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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

W. D. Puleston

published by
D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc.
New York • London

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 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

The Naval Renaissance

The Spanish-American War hastened the graduation of the class of 1898, whose members were given their diplomas without ceremony in April. The midshipmen departed at once for the North Atlantic Squadron. A month later, at their own request, members of the class of 1899 were ordered to sea. In June, the classes of 1900 and 1901 were offered leave but pleaded to join the fleet, and 46 of the class of 1900 and 29 of the class of 1901 were ordered to duty afloat. About a dozen members of the class of 1902 entered in May, and one, Midshipman John M. O'Reilly, who had served in the class of 1900 for about four months, was allowed to join the fleet. Every class in the Academy was represented in Sampson's squadron. O'Reilly, a midshipman of great promise, died of typhoid fever while on leave in 1901.

The Spanish-American War was over so quickly that it had no immediate effect on the Academy. The spirit of the midshipmen of 1898 was high, but few of them were afforded an opportunity to distinguish themselves. Midshipman Joseph W. Powell, class of 1897, demonstrated that the naval spirit was still in the midshipmen.​a In a small launch he followed Hobson in the Merrimac to the entrance of Santiago Harbor and steamed back and forth under the Spanish batteries to pick up the crew of the Merrimac which was sunk in the channel. Powell cruised until after daylight, when his launch was driven off by the galling  p118 fire of the shore patrols. A little later Admiral Cervera, in his own barge, rescued Hobson and his seven companions from the catamaran to which they were clinging.​1b

During the Philippine Insurrection, passed midshipmen were executives and sometimes commanders of small gunboats which operated in the waters of the archipelago. Naval Cadet W. C. Wood, 1899, of the gunboat Urdaneta, mortally wounded, continued to control the fire of his small battery until he died. Passed Midshipman H. D. Cooke, 1903, severely wounded in the ankle during a fight ashore, had himself propped up under a tree and directed the movements of his men.

The policy adopted by Congress in the eighties of commissioning only enough officers to man the Navy on a peace footing resulted in an acute shortage of officers when additional ships were commissioned during and after the Spanish-American War. The class of 1899 returned in October, 1898, and graduated early in January, 1899, to meet the pressing demand for officers.

The Senior Classmen were too busy exchanging notes about the Spanish War to haze plebes when the Academy resumed, but before the month was out the Sophomore custom had broken out in its usual fury. Semmes Read, 1903, a relative of Raphael Semmes, at first refused to submit, and accepted the alternative of fighting. An understanding First Classman reminded Read that every upper classman had been hazed as a plebe, and that none of them had suffered any physical harm or had been degraded by the experience. He admitted that there would be a few bullies who might become offensive but that for the most part it was mere buffoonery and no upper classman would be permitted to strike or lay a hand upon a plebe. With this explanation, Read submitted. The submission of Read, high  p119 spirited and powerful enough to take care of himself in a fight, explains the persistence of hazing at the Academy. New‑comers accepted hazing as a custom of the institution which had not perceptibly harmed their predecessors and probably would not harm them.

In 1900 quadrennial appointments to the Academy were restored. Appointments by Senators were authorized in 1902, and the number of appointees was doubled in 1903. Congress, under the leader­ship of President Theodore Roosevelt, was enlarging the Navy. And by good luck, the buildings to house the midshipmen were almost in readiness, for the Spanish-American War began a period of naval expansion which required the prompt enlargement of the Naval Academy. In 1895 the Board of Visitors recommended new buildings at the Academy to replace those built by Admiral Porter. At his own expense Colonel R. M. Thompson, 1868, engaged Ernest Flagg to develop a comprehensive plan for rebuilding the entire Academy. Flagg's plan was approved by the Department, and in 1898 Congress made the initial appropriation of $500,000. Appropriations were continued annually until the scheme was completed. In 1904 the northeast wing of Bancroft Hall was finished in time to accommodate the second battalion of the rapidly growing Midshipmen Regiment. The shortage of naval officers continued long after 1899, and in February, 1916, the number of appointees was increased to three for each Senator, Representative, and Delegate in Congress. At Colonel Thompson's suggestion, Flagg's original plans provided for the enlargement of Bancroft Hall and the academic buildings; this enlargement has permitted the addition of wings and new halls as required.

