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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
West Point

by
John Crane and James F. Kieley

McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.
New York, 1947

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p183  Chapter Six
Cadet Life

"Mr. Ducrot!"

An upperclassman has spoken, sharply, with authority. Mr. Ducrot, a plebe from Mississippi, knows that the voice is directed to him, though his glance goes no higher than the opposite edge of the table. Sitting in ramrod posture on the forward three inches of his chair, he arrests the medium forkful of food on its decorous way to his mouth, puts it down quickly, and places his hands under the table. He glances attentively at the speaker.

"Sir."

"Mr. Ducrot, what is the name of the monument on the north side of the plain near Trophy Point?"

The plebe quickly calls to mind some facts from his carefully stored knowledge of military history and replies in precise language.

"Sir, it is the Battle Monument."

"For what was it erected?"

"As a monument to Confederate marksmanship, Sir."

Smiles are suppressed around the table. The interrogator brings the plebe back into line with a brisk reprimand.

"Don't get B. J. with me, Mr. Dumbjohn. Whose names are inscribed on the monument? Who designed it? Give us some facts."

"Sir, the Battle Monument contains the names of 2,240 officers and men of the Regular Army who were killed in the Civil War. It was executed jointly by the architect, Stanford White, and the sculptor, Frederick MacMonnies. It was purchased with contributions from the comrades and friends of those in whose honor it was erected, and was dedicated on May 31, 1897."a

"And now, Mr. Ducrot, what do plebes rank?"

"Sir, the Superintendent's dog, the Commandant's cat, the waiters in the  p184 Mess Hall, the Hell cats, and all the Admirals in the whole blamed Navy."

Mr. Ducrot lowers his gaze again and resumes the dignified consumption of his meal. He is careful to appear unhurried, for he remembers an occasion when he was a very, very new plebe, on which he was reprimanded by an upperclassman for gulping his food. The penalty was that he was required to eat in easy stages, each forkful raised to the mouth by several steps with a pause between, the fork returned in the same manner, and the hands placed under the table before lifting another forkful. It was a painful experience for a young man eager to satisfy a new and larger appetite developed during his first weeks of summer camp at West Point.

But this is life at the United States Military Academy. It is the system under which cadets are first introduced to a new world of military discipline and order, and under which they develop as officer material for the Army. It is the system that teaches a man to be alert, prompt, courteous, obedient, forthright, and understanding, how to take orders, and how to give orders intelligently and see that they are executed. It pays dividends not only at West Point but for the rest of a man's life.

Men who win appointments to the Military Academy are the kind who, with rare exceptions, can "take" and profit by that first rocky year as plebes, or fourth classmen. They are men of high and sound physical condition. They are eager to succeed, to "make the grade," and win their commissions as Army officers. Therefore they enter with spirit into cadet life.

A man may become a West Point cadet by obtaining an appointment in one of several ways. Competition for appointments is keen, because under a 1942 act of Congress the strength of the Cadet Corps is limited to 2,496 individuals, which means that there may be no more than that number at the Military Academy at any one time. As classes are graduated, new apartments are made to fill the vicinities thus created.

All appointments to the Military Academy are made by the president of the United States on nominations given to him in the various ways authorized by law. He may appoint eight cadets from each of the forty-eight states at large, four from each congressional district, four from each territory, six from the District of Columbia, four from Puerto Rico, two from the Panama Canal Zone, 172 from the United States at large, and 180 from among enlisted men of the Regular Army and National Guard. Special provisions are made for filling vicinities in case the total number appointed is less than the authorized strength of the Cadet Corps.

 p185  Having obtained his appointment in one way or another, a man must meet the educational requirements for admission and pass the entrance examination of the Military Academy. He must also meet the high physical requirements. Finally, on the first weekday in July, he reports at West Point.

Whether or not the new candidate has ever seen West Point before, or whether or not he has ever had any Army experience, he realizes that this day marks a very definite turning point in his life. He is renouncing one way of life for another. He has made his decision to dedicate his whole being to a profession with the object of serving his country. He can have no thought of great material gain, for the Army is not the way to riches. He will gain in other things, but only to the degree that he devotes himself to the service.

In that frame of mind, the candidate is anxious to plunge as quickly as possible into this new life. With other young men from all parts of the country and from all walks of life, he lines up to receive his first instructions. Smartly uniformed first classmen take the group in charge, get their names, give them their first taste of cadet discipline, and hustle them off to their assigned rooms in barracks while feeding them an unending line of instructions about little details of posture and deportment. The candidates drop their baggage and hustle off on the double to draw their mattresses, bedding, initial items of uniform clothing, and certain arms and equipment including a rifle, a bayonet, a gas mask, and a helmet.

