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To grasp the full measure of tragedy which met MacArthur at the beginning of my relationship with him, I must set the scene before he comes on stage.
Never in its precise production of officers through the previous hundred and sixteen years had the U. S. Military Academy been so battered and broken as in 1918. It wasn't a single violence, leaving debris and destruction in its wake, but a succession of tempests which persistently kept the people within the gates looking dazed, with questioning eyes and words. Why clear the rubbish and try to rebuild, when another blast might undo the labor and pose a new problem? How many more would it take to destroy all?
It was not an outward devastation. The casual observer saw the Point as it had always been. Battle Monument stood sternly erect and polished. Fort Putnam gazed down over the manicured landscape with its same strength and complacency.
Yet even the unpracticed eye was hit with an extraordinary array. The Corps was not the unit of the past. In fact, it was not a corps. There were three odd lots moving separately and clad differently. One wore the old gray with bell-buttoned dress coats and black-striped trousers; another, officers' olive-drab blouses, caps and leather leggings; and a third, salvaged, Army privates' uniforms with canvas leggings and campaign hats banded in yellow, for which the wearers were derisively dubbed the "Orioles." The trio had only one thing in common — existence on West Point soil. Otherwise they had as much connection as marching bands in widely scattered towns.
The initial blow was a zephyr, breezing in gently and unsuspiciously. The first, or senior, class was ordered to be graduated a year early, on account of the war. There wasn't much disturbing about that. Other classes during the Spanish-American War and the current one had been graduated early. The p14 curriculum could temporarily adjust to that sort of contraction. Professors walked from their stone quarters to their stone offices with their time-worn complacence. The three classes making up the Corps marched to meals in a body and to classes in small sections with the same finish and assurance. Everything would be all right. Next year, when the new plebe class would enter and the war would be over, the four-year course would be returned, and the splendid regime which had made the Lees, Grants and Pershings would proceed to making more Lees, Grants and Pershings. It was one of those foregone conclusions based on what had always been. It was the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, a thing so incapable of being otherwise that it didn't enter conscious thought.
The Post was at its peak of smugness when the thunderclap cracked. It struck me first as I was pawing through some official mail in early October, 1918. Mr. Boyle, my chief clerk, called me from an adjoining room.
"It's for you, Colonel. Washington calling."
So it was some Congressman wanting to know about his appointee or a notification of the arrival of a distinguished visitor.
A gentle voice called, "This is the Adjutant General, General Harris."
"Yes, sir." My diaphragm went up and tightened. This was no ordinary direction if the Adjutant General himself would get on the wire. Even so, I was little prepared for the monstrous edict to come.
"You will graduate your two upper classes November first."
The order was just as flat as that. It would mean the departure of the Second and Third Classmen (juniors and sophomores, the seniors having already gone). If someone had belted my solar plexus with a club, I couldn't have caved in worse. I had misunderstood. It couldn't be true.
"Will you repeat that, sir? I want to be sure I understand."
He repeated with emphasis.
"Will you please hold the wire?" I asked. "I think it's best p15 for you to communicate that to the Superintendent directly."
As far as I was concerned, I didn't dare be responsible for relaying so critical a message. I finally got the Superintendent, General Tillman, and, as usual, listened in.
When General Harris repeated what he had said to me, I could hear the Supe's gasp. He also asked for a repeat. He also got the same slap.
"Can't the order," he pleaded, "be held in abeyance or the date of graduation postponed until I can discuss the eventualities with higher authorities?"
"No," answered the A. G. "I'm sorry but I was directed to transmit the order unequivocally."
He had been a cadet during Tillman's professorship, and I could feel the softness he was trying to put in his tone. But he evidently didn't dare put softness into the directive itself.
"Why, why this means," pleaded the Supe, "that the premature graduation is only weeks away. It will be almost impossible mechanically to have these classes leave here properly. It will be a great injustice . . ."
"I'm sorry," said the Adjutant General in forced tones.
Then, as if the appalling intent of the order was beginning to take hold, the Supe's voice rose.
"Why, this means there will be no upper classmen in the Corps. We'll have only fourth classmen with a few months behind them. The regime and traditions, which have taken a century to develop, can never be restored."