After the establishment of the War College in 1883, the apex of the Navy's educational pyramid, the service waited until 1900 for the intermediate post-graduate schools. In  p120 1899 the line and engineer courses at Annapolis were combined. Thoughtful officers realized that post-graduate instruction similar to that adopted for naval constructors was necessary for line officers specializing in engineering and ordnance. In 1906 post-graduate courses in marine and electrical engineering and ordnance were established in Washington; in 1909 they were enlarged and transferred to the Naval Academy and placed under the Superintendent. In 1912 the curriculum was increased to include naval construction, civil engineering, ordnance, and radio telegraphy. A regular Post-Graduate Department was established at Annapolis under the supervision of the Superintendent and independent of the Academic Board. Some officers attending the Post-Graduate School were later sent to universities and technical schools to take special courses which could not be given at Annapolis. In 1917 the post-graduate system was suspended for the duration of the war and officers were sent to active duty.

In October, 1916, there were 1,231 midshipmen at the Academy. In April, 1917, the number of appointments was increased to four and subsequently to five for each Senator and Member of the House of Representatives. The class of 1917 graduated in March, three months early, and the class of 1918 graduated in June, 1917, a year early. In April, 1918, the course was reduced to three years. The class of 1919 graduated in June, 1918. The Academy followed almost exactly the program of 1861‑65. The three classes averaged a little less than 200 graduates each; within sixteen months the Naval Academy had provided approximately 600 new ensigns to the fleet.

With all these increases, it soon became evident that the Academy could not meet the demand for ensigns and junior lieutenants. The Navy Department enrolled as reserve ensigns and sent to the Academy young college  p121 graduates and undergraduates with the necessary educational foundation. Under the energetic leader­ship of Admiral Eberle and his commandant, Captain William H. Standley, the officers and instructors at the Academy gave an intensive three to six months' course in seaman­ship, ordnance, and navigation to these specially selected collegians. Four classes of reserve ensigns were graduated before the armistice, furnishing about 1,400 reserve ensigns to the fleet.

Similar schools were developed for specialists. One for reserve ensigns for engineering duty only was established at Stevens Institute, Hoboken, New Jersey; a course in gas engines was given to reserve officers at Columbia University; an aviation ground school was established at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and a special school training naval aërographers to predict wind and weather for naval aviators was started at Blue Hills Observatory. There was a submarine school at New London, and adjacent to it an "anti-submarine" school to teach tactics for overcoming the submarine. Reserve paymasters were trained at Catholic University and later at Princeton.

Reserve ensigns were trained either in engineering or in line duties, and were qualified in only one branch. In engineering the reserve ensign was not expected to cover all engineering subjects: if competent in marine, Diesel, electrical, radio, or ordnance engineering, a reserve officer was assigned to that duty only. This system required the detail office in the Bureau of Navigation to keep an index card showing the qualifications of the reserve officers, for they were not interchangeable.

While enrolling collegians in their search for officer material, the Navy did not forget the enlisted men or the merchant marine. Five hundred enlisted men were promoted to junior lieutenants and two hundred and fifty  p122 were made ensigns. The Navy had previously enrolled many merchant officers in the reserve and had given them some naval training before war started. When the Navy took charge of the transport service, a school for deck officers was established at Pelham Bay Park. The merchant officers were retained as nearly as possible on the ships where they were serving when taken over by the Navy. In a few cases it was possible to leave the reserve captain in command of his ship; ordinarily it was necessary to send a commanding officer and a small signal detachment. The captain of the merchant ship remained as first officer or executive and acted as a second captain for internal organization, while the naval commander, with his signal force and armed gun crews, took over the military duties.

Before the armistice, naval units were established in the Student Army Training Corps, where retired naval officers were detailed as instructors. One vigorous retired admiral, sent to one of our most famous ivy‑league universities, was so aggressive that the president appealed to the Navy Department, reporting the admiral for commandeering the entire university.