Having discarded their civilian clothes and dressed in cadet gray trousers and white shirts, the new arrivals are next whisked off to the barber shop for hair trims. Then they found themselves in ranks for their first taste of West Point close-order drill. The rudiments of marching, military posture, saluting and other details are hammered home with vigor by the ubiquitous first classmen. The first meal in the mess hall, at noon, hardly affords any respite as the candidates are introduced to plebe table etiquette. They find themselves assigned various duties of carving and serving meat, pouring coffee or milk, and so forth.

After dinner, as the noon meal is called, the candidates draw more clothing and equipment from stores and learn how to arrange it neatly in their rooms.

The outstanding event of that first day is the Oath of Allegiance ceremony at the Battle Monument. The new class is marched to the site of the monument overlooking the Hudson River to hear a brief talk by the superintendent, after which the oath is administered by the adjutant general of the post.  p186 With upraised hands these citizens take their oath to maintain and defend the sovereignty of the United States, and thereby actually become members of the armed forces of the country.

During the new plebe's first summer at West Point he undergoes basic training designed to make him a soldier by the time he undertakes his class work of the first academic year in the fall. But in that time he also finds out what it means to be a West Point plebe. He finds himself living under a highly organized and greatly refined system with rules and regulations exactly defining his conduct not only toward officers of the Army but toward his superiors in the Cadet Corps. He finds that new candidates are "beasts" and that they are assigned to "beast barracks." He hears himself called "Mr. Ducrot" or "Dumbjohn" by upperclassmen. He learns that he must address those upperclassmen as "Sir," and that he must obey any lawful order given by a superior. He knows that he will be quickly called to account by an upperclassman if he becomes B. J. — "too fresh before June."zzz

Officially known as the "Fourth Class System," the traditional controls over the lives of plebes are intended to provide the new cadets, during their first year, with experience which will help them to develop their qualities of leadership. Its theory is that those who learn obedience, self-control, and courtesy are best qualified to assume the responsibilities of military command. Plebes, therefore, are subjected to a Spartan life filled with restrictions and obligations.

A plebe first learns that he must at all times maintain a military bearing and manner. He is required to stand "braced," or at attention in all formations, and is not permitted to talk except officially. He must be present in ranks at first call for all company formations except reveille, and at the two‑minute bell for reveille and two minutes before assembly for all classes and drill formations. When walking individually in the area of barracks or on the sidewalk between Central Barracks and Washington Hall, he must walk rigidly at attention, taking square corners, and talking to no one except officially. He must walk at normal position of attention in other authorized places in public view, and during call to quarters must walk at attention to and from formations. He is under instruction to confine his route to the areas of barracks as far as practicable.

A plebe springs to attention when an upperclassman enters his room, and he addresses the upperclassman as "Sir." He never appears outside his room except in proper uniform and removes his cap when he enters a room except on official business such as delivering mail.

 p187  Plebes are not permitted to attend hops except during Christmas vacation, nor are they permitted to watch upper-class hops or escort visitors to them.

Many are the little things must remember with respect to his conduct. He must not wear a ring. He must not inspect bulletin boards five minutes before or after a formation. When he is out of formation, he must not watch the Corps in formation. He must ask permission of upperclassmen to pass them on a stairway, and must halt to permit them to pass him. He cannot smoke except in his room. He may not take pictures on the level of the Plain. He is prohibited from attending the first show of the Saturday-night movie. He is not permitted to wear the cape of his overcoat thrown back over his shoulders except when under arms, on leave, on way to Chapel, or marching to football games.

So exacting is the "plebe system" that even a casual visitor to West Point can spot the plebes. With shoulders square, chest high, back straight, chin in, and arms to their sides, they walk with measured step, turning their corners squarely, with eyes straight ahead.

Through his first summer and through his first academic year, the plebe lives under this system, becoming a good soldier and a good officer candidate. It is never easy, but he finds his stride. At first his muscles ache from the posture he is required to maintain, but soon he discovers the advantages of this military bearing. the position becomes easy, natural. His weight is well distributed, his breathing full, his step brisk, his whole appearance smart. And so he knuckles down and serves out his plebehood.

Then comes recognition. Graduation at West Point means a good deal not only to those receiving their commissions, but to the cadets remaining behind as well. Everyone moves up. The publics become yearlings, or third classmen. At a time designated by the first class, usually immediately after gr8nn parade, the upperclassmen recognize the plebes for the first time. It hardly seems real, after that tough first year, but the plebes find themselves faced by smiling upperclassmen, their hands grasped in warm tribute to men who have shown that they have the stuff that makes leaders.

A foremost obligation of every West Point cadet is his observance of the honor code. One of the first things explained to plebes by upperclassmen is the meaning of the honor system and how one lives by it. Every man who wears the uniform of the Cadet Corps is expected to uphold the honor of the Corps by preserving his own individual honor. To forfeit one's own honor would make one unworthy to be a member of the Corps.

 p188  Subscribing to the honor code, every cadet is presumed, therefore, to be honest. His word, when given, is accepted. His signature is certification of the truth of any statement or report to which it is affixed. When a cadet says "All right" to a superior, an inspecting officer, or a sentry, it means that he is complying with all regulations — that he is doing the right thing. It is therefore accepted without question.

