In one sense the West Point cadet is born, not made: he must be a perfect specimen physically. In all other respects, however, he is made — by the most rigid training given anywhere on the American continents, North or South. The West Pointer on graduation can hardly help being an athlete and an all-round sportsman. That is to say, he will have a better-than-working knowledge of the major games and sports which are popular in America today. More important, he will be a well-rounded physical specimen as a result of the system of athletic training peculiar to U. S. M. A.
Intercollegiate athletics at West Point do not greatly vary from the pattern they follow in most great American universities. It is in the complicated and thoroughgoing system of intramural athletics, a network which overlooks no single cadet, that the difference between West Point and the average university becomes apparent. Yet it may come as a surprise to some Americans that West Point was slow to recognize the value of physical training other than fencing and riding and, of course, drilling until a comparatively recent date. The views of former Cadet James McNeill Whistler seem to have had a following.
When the artist, then living in London, heard that cadets were playing football he remarked with indignation, "They should hold themselves apart and not allow other colleges and universities to dispute with them for a ball kicked round the field. It is beneath the dignity of officers of the United States."
This from the cadet who thought silicon was a gas!
p208 Nevertheless it may almost be claimed that West Point invented the game of baseball. Major General Abner Doubleday, class of 1842, a native of Cooperstown, New York, has been officially credited with its invention, while on leave during the summer of 1839. The baseball field at West Point is named in his honor. Though no one can show that Doubleday ever played baseball at West Point, it is hard to believe that one so skilled in marking diamonds should have entirely neglected his fascinating art for four of the best years of his life.
Football came to the Highlands through Cadet Dennis Mahan Michie, class of 1892, who persuaded his father — who was, as we have seen, possibly the most influential member of the Academic Board of his time — that there was no great harm in the game. The first game with Navy was theirs, score Army 0, Navy 24. It should be remembered that this was the first game Army ever played. But the next year things were reversed. Michie himself, as fullback and captain, ran for three touchdowns and Army victory.
A field day was held at the Academy for the first time in 1893. In 1902 the sports program included baseball, football, track, golf, tennis, fencing, and polo. The official colors of black, gold, and gray had been adopted in 1893. In the early years of the century the Army-Navy game tremendously popular and in 1910 the A. A. A. (Army Athletic Association), which began at first as the Athletic Association of the U. S. M. A. in 1892, took over the management of the games and not only football but the general program of intercollegiate sports found themselves with adequate financial backing.
Before the second World War, West Point competed in eighteen intercollegiate sports: football, baseball, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, ice hockey, cross-country, track, boxing, wrestling, fencing, swimming, gymnastics, rifle, pistol, tennis, and golf; last — but not least — polo, which can be played indoors in p209winter in the magnificent riding hall. The gymnasium at West Point may well be the finest in the country. It houses not only the offices of the A. A. A. but two swimming pools.
Long before Ulysses S. Grant distinguished himself in equitation, West Pointers were famous horsemen. That this was not always a natural accomplishment is shown by the following prose poem headed, by this Victorian cadet, "Memories of the Old Riding Hall, or, If ye have Tears, Prepare to Shed them Now." (It should be noted that this cadet had been hospitalized and, therefore, had not been riding with his company.)
I buckled on a pair of rusty spurs, found myself securely fastened to an enormous sabre with iron scabbard, and sallied forth.
Dragoon brought me in a raw-boned, vicious looking animal, which after some preliminary difficulties, I succeeded in mounting.
"Trot." Horse started; so did I, half off my saddle. I had never been taught to "Keep my heels well out." Accordingly my spurs went in. Horse went in too. Peculiar motion. Began to suspect I was losing my balance; sabre flew up and hit the horse on the head; in plunged my spurs deep among his ribs; another jump, sabre flew back and hit him on the flank.
Spurs worked convulsively among his bones, jump, thump, spur; horse reared up, caught his ears and saved myself. It began to grow exciting. Finally horse started off. Such a race! Pulling on his mane had no tendency to check his wild career; rather seemed to irritate him. Had good hold with spurs, but did not consider myself safe. Sabre flew up and hit me in the face. Blind for a moment. Heard something drop; looked up on saddle and found I was not there. Concluded that it must have been me that dropped. Horse standing near wagging his tail with a quiet twinkle in his eye . . .
All this time imagine riding master shouting.
Next day I was reported for
"Spurring my horse cruelly."
"Not keeping in ranks."
"Not starting off at command."
"Not holding reins properly."