Practically all the reserve ensigns at Annapolis applied for duty in the war zone. The Superintendent announced that the most proficient would get the first opportunities to serve in converted yachts, submarine chasers, destroyers, or battle­ships overseas. Others were sent to the United States Fleet operating in home waters to continue their training and instruction, and were sent abroad as vacancies occurred. By June, 1918, the average American destroyer operating against German submarines, escorting transports, or patrolling the sea lanes carried three Naval Academy officers — the captain, the executive, who was also navigator, and the chief engineer. The gunnery, watch, and divisional duties were entrusted to reserve officers, some of whom  p123 had never been to sea until they entered the Navy. Most of the submarine chasers were commanded by reserve officers, and they frequently earned the Navy Cross for their efficient performance of duty. The general performance of duty by graduates of the improvised courses at Annapolis suggested and eventually justified the founding of the Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

The war weariness that engulfed the United States in 1919 did not spare the Navy. All volunteers and practically all reserves sought immediate discharge, but the Navy had to bring the Army back from Europe. The Academy felt the let‑down, and Rear Admiral Scales, the Superintendent, confronted a difficult situation, with many midshipmen tendering their resignations. An outbreak of hazing made matters worse. Admiral Scales was succeeded by Rear Admiral H. B. Wilson, who came to the Academy from the position of Commander-in‑Chief of the Fleet and who, like Admiral Porter, had decided ideas about the Academy and the way to handle midshipmen. Although one of the tautest officers in the Service, Admiral Wilson thought the Academy was too strict and commenced to extend more privileges to midshipmen, including the privilege of smoking. "Uncle Henry," as he was soon called by the Regiment, granted Christmas leave and eventually Easter leave. First Classmen were allowed to visit Washington and Baltimore, and, strangely enough, the heavens did not fall, as some of the more conservative feared.

Pool tables were installed, card playing was permitted, and a chess club formed which functioned in Recreation (Smoke) Hall. The organization and drills of the battalion were altered to conform to those of the Army, and the Army rifle was adopted. In the other direction the old stiff choking blouses with buttoned‑up collars were discarded and the midshipmen's blouse altered to conform to  p124 those worn by naval officers. Khaki working clothes gave way to working whites, with improvement in the appearance of the Regiment.

The textbooks and equipment in ordnance were brought up to date, and the course was extended to include airplane bombing, aviation ordnance and gunnery, and mines. The fire-control system used in the latest battle­ships was installed in Dahlgren Hall, with the director system for broadside guns. It is difficult to over­estimate the importance of keeping the equipment of the Academy up to date; midshipmen leaving the Academy are expected to take their places in the fire-control parties, in the turrets, or with the broadside batteries as soon as they graduate. Ensigns who have been in the fleet for two years are transferred from battle­ships to destroyers, submarines, or aviation. Their places must be taken by their successors from the Academy, and the members of the graduating class, arriving aboard ship in the midst of preparations for target practice, must quickly get acquainted with the fire-control system or battery to which they are assigned or they will disarrange the entire organization. Manifestly if they have been trained on the same apparatus used on the Flagship Pennsylvania, for instance, they will be familiar with it and drop into their places quickly, but it they were brought up on out‑moded gear they will have to start from the beginning.

A course in flight tactics was added to the Seamanship Department and a course in aëronautical engineering to the Engineering Department. Second Class summer was given over to ground-school training in aviation, with at least ten hours' flying time for each midshipman. This was done before the regular aviation school at Pensacola had been enlarged, and it was intended to make midshipmen air‑minded and prepare them for a more advanced course  p125 later. Every battle­ship and cruiser now has its own planes: the Lexington, the Saratoga, and the pioneer Langley kept aviation in the forefront of the fleet. The enlargement of Pensacola permitted more and more ensigns to take the course, and the elementary course at Annapolis was abandoned. The course provided preliminary instruction for midshipmen in the duties of second pilot, navigator, radio operator, and mechanic in the air, and in cognate subjects such as aviation history, aërology, aircraft communication, and aviation scouting. At the very time air enthusiasts were accusing the Navy of neglecting aviation, it was requiring its future officers to take the most comprehensive course in aviation given to any but professional flyers.

