Naval Academy Memories
In honor of the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Naval Academy, Proceedings presents six of the venerable institution’s distinguished alumni and their answers to the question: “What was your most memorable experience at the U.S. Naval Academy?”
Edward L. Beach, Class of 1939
Study hours had just begun on Halloween night of 1938, and I held the august title of Regimental Commander. Although first classmen (only) were authorized to play radios during study hour, mine was off. A second-class midshipman had come to see me about something, long forgotten. Suddenly, the door to our room burst open, and Murray Frazee, occupant of the adjoining room and a close friend, yelled: "Turn on the radio! The Martians have landed in New Jersey!" Bizarre though this sounded, we could hear other nearby radios coming on at high volume, and we listened transfixed. Suddenly the second classman spoke: "My class ought to have permission to hear this!"
Here, at least, was a concrete idea; the duty officer in the main office could give such permission, and in any case, he should be informed. Already in my pajamas, I grabbed my bathrobe and took off. My room was on the top deck of the Second Battalion, and the main office was some distance away. Several midshipmen, also listening to the broadcast, were standing in the doors of their rooms as I ran by.
I burst into the duty officer's quarters adjoining the main office. Lieutenant (junior grade) C. C. Kirkpatrick, years later a Superintendent of the Naval Academy, was behind the desk, obviously surprised at my unceremonious entry.
"What's up, Beach?" he barked.
"Turn on the radio!" I said urgently. As Kirkpatrick did so, the luridly dramatic depiction was in full gear, and his face turned ashen. We heard the crushing noises of the monsters going about their grisly business and the radio announcer's desperate calls for help. Then came the welcome news that aircraft were coming in from Langley Field—and suddenly, out came Kirkpatrick's Pencil and paper and he began jotting down some figures. "That's too fast," I heard him say. Then he began to twirl the tuning knob and as he did so his face gradually returned to normal. Although the New Jersey station continued to broadcast the vivid details of combat as our aircraft arrived on the scene, no other radio station, near Langley Field or elsewhere, made mention of the emergency.
Finally, with a decisive flip of his wrist, Kirkpatrick turned off the radio. "Go back to your room, Beach," he said, "we've been had."
My slow progress back to the fourth deck of the Second Battalion has three memories, all crystal clear. The first was the voice of my classmate Jack Munson, on watch as Midshipman in Charge of the main office. "Is this The Washington Post?" he said to the telephone. "No, we've heard nothing about it. Midshipmen are not allowed to have their radios on during study hour. What did you say is happening?"
Bless you Jack, I thought, as I went on my way. My second memory is that nearly all the doors to all the rooms in the hallways where I passed were open, and a number of wisecracks came at me as I went by. On my own floor, however, near my room, all the doors were shut—and this is my third memory.
The story, of course, could not be contained. Everyone in Bancroft Hall was titillated, secretly delighted of course at not having himself become involved. Our weekly Midshipman's Log magazine carried a cartoon showing me racing down the halls, bathrobe streaming behind like the tail on a comet, and to this day the story occasionally comes up, normally considerably improved.
But there was a word of comfort, too, later dropped my way by a wartime skipper: "Too bad you could not have traded places with the young Army guy who didn't report the radar contact when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor."
Retired Captain Beach is the best-selling author of Run Silent, Run Deep, Keepers of the Sea, The U.S. Navy: A 200-Year History, Scapegoats, and several other books and articles of fiction and nonfiction, all associated in some form with naval and seafaring history. A decorated veteran of World War II, he is the first submarine skipper to circumnavigate the earth submerged and was naval aide to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Jimmy Carter, Class of 1947
My most memorable experience was our youngster cruise on the USS New York (BB-34). My cleaning assignment was near the huge steam engine pistons, in the after head. Everything throbbed together. Sanitary fixtures were a trough on each side of the compartment, flushed by a stream of salt water.
There was a torpedo scare on the return leg of our cruise, and the ship zigzagged violently. Suddenly, there was a crunching sound, and one of our four propellers was bent severely. For those working in the stern, it was a moot question whether the ship collided with a torpedo or a reef. With every rotation of the screw, the after stern bounced a few inches—just enough to throw the flushing water and a large portion of the excrement onto the deck. Our cleaning attempts helped me to understand the Greek myth of Sisyphus, forever rolling his stone uphill in Hades.
The regular crew had bunks, but many of us midshipmen had to sleep on deck, using our kapok lifejackets as combination mattresses and pillows. We were required to wear them when not sleeping. A symbolic event occurred as the ship entered her destination harbor, when one of our lifejackets fell overboard, and promptly sank.
Mr. Carter was the 39th President of the United States. Since his presidency, he has written eight books and has been active in national and international human rights organizations. He is also founder, with Emory University, of the Carter Center, addressing worldwide public-policy issues.