The cadet ends sadly, because he feels he will never walk off all these accumulated demerits.
The Riding Hall is one of the most impressive buildings in the imposing West Point pile-up. Its massive walls seem to rise sheer from the Hudson, and it is reputed to be the largest riding hall in America. One thousand horses have thundered over its tan-bark floor. Other buildings and locations dedicated to West Point athletics are Michie Stadium, Howze Field (polo), Smith Rink (hockey), and the athletic field (in front of the Library).
It is not, however, in conventional sports and in classic intercollegiate competition that West Point is unique. In these it resembles other colleges. These alone would not make "every cadet an athlete." Nor should it be supposed that West Pointers have ever graduated without a higher-than‑average physical setup. Even in the remote days of Captain Alden Partridge the close-order drill of the Corps was famous and, while Old Pewter had never heard of football, he did make cadets haul cannon up and down the declivities of the post — in place of horses! Also it must be said in justice to Captain Partridge that, whatever branches of the military arts he slighted, he never neglected the Manual of Arms; then, as now, West Pointers exhibited the most precise close-order drill in the p211country. Clad in their sartorially perfect overcoats, the fine woolen cloth all but impervious to wind with the extra warmth of the smart capes, cadets of today may do well to remember those gone before who drilled in the bitter winter of the Highlands with no overcoats at all and occupied barracks that were drafty and heated only by fireplaces.
Then the cadet on entering the Academy was required to meet no standard — the horseplay with cannon came later. Now, however, the cadet is examined for physical fitness in the same way that he is examined for mental proficiency. Every plebe must meet the following tests:
He must be able to chin himself six times; to vault over a bar as high as his shoulders; to mount the high bar; to climb twenty feet up a rope, any style; to push up four times on parallel bars. In swimming he must be able to cover the length of the pool with breast stroke, side stroke, backstroke, and crawl. But if, as rarely happens, a cadet cannot swim he is instructed in these simple strokes until he can qualify.
In track athletics to be rated as satisfactory, he must qualify as follows:
4 feet, 3 inches
|Running Broad Jump||
14 feet, 6 inches
|Putting the Twelve-pound Shot||
2 minutes, 42½ seconds
In practice it is found that most plebes can better these minimum requirements.
From the first of September until May the new cadets are put through varied and thorough courses in the great gymnasium. They box, they wrestle, they fence, and they swim. Those who qualify as Red Cross lifesavers can aspire to the coveted detail of becoming "lifesavers" at Delafield Pond during p212the summer — for here, and here alone, "drags" may don bathing suits and swim. Too bad that so few modern young women need saving.
Sometimes the gym looks a little like a three-ring circus with men on flying rings, long horses, high bars, while other climb ropes and tumble in the best Barnum and Bailey style. Here cadets are selected to lead other cadets in their exercises, and here they are marked for "leadership" and "voice" as well as for their general standing in athletics. At West Point a man may be "found" for deficiency in athletics. But in practice few fail.
In the spring the cadets are checked up with their fall measurements. Their chests have expanded; they have grown and added weight, in most cases. In wartime this is all but necessary. Now, however, few are able to "bone red comforter" — to spend much time in delicious sleep.
At West Point a man is required to play more games and to perfect himself in more sports than at any other college. The theory here is that while an individual may, and usually does, excel in one type of sport he will be, and usually is, extremely poor in several other types. The first beneficial result of making him undertake a rounded program is to prevent that form of conceit which we have all seen in athletes happy and content to have excelled in some special game. The second and much more important result is that the cadet receives the rounded-out physical training which makes for a coordinated body and an alert mind. Cadets are not encouraged to wrestle until they attain the bulky, unwieldy figure of the professional wrestler, nor to box until they mash their noses. As a result they may lose some intercollegiate events; but they are more symmetrically developed than their adversaries, perhaps better physically fitted for life — or war.
p213 This symmetry is, of course, achieved primarily by the Academy's insistence on upright posture. As we have seen, the new cadet who arrives at "beast barracks" is immediately assailed from all sides at once. Yelled at to "suck up his guts" and to draw in his rear, he son begins to suspect something about the cadet setup.
The new cadet is told to "brace," or to draw his shoulders back to a posture which at first seems impossible to maintain. He is told to reach for the sky with his chest and then sternly admonished that his chin is "out in the breeze." The first week he aches all over like an octogenarian with gout; sometime during the second week he gets a glimpse of somebody in the glass. "Can that be I?" he wonders. He begins to like the cadet setup.