Aviation affected practically every department in the Academy; navigation introduced aërial navigation.​2 The Engineering Department taught the theory of flight from the manual prepared at Pensacola School; gave instruction in aircraft structure and rigging materials used in aviation, in overhaul and assembly of heavier-than‑air craft, and in aircraft engines, including carburetion, lubrication, cooling, ignition, the most common faults and the proper remedies.

Postwar improvements at the Academy were not limited to academics. In order to foster a proper respect for rank without any of the evils of hazing, former privileges of upperclassmen enforced by hazing were established by regulation. These included reserving certain benches and walks for upperclassmen. Admiral Eberle and his commandant, Captain W. H. Standley, had formed midshipman committees to assist the authorities in the management of the Academy, and these were valuable assistants in the transfer from old ways to new customs. Midshipmen who  p126 had been dropped from former classes were not allowed to reënter until September; experience had shown they had a bad influence on new‑comers, teaching them many tricks they did not need to know. Admiral H. B. Wilson was much more moderate in his reforms than Admiral Porter had been, but he gave more and more privileges to midshipmen.

Admiral L. M. Nulton succeeded Admiral Wilson. He re‑established the midshipman drum and fife corps and took the Regiment of midshipmen to Chicago to play the Army, the first time the team had gone so far west. The welcome the Middle West gave to the military cadets and midshipmen was worth all the trouble. even the tie score was proper on that occasion; the hosts to the cadets and midshipmen in the heart of the country did not wish either the Army or the Navy to be defeated, and a tie game was the only way such a result could happen.​c

Rear Admiral S. S. Robison, who also came from command of the fleet to the Naval Academy, brought with him that cheerful and efficient way of getting things done without apparent use of disciplinary methods which marked his sea‑going career.​3 He was succeeded by Admiral Thomas C. Hart, now Commander-in‑Chief of the Asiatic Fleet, noted for his high sense of duty and his inflexible discipline. He was just what some of the stricter "ward room officers" in the fleet thought the Academy needed. Admiral Hart could not set the clock back, but he did restore some of the old customs. The atmosphere at the Academy has gradually become less bleak, but midshipmen can never be permitted the free and easy customs of the college campus.

The Author's Notes:

1 The catamaran is now at the Naval Academy.

Thayer's Note: Although Charles Lee Lewis, in his authoritative "Description of the United States Naval Academy" in Naval Institute Proceedings (Oct. 1935), p1459, specifically puts the boat in the Naval Academy Museum when he wrote, I was surprised not to be able to find any mention or photograph of the boat elsewhere online. If you have information or a photo of it, please drop me a line.
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2 Lieutenant Commander P. V. H. Weems, 1912, pioneered in developing the instruments, formulas, and tables necessary for flying over the ocean.

Thayer's Note: See further p85, note.
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3 Admiral Robison is now President of Admiral Farragut Academy, a preparatory school in New Jersey, and he has developed a crew that will take on all comers of its age.

Thayer's Notes:

a This may confuse some. If Midshipman Powell was a member of the Class of 1897, hadn't he graduated already? Well, yes, he had. The students at the Academy we now call midshipmen were at the time called "naval cadets"; "Midshipman" was an entrance-level rank in the active-duty Navy.

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b Lieutenant Hobson and his men's brave deed deserves to be often retold; and on my site, we find it at least four more times, with varying details and emphasis: Yates Stirling, Sea Duty, pp53‑54; William Mace, Stories of Heroism, pp391‑392; Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, p415; Alden & Earle, Makers of Naval Tradition, pp285‑286.

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c A very thorough page on the 1926 Army-Navy Game in Chicago, with photographs, long news articles, a play-by-play of the game, and a lot of background material (on the Army side, at any rate) can be found at

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Page updated: 11 Nov 20