"I'm sorry," said the A. G. with pleasant finality.
When the Supe came into my office, he was pale and his lips quivered. We gazed at each other dumbly, like victims coming out of shock.
"I don't understand," he sighed finally, "why they are deliberately trying to destroy the Academy."
The air was so charged and tense I laughed nervously. "I guess I better get to New York and hurry up over a half-thousand diplomas."
The news hit the Post like a flash flood. During its long life, the worst agitations had been hazing investigations and minor p16 mutinies, like pointing the reveille gun on the Supe's house and firing a blank. Even when sixty-five Southern cadets left the Corps in 1861, there were still the shrunken classes of Northerners to carry on all phases of the system. Former disturbances had far from disrupted the Academy. The long gray line had closed ranks, even if it was thinned here and there, and marched on in its steady pace.
But this upheaval was more than a thinning. It was an effacement of the law and the prophets. A physical fire or flood would have been light in comparison, so long as there remained a fair representation from each of the classes, so long as there remained imbued human beings, the only earthly means of carrying along the delicate, intangible impulses for conduct and honor, instilled and developed in hearts and minds over past decades by cadets alone. Buildings could be repaired and reconstructed upon their old sites, but not the brains and souls which had motivated the Corps.
Professors, instructors and tactical officers stared down fixedly as if they were peering into ruins. It took them some time to recover from the blinding shock. When they realized the full enormity of the disaster, they became almost frenzied. The older officers rushed to the Supe's office and the younger ones to mine. They refused to credit the finality of the edict. The War Department certainly couldn't be so ridiculously destructive. From all accounts, the Boches were retreating and the war would soon be over. There wasn't such need for five hundred lieutenants, who would require some time to take the field, anyway. Someone was mistakenly committing this absurd crime. It must at least be a blunder. It couldn't mean both classes. The person who was at the bottom of this folly would soon be found out and the matter corrected. The older officers prevailed on the Supe to talk to Washington and see if he couldn't obtain an interview with the Chief of Staff. When he was able to get through, he was told bluntly any such approach would be useless. "The order is irrevocable."
The handwriting on the wall had now translated itself into disaster. It wasn't merely that the top three classes of a college p17 would be swept away, but the honor system, wholly in the hands of cadets, would be swept with them. Could this spiritual backbone ever be recovered? Could the Corps, whose pride and loyalty had taken over a century to develop, ever be the same? It was like drawing off the sap of a tree. It was like stopping a needed supply train, which had run long and dependably on schedule, and cutting away everything but a caboose.
Immediately, there had to be some sort of commencement. Marks had to be brought up to the hour, diplomas run off in New York, courses cut in the middle and arrangement made for hundreds of officers' uniforms. There were late lights and early risings for the authorities and excited bewilderment among cadets. Although the routine had kept the marks posted for studies, the standings had to be checked and rechecked for final rank — a rank which would follow the officer through his entire service. After the late arrival of the diplomas, it was almost pandemonium to obtain over 7,500 signatures of the faculty to 511 separate sheepskins.
Breathlessly, we came to November 1. The ceremony was unheralded, unadorned and preceded by no hilarious hop. It was a gray, chilly day, with the trees lining the Parade Ground like giant brooms upside down. A gaunt fall replaced a brilliant June. The two classes marched grimly to a corner of the Plain far removed from the normal site of the commencement exercises. They formed a hollow square and then sat cross-legged on the damp, drab grass to listen to a dry speech which explained their early departure without really explaining. Some straggling elements of curiosity lined the walk back of a rudely improvised platform. There were few doting parents, sweethearts and friends casting proud glances into prouder eyes. Mostly there was a dullness of endurance. Some cadets and all the officers felt the government had welched on its promise to yield at least a three-year collegiate education. Altogether there was more of an air of obsequies than ecstasies as diplomas were handed out, and nearly two‑thirds of the former Corps left West Point like children running off from their parents.
It wasn't until they were gone that the full force of the lack p18 and loss struck all concerned. One look at the callow plebes trying to act the part of upper classmen and cadet officers, and another at empty classrooms and dead courses, brought home with grim reality the extent of the blight. All subjects of the three upper classes had to be abandoned, throwing two‑thirds of the instructional staffs into idleness and uneasiness.
