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John Franklin Passafiume was born on 8 November 1932 in Freeport, New York. He was appointed to West Point by the National Guard and entered on 3 July 1951. He was in Company C 1 and played soccer three years. He graduated on 7 June 1955 and was commissioned in the US Army in the Armor.
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How I got my appointment to West Point
There was no military tradition to speak of in my family. My mother and father were Italian immigrants and naturalized citizens. Yes, they did it the right way and were very proud to be Americans. I recall that they made it a point to avoid speaking Italian in the presence my sisters and me to be certain that we would learn to speak English well. We were members of the lower middle class. My father was a barber with his own shop in Freeport, NY and my mother was a sample maker for a dress factory in Brooklyn that was owned by my rich uncle.
Dad had emigrated from Italy (Sicily) to the US in 1911 at the age of 15, went through the standard in-processing at Ellis Island, and lived for a while in upstate New York with relatives. He worked at various jobs (in a shoe factory and a canning factory) for a couple of years. When Italy entered WWI in April 1915 on the side of the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia), he jumped at the chance to be a soldier and returned to Italy where he joined up. After a quick version of basic training, he was sent to the front just in time to participate in one of the eight to twelve battles (depending on who is counting) of the Isonzo in Northern Italy. During the winter of 1915, while fighting in the trenches, he received a shrapnel wound in the lower left leg and was evacuated to a field hospital. He may have been hauled away by a real ambulance driver like the one fictionally portrayed by Ernest Hemingway in “A Farewell to Arms”. This probably saved his life as a lot of people in his unit did not survive. Casualties in the so-called Isonzo battles were the highest in the entire war, some 600,000. I also heard the many stories from my two brothers-in-law who served with the Army Air Corps during WWII. Both flew in B-24’s with the Fifteenth Air Force and made bombing runs over the Ploesti oil refineries and other targets. I recall being fascinated by their uniforms and have a picture of me at 13 wearing my brother-in-law’s overseas cap. The little soldier boy. So the dream was there but not very specific.
With this limited background, I began my Junior Year of High School with the vague goal of becoming a Chemical Engineer. I am not sure why I made that particular choice, except perhaps that I had a crush on our Chemistry Teacher’s daughter, Diane Jordan. She was lovely, a drum majorette and way out of my league but kind of liked me. But what did I know. One day during the latter part of my junior year we had a visit by recruiters from the 42nd Infantry Division, NY National Guard. I was impressed by the uniforms (recalling how great I looked in the overseas cap) and figured it might impress Diane, so I joined up. It also appeared to be a great way to earn some money for college.
I began to attend weekly drills at the Armory just a short way from my home. I had an undistinguished career with the Guard, getting promoted to PFC but later got busted for failing to properly clean the bathroom in the barracks. It was a bum rap as I had just finished my cleaning duties when one of my fellow guardsmen used one of the sinks to wash his hands leaving a slight mess. My Sergeant would not listen to my pleas of innocence. At the time my unit was at the National Guard summer training at Pine Camp in upstate New York, near Watertown. Some time during the fall of 1950, we had our regular weekly drill and were briefed on West Point and the competitive appointments that were available to active duty and guard types. My commander thought I had a chance, so he urged me to apply. Early in my senior year, I took several scholarship exams and was lucky enough to win a scholarship to Columbia University. After HS graduation, I spent the summer working and cruising at Jones Beach. I started at Columbia in the fall as a commuter student, riding the Long Island railroad and the subway back and forth to Columbia. At Columbia I decided to major in Chemistry even though I had a crush on someone else at the time. I continued to attend drills with the guard and was soon notified that I was to take a competitive exam if I wanted to have a chance to go to West Point.
As I was at that point minoring in green beer and hard boiled eggs at Columbia (there was a great Irish pub just a block from campus), and not really enjoying my major, Chemistry, I jumped at the chance to change my direction. My entire knowledge of West Point was Blanchard and Davis and that was about it. Well, I took the competitive exam and passed getting a high enough score to be told that I was basically in as long as I passed the physical and West Point entrance exam. I traveled to Governors Island, NY to do this and all was going well until I took the eye exam. The doctor looked at me and said. “How can you expect to go to West Point with those eyes” He dilated my eyes, did some more tests and sent me away thinking I needed to forget about West Point. School was out for the summer and I had taken a job working for Howdy Doody Ice Cream driving a truck around Roslyn an affluent community on the north shore of Long Island. Howdy Dowdy was new to the area and I was soon having running battles with the Good Humor guy who thought he owned the neighborhood. He hated me as he felt that I was stealing his business. He was right.
One June night I got home after a long day at the job and was surprised to see Mom and Dad still up sitting in the living room. Dad had a stern look on his face and I figured I had really done it this time. He then proceeded to tell me that I was finished with the ice cream business. I was certain that the Good Humor guy had turned me in for some crime against humanity. Then, Dad proceeded to laugh and handed me the appointment letter from West Point. Apparently I had been given a waiver for my eyes. I never found out how that came about. Perhaps I had a good fairy that I did not know about. We had a big family get together with all the relatives at our place to give me a big send off on the week before I headed up to Hudson High. Little did I know what was in store for me. The Commanding General held a ceremony to congratulate me and gave me a Class of 1951 Howitzer and a book on West Point. Our late classmate Art Muller was at the same ceremony. So was his younger sister Maggie. Another crush! She later became Maggie Dugan.
The first time I ever laid eyes on West Point was when my family dropped me off at the sally port to Central Area. They pushed me in that direction and my Dad told me that I would be able to do whatever was asked of me and said that he looked forward to attending my graduation four years hence. Well, early in my Plebe year, Mom and Dad came for a visit. While we were sitting in Grant Hall, I told them that I had decided that the military life, especially West Point was not my cup of tea. My Dad made it clear to me that if I quit, I would regret that decision for the rest of my life. I took his advice to heart. Four years later, Dad and Mom attended my graduation. Mom caused a stir when she ran up to President Eisenhower and the First Lady on the plain during Graduation Parade. Definitely a No-No. In today’s environment, she would have been shot or at least arrested. You should have seen the looks on the faces of Ike and Mamie. No fear -- just sort of bemused!
My four years at West Point was without a doubt the most influential period in my life. My subsequent career in the Army was rewarding on many levels, and it helped prepare me for my second career in higher education. I will always cherish the memories I have of my time at West Point and my later career.
John F. Passafiume,
AKA Colonel Flagg
5 AUG 2010