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How I got my appointment to West Point
Many connections made me aware of WP when a boy. Cousins of USMA ‘46, ‘48, and USNA ‘51, another a career Navy pilot, and one a WWII US Marine combat infantryman; also revered uncles, a USN career surgeon, a USN lawyer. And then there was my father: soon after WWI he had moved to Kobe , Japan and thence to Shanghai where he established a business, and I was born. The Japanese attack on Shanghai and the devastation of the depression were not kind, though, and we returned to the US basically penniless. But Pearl Harbor fast led to a commission in the Army Air Corps, and constant travel for me 1942-46, when I surely saw half the officers’ clubs in the CONUS. Throughout the War I followed campaigns in the Pacific obsessively, plotting each American loss and advance while knowing relatives were in the fight; the names Chennault, Stillwell, Wainwright, MacArthur, Nimitz, Halsey, etc were heroes.
Ending 8th grade in 1947 I obtained a high school scholarship to a so-called Honor Military School-Junior ROTC [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Thomas_Academy] with many alumni also USMA graduates (including GEN A. Gruenther 1918, and now LTG G. Monahan 1955). This was an old fashioned place, with emphasis on Latin, Math, Latin, Greek, Physics, Chemistry … and did I say Latin? I did OK; in fact I thrived; though penury caused me to begin paying Social Security from age 13. By my junior year 1949-50 I wanted to be an electrical or maybe a chemical engineer; I explored at least 50 college programs, and decided on WP, Caltech, and MIT.
My first letter to WP was rejected saying I was too young as I had reported 1934 as my DOB, whereas it in fact is (identical to the day to our brilliant gifted classmate John T. Hamilton’s) 12-12-1933. Once I got that straightened out, I obtained an appointment from Eugene J. McCarthy (later of anti-LBJ anti-VN fame). So I went to Ft. Sheridan , took the tests (must have seen many of you all there) and despite a heart murmur and asthma, was told in March 1951 that I had passed. By this time I also had scholarship offers from Caltech and MIT. So there I was, paralyzed between these three possibilities --- until April 19, 1951 --- the date of Gen. MacArthur’s “Old Soldier’s Never Die” speech before a joint session of Congress. I saw this address on TV live. My emotionalism, boyish romanticism, naïveté were totally enraptured by that speech [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/macarthur/filmmore/reference/primary/macspeech05.html], and I made an on-the-spot decision to go to WP (but with the offers from Caltech and MIT in my pocket, just in case USMA did not work out for me).
So late June 1951, I boarded a train from St. Paul for NYC’s Grand Central Station/Hotel. First day in the City I walked out onto the street and came upon a clutch of onlookers and a man lying on the sidewalk in a pool of blood having been shot in the head. Police explained this was a gangster killing --- aah my first trip to NY. Still I managed to find the bus terminal and, together with my pocketed alternative college offers, travel those final few miles to WP. My first sight there, other than a scowling Firstie, was a platoon formation of decent looking civilian boys on the roadway next to Grant Hall leading into South Area. The Firstie explained these were turnouts from the football team found on honor (“so they really meant that honor stuff” I thought to myself).
In truth, this New Cadet in Beast Barracks 6th NC Company was not a happy camper. I remember thinking during our initiation to bayonet training: “Is this really necessary for an engineering degree?” But I loved the Hell Cats, who gave me the daily illusion that this day would be better than yesterday, the social egalitarianism within the Corps, and especially the elevation in my monetary/physical standard of living. In July, 1951, I received a letter from Caltech demanding a decision. I wrote back my withdrawal; this was easy since Caltech had offered no room and board, only free tuition. But in the final days of Beast Barracks, I received letters from MIT fraternities rushing me to pledge; turning this down was hard since MIT offered room and board as well as tuition.
So why did I write that letter to MIT? Was it simple masochism? Gen. MacArthur? The Hell Cats? Relief at having survived Beast Barracks? Maybe I just wanted that USCC serial number. It was a decision I never regretted, the opportunity cost of those other offers would be made up later in graduate school, but the connection to the Long Gray Line, USMA-1955 and a lifetime of treasured friends, and our country’s history was unique and deeply valued. Soon after writing to MIT, I was summoned to form up with a group in Central Area to be shouted at in a foreign language by an officer I did not know. That evening, now an ordained Plebe, I figured it out; this was the way they taught Russian at West Point.
16 AUG 2010