"The cadet position," says Major Baumer, "is not difficult. The individual must stand squarely with feet turned out equally and forming an angle of forty-five degrees. The legs are straight without stiffness; the person is alert enough to dodge a sudden swinging fist. The trunk is straight with the spine like a pillar from its base to the nape of the neck. In order to achieve this the abdomen must be lifted, the stomach muscles tightened and drawn inward, the shoulders squeezed back slowly and surely. Also the trunk must break forward slightly at the hips. As shoulders retreat, the elbows naturally flare into what upper classmen call 'flight preparedness.' The elbows are then hugged into the sides as the relaxed hands reach for the ground."
This does not even sound simple, and it isn't; but somehow all cadets learn the setup and learn it quickly. As he marches almost everywhere he goes, the plebe also learns the rudiments of drill in the first two weeks. He will never again be quite the awkward Mr. Dumbjohn who straggled up from the West p214Point station on the first weekday in July. Already he is a part of West Point; the sense of this helps the new cadet over the rough road immediately ahead of him.
The present organization of physical training at U. S. M. A. dates back to the period immediately after the first World War, when General Douglas MacArthur was Superintendent and never-to‑be-forgotten Colonel Herman J. Koehler was Master of the Sword. MacArthur felt that all Americans needed more generalized athletic training as opposed to the national tendency to overspecialize in one sport. He had seen men collapse on the march or in battle because of overstrained hearts acquired in college athletics or because all athletics had been denied to them under the collegiate system which used only those men who could play on varsity or scrub teams — always a small percentage of the student body. Both "Square Deal" Koehler and General MacArthur wanted to make "every cadet an athlete."
At present all athletics are under the supervision of the Superintendent of the Military Academy. In this administration he is, however, assisted by his advisory board, whose further duty it is to pass upon all athletic awards. Various officers on duty at U. S. M. A. become the heads of Corps squads assisted by civilian coaches. But the intramural athletics — sometimes referred to as "intramurder" athletics — which are the peculiar feature of the West Point system of universal physical training are under the direct supervision of the Master of the Sword. The title of this all-important personage descends, obviously, from the time when all officers and most gentlemen were masters of the sword and usually of the pistol also. Even in the present year of grace it is safe to say that no man is graduated from the Academy who does not know at least the rudiments of fencing.
In his manifold duties the Master of the Sword is assisted p215by selected members of the First Class, who act as coaches, officers in charge, and officials. Every cadet is required to compete in athletics as a member of the Corps squads or on intramural teams. Only First Classmen are exempt and they are for the most part coaching or serving as umpires. Even those First Classmen who are not busy in some capacity assisting the Master of the Sword are not exempt, for they are detailed to some form of branch instruction in athletics.
In this system each company is in competition. At the end of every season two honors are awarded which are of especial significance: the Banker's Trophy is awarded to the Intramural Company with the highest number of points, while the Intramural Corps Championship rates an inscription on the plaque at the entrance to the gymnasium. Academy records, with the name of the cadet who made them, in track, gymnastics, swimming, and plebe swimming are also recorded in Bugle Notes, the cadet bible.
Anyone who has attended the great games of the year — the Army-Navy Game or the Army-Notre Dame Game — or even games of less significance will tell you that cadets have a special way of cheering, even when, as in 1943, they are forced to cheer for the rival and, as it happened, victorious team. For custom prescribes that when, due to the exigencies of circumstance, a team cannot be accompanied by its native rooters a certain section of cadets will learn the opponent's cheers and render them with the intention and purpose of drowning out the voice of home, difficult as this duty must be.
Used as they are to "sound off," trained to use the voice of command, cadets have long been famous for certain hair-raising staccato barks and long roaring yells that drown out most opposition however determined. There is the Long Corps Yell and the Short Corps Yell, the Locomotive and the Whisper, Talk, Shout — with the shout on the word fight. And there is:
This is followed by the Long Corps Yell. But there is little use in printing these things; they must be heard — and felt. This particular yell is given, on signal, from a squatting position, all cadets with caps on; with the word heave, cadets jump up, remove their caps, and stand at attention for the "Long Corps."
One of the most picturesque customs of West Point athletics lays store on the longest undefended frontier in the world. Once a year the cadets from the Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario, come to West Point to compete for the Ice Hockey Trophy. As a matter of record — until the year 1939 Army could never do better than tie the Canadians, who are famous skaters. In that year, however, West Point won, and again in 1942; but the latter victory was generously reported to be because of the large number of Canadians in service.
