encounters with men who treated him with evident disdain, and he was additionally greatly pained because his mother never forgave him his participation as a "tattle tale."
The second cadet, once he went under cover, learned a classmate whom he knew from his home town, was involved in organized cheating. When the hometown classmate was discharged he went back to their home town and told everyone who would listen the story of the "man who got him, a home town boy, discharged from the Academy." The man who did his duty became persona non grata in the town where he grew up and graduated from high school.
o Nolan's roommate in the film, George Holbrook, is portrayed as the wavering, eventually errant football player from a broken home, who had lived with his grandmother, and had nothing else in his life but West Point and football. Holbrook was in fact a fictitious character who represented a combination of several men in real life who participated in the cheating ring.
In fact, in real life, neither of Nolan's two roommates in Company K-1 were football players. The man he actually, eventually reported as pressing him to join "a group of cadets" involved in cheating was in fact a classmate - the member of the fencing team - and lived in another cadet room in Nolan's company. The fencing team member was also the son of an Academy graduate who was a brigadier general in the Army's occupation forces in Germany at the time, whereas in the film Nolan is portrayed as the son of an Academy graduate, with uncles who were also Academy graduates. The real Nolan was a recruited swimming team member, whose father wasn't career military or a graduate. The two roommates (classmates) of the man whom Nolan reported were Academy intercollegiate athletes. One was on the boxing team, the other a junior varsity football player, and was the football player who threatened Nolan and was detained by the FBI.
o In the film, Nolan goes to his father for advice on what to do before he reports his football player roommate, then over his father's objections reports him to the commandant. In real life, Nolan was first asked by the Commandant if he would go under cover, and Colonel Harkins explained why. Nolan, who knew the serious implications of the matter, asked for permission to consult with his family, then called his uncle, a lawyer in New York City, and asked him to come to West Point to visit. He wanted some advice. After his uncle recommended he accept the Commandant's request, he then went to Colonel Harkins and agreed to press ahead with what became a six week undercover investigation.
o Pertinent facts: 94 cadets were found guilty, and after additional evidence was considered during the case review cycle, a total of 83 from the classes of 1952 and 1953 resigned and received less than honorable discharges. Eleven were returned to their classes, and nine graduated with their classes. Among the cadets who resigned were 37 football players, including 25 of 27 returning lettermen, the captain- elect for the 1951 season, and two first team All-Americans among the returning lettermen. Additionally, two of the three top ranked cadets, militarily, who would have been senior cadet officers and leaders in the Corps of Cadets also resigned, along with nine more who would have been cadet captains. 21 of 24 cadet companies lost one or more men to organized cheating. One company lost 16 and another 14. None were ever readmitted to the Academy.
o As portrayed in the movie, evidence strongly suggests football Head Coach Earl H. "Red" Blaik, USMA class of 1920, was completely blind- sided by the cheating ring, which had found root on his nationally- ranked, much-admired football team, and the film accurately portrays him as stunned by his team's and his son's revelations to him, although the disclosures portrayed in the film didn't occur as shown.
o Blaik's son, Bob, would in all probability have been Army's starting quarterback in the season of 1951, and in testimony before the Collins Board, did admit to participating in organized cheating by assisting teammates with unauthorized information about daily quizzes and examinations, but steadfastly refused to disclose to whom he had given assistance, in spite of the fact the Collins Board already had received corroborating evidence from men to whom Bob Blaik had given assistance.
o Contrary to what Coach Blaik was told by several men on his football team, and he accepted at face value as the truth, then in fact and in the film repeated to the media in his 9 August 1951 press conference at Mama Leone's Restaurant in New York City, not one single cadet was discharged because he "only knew about the cheating, and didn't cheat" or solely because he "told the truth." The coach couldn't accept or believe the men who cheated hadn't told him the whole truth about their involvement, and under existing rules of evidence and the Articles of War (which were in transition to the Uniform Code of Military Justice at that time) he could neither testify before the board because all his evidence would have been "hearsay," nor could he be given access to the board record.
o In September 1951, while discharges were still in progress, the Collins Board record was classified "Confidential" by the Department of the Army.
o The film goes into considerable depth telling of the relationship between Blaik and his son, which was only briefly and superficially covered in the book The producers didn't disclose whether or not they used other sources to delve into the relationship on screen.
o The Army football team went 2-7 in 1951, 4-4-1 in 1952, and 7-1-1 in 1953, defeating Navy the first time since 1949, ended the season ranked No. 14 in the nation, and won the Lambert Trophy, symbolic of Eastern Football supremacy. The following season they went 7-2, losing to South Carolina in the opening game and Navy in the final game, and the two rivals were ranked 5 and 6 respectively, having reversed places in the national standings, after the Navy victory.
o Bryan Nolan graduated from West Point with his class of 1953, was commissioned in the Air Force, retired from the regular Air Force as a major general, with a distinguished career including numerous combat missions in Vietnam, and service as the Air Force's Director of Intelligence before he retired from active duty. He is retired from public life, lives in Annapolis, MD, and still prefers his real name not be disclosed in connection with his role in the events of 1951.
o The portrayal of him within the context of events described in the book and depicted in the film, "Code Breakers," and the recalling of those events, brought an emotional release for all he had been through in his life. Neither he nor his classmate in Cadet Company H-2 were ever thanked by the Academy for their participation in the breaking of the cheating ring in 1951.
o One of the 83 men discharged returned to the University of New Mexico and its Air Force ROTC program, graduated, was commissioned, completed a distinguished career of service, and retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant general in the Air Force Reserve. As an active duty major general, he was on the reviewing stand with President Anwar Sadat, in Cairo, Egypt on 6 October 1981 when Sadat was assassinated by Islamic militants. He is now deceased, the victim of a malignant brain tumor.
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