Hard on the heels of this dislocation came resentment at the uselessness of it all. Ten days after the sullen graduation, the Armistice shut off the War. Pursed lips and steady grumblings widened the disgust at the arbitrary action and injustice to the Corps. To the disappointment and bewilderment was added reproach. If only the Supe had been granted a delay of ten days! If the war had lasted, there might have been some reason for the disruption. The "ifs" added frustration.
As if it weren't enough to have the instructional personnel so disheartened, the War Department produced another shock: A new class of plebes would be admitted immediately.
Although the numbers would make up slightly for the million-dollar overhead for two hundred and eighty cadets, the most expensive students in America, the idea was so new and off key that mild panic was added to the frustration. How could two sets of plebes make a corps? It had seemed absurd enough to try to fashion one out of novices scarcely beyond recruit training, but here were to come a lot in the middle of the school year who had not even begun it.
The cry went up, "They are turning us into a kindergarten!" But far worse than that, half-finished freshmen would be charged with training and indoctrinating green candidates, if the old customs prevailed. The half-blind would be leading the totally blind. Had the one class remaining after the fateful November first been allowed to go along till June, without upperclass responsibility for bringing up a proper cadet, it might have absorbed enough of the prime traditions from the young officers to have given some hope of restoration. But now even that hope was thoroughly jarred.
To the authorities there was only one path to follow. Keep the two classes completely divorced. Accordingly, the newcomers p19 did not receive cadet gray but hybrid olive drab salvaged from the war and yellow bands to wear around their campaign hats. They ate in the Mess Hall, lived in barracks and drilled separately. There was less contact between them than between congregations of different sects. They were treated as if they were each victims of unlike plagues and would contaminate each other. The unity of the Corps degenerated into disunity, with consequent loss of morale. Each group felt cheated — one, that it was not to be trusted; and the other, that it was not good enough to wear cadet gray.
This appalling cleavage would have been hard enough to fuse into any semblance of productiveness. But the snapped chain of Corps solidarity received another rupture. One of the classes just graduated would be sent back as student officers. Never had West Point had such an assignment, which posed a more knotty dilemma than the plebes. This fresh influx could be treated neither as cadets nor as officers of the Post. They had their commissions, with all the rights they entailed. They had been hatched, and couldn't be put back in the shell. They couldn't be used as upper classmen over plebes any more than instructors in the classroom. Nor could they be given full privileges of commissioned men, since they had to be handled as students and housed in barracks much like enlisted men. The War Department had sent them back to recover some of the education it had ruthlessly snatched away.
They had arrived one month after they had left, with the injunction that they would be graduated six months later, in June. If the Chase National Bank of New York had been ordered by the government to change overnight into a department store, it couldn't have seethed more than did the officer personnel of the Point. While in the throes of improvising hasty training and classroom schedules for two unrelated bodies, it was faced with the concoction of an unheard of third, of compressing two and a half years into six months. The squeeze turned out to be a smatter of everything and a finish of nothing. Students and instructors looked upon it more as a sop than as salvage.
p20 So December of 1918 brought dark, hodgepodge hours. There was an undercurrent of mourning over a lost Corps with its old tight unity and sensitive spirit. All students were divided into three parts, like Gaul with its diverse races. Only one gray set of novices brought a grisly memory of the past. The pall hung so heavy that the verve in instruction often descended into the limpness of sodden duty.
When June came the student officers were graduated a second time, and a new set of appointees came in. The former Plebe Class A masqueraded as juniors, or second class, and Plebe Class B as sophomores, or yearlings. On the surface, it seemed like the old body of three classes. The cadets were all gray again and looked like one unit. But how could it have the old spirit of tradition and soul of the code? No, the Corps had died November first, 1918, ten days before the Armistice. Not even a miracle could bring it back to life. It had been as useless a death as the sacrifice of a babe fed into the burning mouth of Moloch. Instructors were glum. Tactical officers were sour. Professors were bitter. And the women were fulminating.
Such was the state of affairs and feelings when it was announced that Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur was to be the new Superintendent.
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Page updated: 22 Jun 16