Under a code like this each individual is almost wholly the judge of his own compliance with the system. A cadet knows, for instance, that he cannot make use of excuses or devices to evade duty or responsibility. He cannot lie, quibble, or resort to technicalities to gain an advantage or avoid the full performance of duty. These decisions are his own, and his conscience must guide him in his interpretation of the code. If he violates it, he is expected to report himself and take the consequences.

The honor code is administered by the honor committee, consisting of one member chosen from each company of the first class, with the first captain, or highest ranking cadet officer, as an ex‑officio member. The function of this committee is to give instruction on points of honor, investigate suspected or reported violations, and see that confessed or convicted violators are separated from the Academy and the Corps.

The honor system puts life on a high plane at West Point. It preserves human dignity and suggests a definition of self-respect. Its rules are simple and clear. In his academic work a cadet neither gives nor receives unauthorized assistance, either in or out of class, which would give one cadet an advantage over another. He refrains from using unauthorized notes and from consulting the work of other cadets on the blackboard. He makes no unauthorized notes in problem books. Having recited in a subject, he refrains from discussing the recitation with those scheduled to recite in a later class.

A cadet observes regulations by making a proper record of his absences from his room, barracks, or from the post. He does this merely by making an entry in the "departure book," by adjusting an absence card in his room, or giving his "All right" to the proper officer. He may even sign such a record for another cadet, if authorized, by writing (not imitating) the other's name and adding his own initials.

The academic life of a cadet is a crowded one, from early morning until late at night. Reveille is sounded at 5:50 A.M. on weekdays, and after formation is dismissed a period of twenty minutes is allowed for making beds and straightening out rooms. After breakfast there is a study period, and the first  p189 class is scheduled at 7:55 o'clock. Most cadets have two classes in the morning. Dinner is at 12:10 P.M., and the first afternoon class is at 12:55 o'clock. The intramural athletics program starts at 3:15 and lasts one hour, after which cadets have free time until supper at 6:15. After the evening meal, a call to quarters sends all cadets to their rooms to study until "lights out" and taps at 10 P.M.

Parades and ceremonies are a colorful part of cadet life, but while excellence at full-dress parade and close-order drill is traditional at West Point these exercises now constitute an insignificant proportion of cadet training. Only two per cent of a cadet's time is devoted to such avi — a bare minimum of the old "spit and polish" phase of Army life retained for the sake of discipline and esprit de corps.

Week ends give the cadets free time from inspection early sat afternoon until Sunday night, except that all are required to attend Sunday chapel services.

West Point's schedule has to be intensive in order to cover academic work and military and physical training, but cadets find time somehow for relaxation and fun as well. A weekly event during summer camp, for instance, is the "Color Line," a program of informal skits staged on the outskirts of camp Sunday evenings. During the encampment the Corps also stages "Camp Illumination," something in the manner of the celebration organized at West Point by George Washington in 1781 in honor of the birth of the Dauphin of France. Canoeing on Lake Popolopen, swimming at Delafield or Popolopen, movies, and hops are other forms of recreation available during the summer.

Even during the crowded academic year from fall to spring there are a number of social and athletic activities. The first major events, of course, are the football games during the fall, giving cadets an opportunity to travel with the teams. On such trips plebes are free from ordinary restrictions and may throw their capes back over their shoulders with abandon. The two hundredth and one hundredth nights before June are notable because at supper on those evenings plebes may speak up at table and express their candid opinions of the upperclassmen sitting with them. Each plebe is expected to deliver a short, humorous speech on these occasions.

Plebes receive their first real privileges at Plebe Christmas, which begins with the conclusion of the second-hour classes on the afternoon of the last day before Christmas Week. They are permitted to attend hops and go to the Boodler's or Cadet Restaurant. The privileges are exercised immediately,  p190 for there is usually a hop that very night, and others are scheduled for the week, in addition to other events such as the customary skating carnival.

Another full round of social events occurs in June week, culminating with the graduation parade, recognition of plebes by upperclassmen, the graduation hop, and finally the graduation exercises. Classes move up, new cadet officers are appointed, summer camp starts, and another year has begun.

The cadet from Mississippi who a year before so expertly described the Battle Monument wonders whether this new generation of plebes is up to standard.

"Mr. Ducrot!" he barks.

"Sir."

"Mr. Ducrot, what is the definition of leather?"

He likes the spirit with which the straight young plebe at the opposite end of the table recites the answer that he has carefully memorized from "Bugle Notes," the cadet "bible":

"If the fresh skin of an animal, cleaned and divested of all hair, fat, and other extraneous matter, be immersed in a dilute solution of tannic acid, a chemical combination ensues; the gelatinous tissue of the skin is converted into a non‑putrescible substance, impervious to and insoluble in water; this, Sir, is leather."

Page updated: 29 Jul 12