John H. Dalton, Class of 1964
The most memorable experience for me was leading the company that was formed to march in President John F. Kennedy's funeral procession. I had marched in his inaugural parade, as a plebe, with the entire Brigade of Midshipmen. At the time of President Kennedy's assassination I was in my first-class year and serving as the Deputy Brigade Commander. A special honor company was formed consisting of second- and first-class midshipmen. The Army-Navy game was scheduled for Saturday, 30 November, but it was postponed a week when President Kennedy was shot. This special company, which had not marched together before, began practicing for the parade. I had served in staff positions as a midshipman, and had never led a company unit before. Marching in that parade was an unforgettable experience. I will never forget the somber drumbeat as we marched through the streets of Washington, and noticing the thousands of people crowded on the streets to pay final tribute to President Kennedy. He was the first President in our history who had served on active duty in the Navy. Since then, five of our next seven Presidents have been former naval officers.
The most inspirational occurrence for me as a midshipman was Rear Admiral Charles C. Kirkpatrick, our Superintendent, continually reminding us at pep rallies and other meetings of the Brigade that "You can do anything you set your mind to do and don't you forget it." He was greatly admired by the Brigade of Midshipmen, and we made him an honorary member of the Class of 1964.
A former nuclear submariner, Mr. Dalton is the current Secretary of the Navy.
John S. McCain, III, Class of 1958
My most memorable experiences at the Naval Academy are two—one when I was making the transition from midshipman to commissioned officer, and one that took place many years afterward. The first happened at my graduation, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered the address. This was a rare opportunity that I will never forget, to have seen and heard one of the greatest heroes in American history. I still remember his words to us concerning our future obligations as officers in the Armed Forces of the United States.
My other most memorable experience came when I myself spoke at the commencement proceedings of the U.S. Naval Academy. I cannot adequately describe the uplifting experience it was to shake the hands of an entire graduating class, the most wonderful group of men and women, at that given time, in the entire United States. I was honored to be in their company.
Senator McCain is a Republican U.S. Senator from Arizona. He spent five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
Robert C. McFarlane, Class of 1959
Just before June Week in spring 1958 I was thrilled to learn of my assignment to the carrier Essex (CV-38) for first-class cruise. The carrier was to operate with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. As I packed my seabag my thoughts were animated by Bancroft folklore concerning liberty on the Riviera and standing bridge watches as a junior officer. As we made the transit from Annapolis Roads to Gibraltar, however, intelligence summaries concerning rising tensions in Lebanon began to indicate that we might be in for more than receptions in whites surrounded by fair maidens. Sure enough, just after midnight on my 21st birthday, 12 July, the Essex was ordered out of Piraeus—leaving the entire liberty party ashore—to proceed to Lebanon in company with a Marine Amphibious Unit.
In circumstances with many parallels to what is going on in Bosnia today, rival political factions, ostensibly motivated by ethnic and religious differences, were fighting, with one of the factions being exploited by the Soviets for their own purposes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower saw the implications of the Russians' establishing a presence on the Mediterranean littoral and on the southern flank of NATO. In a matter of days, he took his message to the American people, explained how vital U.S. interests were at risk, committed publicly (and privately to the Russians) to "use all necessary means" to restore the status quo ante, ordered the Marines ashore, and loaded nuclear weapons onto the attack aircraft on board the Essex. I'll never forget seeing them on deck the morning we arrived off Beirut. And of course, Soviet ships cruising in the area saw them as well. The crisis was resolved within a few weeks without a shot being fired. The point was clear. A Commander-in-Chief with a depth of knowledge and experience in politico-military affairs who leads forthrightly to define the problem for Americans, defines the solution, and moves with dispatch to solve it, will be credible to friends and enemies. And because of that, we will end up saving lives.
Mr. McFarlane was President Ronald Reagan's National Security Advisor from 1983 to 1985.
Walter M. Schirra, Class of 1946
I remember a lesson taught to me by an Academy seamanship instructor, a very salty chief petty officer. "If you are ever in trouble or do not understand the drill, consult your Chief!"
I was a black-shoe ensign on board the USS Alaska, (CB-1) at the end of World War II, and I was amazed at how rapidly the reserves left our ship for stateside. After the dust settled, I was assigned as the number two turret officer, and a commander was the skipper of this "pocket battleship."
We were steaming toward Pearl Harbor, when I was informed that the new skipper wanted to exercise number two turret and fire a broadside while enroute. The event would go in his log book before the Alaska was decommissioned.
I was in trouble, and I surely did not understand the drill. Number two was higher than the other two turrets and had a compartment at the base known as the "blue room." I worked my way down to the chiefs' sanctuary and asked for help. After telling me "no problem," my chief gunner's mate gave me some personal schooling on how to be a turret officer.
We fired number two successfully and safely. I recall that early advice as a midshipman, and I shudder now, when I think of number two blowing up recently on the Iowa (BB-61).
Captain Schirra is the only astronaut to have flown missions in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. Besides his feats as an astronaut, he is well-known for his expert space commentary on CBS with Walter Cronkite and is the author of Schirra's Space, reissued recently by the Naval Institute Press.