These results have nothing to do with the amity and sportsmanship of these hockey meets. Unlike West Point, the Royal Military College is frankly aristocratic. Only the leading families of Canada enter their sons in this elite college and these young officers pay their own expenses. These are "gentlemen cadets" — no one at West Point would dispute their title.
The Canadian cadets are met at the West Point station by the West Point team, each member of which seeks out the player who will be his immediate opposition. This gentleman cadet becomes the plain cadet's brother. He ousts his own cadet "wife," or roommate, and takes the Canadian to live in his room and to share his life in all its aspects. Canadian and American study together, drill together, eat together, and double-date their feminine escorts. The Canadian cadet is privileged to lead companies and Platoons to the mess hall. The host sees to his p217guest's every need and supplies him with what comforts his barracks afford.
At the game one-half of the Corps cheers for Canada and when the visit is returned the gentlemanly Canadians cheer for West Point, each nationality having been carefully taught its rival's yells and cheers. And no halfhearted noise has ever resulted. The Royal Military College has always had a team which has been in the big time, even in Canada, and Our Lady of the Snows has never been backward at this, almost her national sport.
In 1923 the Canadians put up a trophy, a fine silver cup; but, though we seen the record of West Point, this trophy has never left the banks of the Hudson! The detail that it was won repeatedly by the Canadians has not seemed to count with them. The "startling news" of West Point's victory in 1939 — score three to two — was inscribed upon the cup and it was returned to its American home. Now a companion cup has been presented to Canada in recognition of a sports rivalry which is perhaps unique in this war-saddened world.
The realistic training for modern war, so much of it carried forward out of doors, and the addition of five hundred flying hours to the schedules of nearly one-half the Corps have necessarily somewhat curtailed the West Point system of physical training. But war has merely shortened it, just as the three-year course has shortened academic hours; it has not changed the system in any essential.
The war to date has indicated the necessity for the physical toughening of officers. The demands made upon the resources of leaders in all the theaters of war have been terrific — good officers have had to be evacuated because of physical failures. Although not a part of the three-year academic plan, a physical p218hardening program was instituted during the transition year and will be discussed here.
Beast Barracks has always been a period of hardening. Soft youngsters finished the summer's work in fine physical condition — muscles had replaced fat, faulty posture was remedied and considerable coordination was developed. The new cadet joined the Corps in September in good shape for the ensuing academic year.
Experience during the last several years has indicated that new cadets who are able to pass the medical examination in many cases are soft, or have minor correctible defects. These men cannot stand the gaff of the hard physical strain of new cadet training. In most cases these breakdowns could have been prevented by an effort on the candidate's part to get in condition before admission.
This year a booklet was prepared and distributed to all prospective candidates setting forth the necessity of physical fitness. An explanation of the simple exercises recommended is contained in it, as well as hints on care of the feet, corrective exercises and a section covering dietary hints.
Upon admission the new cadet takes a physical efficiency test, which is repeated at the end of the Fourth Class year. In his Third and First Class years the cadet is tested again and must show and improvement in each test, over the one preceding, equal to the average of his class. A cadet who fails is carried as deficient in physical efficiency. He then is given a period of time in which, under supervision, he must make up his deficiency, and is then tested again. A second failure results in the cadet being reported to the Academic Board as deficient in Military Physical Efficiency.
In addition to the usual gymnasium course given to Fourth Classmen a new "Fit to Fight" course involving all classes was instituted this year. During this period cadets are armed with p219the rifle and bayonet and wear the stripped pack and steel helmet. They are formed as a Platoon on the company parade at assembly — the cadet in command is given a situation and a simple order. This order usually requires him to move his command to some distant point on the reservation and there to execute a certain mission. These exercises serve several ends. All the cadets participating receive exercise and experience and are impressed with the necessity of conserving their energy. Upon arrival at the designated point the groups are rated on two bases. First: time. Speed, of course, is essential in carrying out an assigned mission. Second: physical condition. The arriving groups are met by an officer who determines whether or not the group could carry out its assigned mission.
The group leader who concentrates on speed alone will arrive first but with exhausted personnel — usually one such experience results in a cure.1
During war the cadet is working to the limit of his capacity, but his physical training is not neglected. One has only to observe the Corps, noting the quick color in cheeks, the super-uprightness, and the agility of motion, to know that sound minds are still contained within sound bodies. Our forefathers, those "embattled farmers," had no stronger sons.
1 The United States Military Academy and Its Foreign Contemporaries.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
History of West Point
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 27 Oct 13