* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
How I got my appointment to West Point
DATELINE - PENSACOLA, FLORIDA - MARCH 1949, WHERE MY WEST POINT JOURNEY ALL BEGAN: While a junior in high school, I was President of our local Key Club and took a class trip to Washington, DC, for a National Key Club Convention, then see all the sights I had only dreamed about. A high priority on that visit was the US Capitol and the traditional visit to our Congressman's office, Rep Bob Sikes, lst District, Florida. We obtained our Congressional Gallery passes for the House from the Congressman's office and on the way out the door, saw and picked up a couple of brochures with impressive military covers. One was for the US Naval Academy and one for the US Military Academy. They were not quite the fancy Admissions Books we see today, these were in black and white and not even "on-line". Later that summer, one of my father's friends there in our home-town of Pensacola, Florida, "The Annapolis of the Air," suggested that I consider the Naval Academy and Dad asked me if I had thought about it. I told him I had read the admissions information brought from Washington and did enjoy watching the training aircraft overhead as they roared over our home, plus the float planes often landed on the water in the bay amidst the many vessels - EXCITING. Our Key Club even went out for a one day cruise in the Gulf to observe flight training carrier qualifications on the local aircraft carrier, USS Lexington "The Lady Lex" as it was called. Officers' cabins were nice, galley was superb, white table cloths and silver - as well as sheets on the bunk. "I was smitten" by the opportunity to take to the air - plus many of our attractive females in town seemed to take a fancy for the Midshipmen's whites at Sunday church services.
So, when Congressman Sikes offered to place my name in nomination for the US Naval Academy Class of 1954, I decided to "go for it." Until then, I was well prepared academically, having taken a double load in high school to get all the advanced courses, chemistry, biology, Latin, as well as the fundamentals of physics, Geometry, Algebra, Trigonometry, etc. in preparation for attendance at Emory University Pre-med and followed by Emory Medical School. Physically, my dad had insured that I belong and attend classes at the local YMCA for overall conditioning, but not necessarily with a military option in the equation. However my father had served in the Army between the wars, speaking often about what rank he might have achieved had he served on into WWII; however he turned down his offer of promotion and elected discharge to return home and marry my mother. I often reflected that had he stayed in the military, I might never have been born. So, the Army lost a good soldier in the 20's and got me in the 50's. Therefore, when the ANNAPOLIS appointment came, I proceeded with the preadmission physical at the Pensacola Naval Air Station Hospital. All systems were go, I completed the forms and mailed them off to the Academy, prepared for entry upon high school graduation in June 1950. Unfortunately, Plan B changed rapidly back to Plan A when a rejection letter arrived a couple of weeks later stating that formal review of my application concluded I was qualified academically, physically, mentally, and motivationally; unfortunately, I was STILL TOO YOUNG. Seems I would not be 17 years of age until three months after admission and would only be 20 years upon graduation in June 1954. The law required that a Regular Naval Officer must be 21 years of age upon the date of commissioning, and I would be almost four months shy. In other words, please reapply next year.
Since the Congressman's announcement had already been in the local papers and folks had congratulated me on my decision to follow in the paths of my many male relatives who had fought WWII from ships at sea, not the beaches of Normandy, the die had been cast and my expectations remained high. Emory University now offered me an academic tuition scholarship as I prepared for pre-med, and maybe Annapolis the next year. No sooner was the ink dry on those papers than I received a letter from Congressman Sikes stating that he regretted to inform me that he had committed his Annapolis Class of 1955 appointment for the next year to another student. BUT, he was prepared to offer me the 1st Alternate Appointment to West Point if I had an interest. The sun seemed to be setting deeper on my military options, so I proceeded with my first quarter at Emory, doing well in my class of 300 students, served as class officer, ran cross county, played soccer and enjoyed membership in the popular SAE fraternity, the best on frat row. Emory was good for me as I then turned 17 and settled in more yet, drama club, our Church youth group, a service related service fraternity of former Boy Scouts, and even began to date some of the young ladies from the Agnes Scott campus nearby.
Then, as happens often in Washington, another letter came. The principal appointee for West Point from my district of Florida, a good friend of mine who was one of the finest athletes in Pensacola High School, an outstanding football player, all state end, and star center in basketball, had declined the Principal appointment for West Point, accepting instead a full scholarship to the University of Florida, although not yet the powerhouse it is today, they were a formidable team which would prepare him for the coaching jobs he yearned for and earned in the years ahead. I was now offered the Principal appointment in his place. To have even been considered beside him was an honor, so how could I now turn it down? Thus, I proceeded with the application. My dad was very pleased that I would now follow him with service in the Army, my mother very anxious since the North Koreans had invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, and I had now turned 17, fully eligible now to serve my country. The sun was rising again. Unfortunately, in early March, 1951, as I prepared for Winter quarter finals at Emory, my father suffered a second and fatal heart attack, at age 47, leaving my mom a young widow of 41, with two children yet to educate. There were no 401K's or IRA's back then, good steady incomes, but no health benefits and dad's illnesses had drained the family reserves, leaving barely enough for one to go to college, not even thinking about two. I had a younger sister two years behind me, so my choice became even clearer and wiser. My dad had held the Army in high esteem and West Point was the epitome of Army service to him.
