How I got to West Point
By Rich Miller, K-1
Short answer …. My mother drove me to New York City the day before we were supposed to report. I spent the night at the Picadilly Hotel and took a chartered bus to West Point the next morning. That, dear friends, is how I got to West Point.
Longer answer …. My dad was a reserve infantry Lt. following an ROTC program at the University of Nebraska. He was called to active duty in 1940 and stationed at Jefferson Barracks, MO. We lived in Afton, MO in a small frame house on an un-paved street. Jefferson Barracks was expanding. Barracks were being constructed and my dad was in a unit conducting basic training. My dad had a law degree and had practiced law in Omaha prior to being activated. He soon became the regimental expert on court martials and transferred to the JAG. We were sent to the Pentagon in 1941 and lived in Alexandria, VA. I remember being at the movies in Old Town when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The Army took over the Michigan Law School at Ann Arbor to train JAGs during the war and my dad was sent there as an instructor. He eventually was promoted to Colonel and became the Commandant of the JAG School.
Of course all the kids in Ann Arbor were caught up in the war. We played soldier, digging trenches in empty lots. We acquired Army helmet liners and I confess to cutting some netting from a backstop at a U of M baseball field to cover my helmet for camouflage purposes. The war ended and my dad accepted an RA commission. He was transferred to Panama where we lived at Ft. Clayton, home of the 33rd Infantry. My dad was the Judge Advocate for the Caribbean Defense Command. My brother (Dyke, USMA ’60) and I were true Army Brats, hanging around the post playing fields, gyms, watching parades and field displays. My close friends, and I, all had fatigue uniforms, jungle hammocks, .22 rifles and machetes so we could camp out in the jungle. The Boy Scouts on post went out to the Perlas Islands in the Bay of Panama in Army landing craft, supplied with pup tents and K rations. All in all, we were pretty well indoctrinated as kids in the Army as a great way of life.
I began playing football at Balboa High School in Panama in 1947. Something went wrong with my back. I was med-evaced to Walter Reed in August 1948. Col. Spitler, head of orthopedics, gave me a spinal fusion. My dad was transferred to the Pentagon. I spent a couple of months in a full body cast. The spinal fusion fixed me up. I started my sophomore year at Falls Church High School in Jan 1948 wearing a leather covered back brace.
A year after the operation I was fine. I played football at Falls Church High School in 1949 and 1950. In October, 1950, I was playing center and got my nose broken in three places. (In those days, no one had face guards on their helmet until after they were injured) I couldn’t play the following Saturday. My dad took the family to New York on October 14, 1950 to see Army play the University of Michigan in Yankee Stadium. Davis and Blanchard had graduated, but the exploits of the Army football team during the war were well remembered. Army beat Michigan, 27-6. (The next time I saw Army play Michigan was in 1954 when I was on the Army football team.)
We stayed at the Astor Hotel, which catered to Army fans in those days. I was walking around with a brace on my nose, held in place by a big white cross of adhesive tape. After the game we went back to the hotel. There were lots of cadets riding in the elevators with some pretty cute girls. One of the girls asked me if I played for Army and got hurt in the game. That’s the first time I remember thinking about going to college. And I decided that maybe going to college at West Point would be something to work for. The cadet uniform seemed like a girl magnet. And as a true Army Brat I knew that service in the armed forces was a good life.
Later that fall, my dad asked me if I would rather go to college at West Point or Nebraska. I said I’d give West Point a shot. Granddad Ramsey in Omaha knew a congressman. I got a first alternate appointment.
Falls Church High School left something to be desired academically. I taught the algebra teacher, algebra, in one class when I was a sophomore. My dad sent me to Sullivan’s, across the Potomac in DC, for two months in Jan-Feb 1951 to learn how to pass the West Point entrance exam. Every Saturday at Sully’s we would take a practice entrance exam. I remember scoring 8% on my first test. I had to study pretty hard to get into West Point. After two months I had memorized enough to pass the entrance exam which I recall was held in March or April at Walter Reed. But, I flunked the physical because of the spinal fusion and the medics also discovered a hernia. Col. Spitler wrote a waiver regarding his most successful back operation and I went into Walter Reed in May to get the hernia fixed. So I was good to go physically, but only had an alternate appointment.
Luck was with me. The guy with the principal appointment managed to get his girl friend pregnant. He married her in a June wedding. Cadets couldn’t be married. I got a letter from the Army saying report to West Point in July. As you know, my mother drove me to New York the day before we were supposed to report. I spent the night at the Picadilly Hotel and took a chartered bus to West Point the next morning. I was 17, too young to register for the draft, but ready to give West Point my best shot.
Footnote: That summer about ninety cadets who were involved in a cheating scandal were dismissed. Many of them were football players. If anyone in the new plebe class knew what a football looked like, he got to try out for the team during Beast Barracks. I beat Doc Blanchard, Army’s fabled fullback was then an Air Force Captain, in a foot race at football screening. Again, luck was with me. Thanks to some cheaters, I got to spend four years in the Army football program on the freshman, JV and varsity teams. AKA …. C Squad, B Squad, and A Squad. The football team opened the doors for me to play four years of lacrosse for Army. In those days few cadets knew how to play lacrosse (especially me). Coach Touchtone recruited freshmen football players to join the plebe team. His idea was to recruit some players who liked to knock people down. He could teach them how to handle a lacrosse stick. In my case it worked.
For the 1951 season I was a fullback on the freshmen team, ending the season getting my jaw broken when returning a punt in our last game. The doctors let me go with our class down to Philadelphia for the Army-Navy game. My jaw was wired shut and I could only sip food through the cracks of my teeth, but I got to go to the game. We lost 42-7. After, I went to some team parties at the Ben Franklin and managed to drink a lot of beer through my teeth. My faithful roommates, Joe Franklin and Fred Knieriem (who also were football players), got me to the train on time and held me for the pre-boarding inspection. Army had a terrible 2W-7L record in 1951.
In 1952 I spent the football season on the B Squad (JV). We proudly called ourselves the "humpties" and spent the season playing against the varsity. The team was getting better, but ended the season with a 4W-4L-1T record. We lost to Navy 7-0.
By 1953 the Army football team was nationally ranked No. 14 at the end of the season, with a 7W-1L-1T record. I represented Company K-1 at the Navy game, sitting on the bench next to Red Blaik. The Colonel didn’t need my help in the game, but I managed to appear in Life Magazine, photographed leaving the field in triumph. We beat Navy, 20-7, and won the Lambert Trophy as the best NCAA team in the Northeast.
Our 1954 team dropped from NCAA rank No. 5 to No. 7 after we lost the Navy game. We ended with a 7W-2L record.