In sadness over my father's passing, but with the challenge ahead, knowing that my dad would be pleased with whatever course taken, I completed my Freshman year at Emory with an excellent record, which further prepared the way for West Point. And in June, 1951, reported to the Academy for the final academic and physical proficiency tests at Stewart AFB, followed by the physical at the West Point Army Hospital. I had travelled 48 hours on a Greyhound Bus from Florida to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, then the Mohawk Coach Line on to Stewart where we were bunked while taking the tests. All went well, academically and physically, until the young dentist who performed the dental exam observed that I had lost four molars as a youngster, which had not been replaced by a bridge, allowing my teeth to shift. In bright red ink, evidently reserved only for "disapprovals", without forewarning or counsel to me, he wrote across the dental portion of the form "disqualified for admission, severe malocclusion - could not eat Army food". I was shocked since I had been examined in Pensacola by the Navy only nine months before, with the same teeth missing then and been fully cleared for Annapolis. Somehow, the Navy must be issued different foods than the Army. But, I remained composed, got out of the dental chair, rushed to the men's room next door and "lost all my breakfast". That was my final station in the entire exam and I had just been disqualified for something I did could not even spell, much less know what it meant, since I ate well every day and never had trouble chewing or swallowing anything. (In later years, this was further validated in Ranger School on those three day patrols through North Georgia, when famished from hunger, we foraged, chewing hard dried corn, pulled as we passed through corn field after corn field and never broke a tooth - nor had an upset stomach.) With my physical exam paper in hand, I moved to the final station in the hospital. It was a large Conference Room where the Hospital Commander chaired the Board of Review, with full Colonels of each of the Medical Departments participating across the long table, approaching an inquisition. The Commander looked only at the front page of the form and said, "Mr. McNair, everything looks good and you appear to be fully cleared medically." I choked it back, but spoke up and said, "Sir, if you will look on the back page, the Dentist has written in red that I am disqualified because my teeth will not be able to chew Army food." The Commander was taken aback, turned the paper over and said that I was correct, he had missed that comment. Looking down the table at the Chief Dental Surgeon, the Commander asked for his comment. The Chief Dentist asked me to step up in front of him at the table and open my mouth. I did as ordered, shaking in the presence of six full Colonels. The Chief Dental Officer, without instruments, mirror or probes, simply looked in briefly and curtly replied, "They look good enough to me - you're fine." It just went to show how much more a Colonel knows about dentistry and a young 17 year old wanted to enter West Point than a Captain. I wanted to hug the Colonel, but exercised constraint. The Hospital Commander scratched out the disqualifying remarks and said, "Congratulations, welcome to West Point." Anyone who doesn't believe there are Guardian Angels, mine was dressed like a Dental Corps Colonel that day. I floated out of the Conference Room that day boarded the bus back to Stewart AFB, swelling with pride and anxiety that I would soon be a cadet.
I was now finally approved for admission on Jul 3, 1951 with the Class of 1955. When one looks back upon such major decisions in their life, there are always "twists and turns", but that year was perhaps the most pivotal in my life as I reached the biggest fork in the road of my life thus far. My family was with me all the way and I truly felt that God had led me to that point, then gave me the strength and courage to choose the proper course. My only disappointment was that my dad could not be with me as I followed that path for the next 60 years of my life, in war and in peace, in love and in marriage. But, in many respects, he is with me to this day, as is my dear late mother, still leading and guiding as I have faced the continuing challenge which life presents for all of us, almost 53 years of marriage to the same dedicated and supportive wife, three fine children all happily married, and six grandchildren. What more can one ask?
Reflecting now on those formative years, I must confess that the thoughts of medical school did cross my mind often during my four years at the Academy, but I was there to stay. As the four years passed, summer training and Branch trips sold me on the Infantry, the Airborne and the Rangers. Yet the challenge of aerial flight experienced on the Air Force visits also beckoned strongly. Air Force was about to get the final nod until the night before branch drawing in March 1955, when General Hamilton H. Howze, then Director of Army Aviation, on the Army Staff, was directed by General James Gavin, the Army G3, to travel to West Point and brief the Class of 1955 that the Army had made a strategic decision to move rapidly into the third dimension, air mobility in a giant way, and would need young Regular Officers to serve and lead the effort. Until then, Army Aviation was an additional skill like a Parachutist for Infantry, Artillery, Armor and officers of other branches, but the Army was now looking beyond the Airborne on a grander scale for the future. That one brief lecture on the eve of branch drawing not only turned my focus, making it clearer yet that I could combine all my dreams into a single pursuit. The following evening, I chose Infantry, Airborne, Ranger, Army Aviation and the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC - little realizing that 25 years later I would be honored to serve as the first Chief of the Army Aviation Branch of the United States Army.
And that's how I not only "got to" West Point, but where West Point "got me" or perhaps should say "got to me", embedded in the motto of "Duty - Honor - Country" over the intervening decades of service to our Army and our Nation.
Looking back, I will always cherish West Point and the training received, friendships made and opportunities provided. Perhaps in some small way, I have now repaid the investments that my family, our Alma Mater, our Army, and the many mentors and soldiers with whom I served made in me over these many years.
Retired still Serving,
CARL H. McNAIR,JR.
USMA Class of 1955
18 AUG 2010