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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
Naval Institute Proceedings
Vol. 61 No. 10 (Oct. 1935), pp1494‑1498

The text is in the public domain,
the 1935 copyright not having been renewed in 1962 or 1963.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p1494  Officers and Gentlemen in the Making

By Carroll S. Alden, Professor, U. S. Naval Academy
Head of Department of English and Historya

The Naval Academy has experienced changes in organization and curriculum during its long span of life, almost as marked as the changes in buildings and grounds. But although the regiment of midshipmen is renewed in its entirety every four years, the faculty with the exception of the comparatively small civilian staff even more often, the old Academy still continues and the type persists with remarkably sharp outlines.

The Academy has now reached the age limit commonly assigned to three generations. The eldest of the first generation, who participated in the Civil War, have entirely gone, the eldest of the second, who saw the beginning of the "New Navy" and who officered the ships in the Spanish-American War, comprise to‑day a small and rapidly diminishing group, and the eldest of the third, who in their tender years imbibed the strenuous enthusiasms and expansive policy of Roosevelt Primus and later fought in the World War, have risen to the rank of captain and perhaps are looking towards sunset. It is a mooted question whether the feeling is stronger on the part of the elders, who survey the present with pain and misgiving, or on the part of youth, who read of the past with amusement and a sense of their own superiority. In the Service, however, it is a question that would concern hardly more than a very small number, for the prevailing sentiment is commonly one of mutual pride and admiration. If Wordsworth's often-quoted line, "The Child is Father of the Man," is true of the Academy, it should be possible to trace signs of relation­ship, family characteristics, that have been transmitted from class to class in its long history. A considerable part of this, 31 years of continuous service in the Department of English and History, has given me opportunity personally to observe.

Interest in the Individual

In every large and highly organized industrial plant of modern times is found a high degree of standardization. The individual or unit must be subordinated to the next larger group and this in turn to the still larger division. Often the man or child has lost all personality and become nothing more than a connecting rod or a cog in a machine measured by thousands of horsepower. In contrast with the industrial plant, the Navy and the Naval Academy, although they also employ methods of standardization, look out for the individual in an unusual degree. This was true of the Naval Academy years ago, and it is still more true to‑day. Its absence was felt in the early fifties, the historian tells us, when the oldsters had little or no intercourse with youngsters. They did not haze but in their superiority ignored the late comers. When the 4‑year course became established, a custom grew up of the older student's selecting a younger one for special assistance.

Nothing created in a newly made third-class man a feeling of greater pride than the fact that he has singled out some neophyte of the entering class whom he designated as "my plebe" and defended against all comers.

To‑day, interest in the individual midshipman is shown in a dozen ways. A newly entered plebe suffering from an acute attack of homesickness is surprised by his company officer's dropping in and changing the entire atmosphere with some irrelevant but cheering remark. A discouraged midshipman who simply can't see what "math" or something else is all  p1495 about is taken in tow by an upper classman or by one of his own class, and very likely is saved by persistent extra instruction. Another failing slightly, who has been granted the privilege of re‑examination, is assisted by an instructor; and the instructor not only gives him general directions of review but also works with him for hours to clear away all difficulties and lead to a real understanding of the course. This is not done for pay, and the spirit shown is very much better than that at the colleges and universities where tutoring is commonly on a commercial basis. Interest in the midshipmen is regularly shown in the care taken of their health and well-being. Parents need not worry over their boy's being up late at night or spending the week‑end on a wild "jamboree" in a distant metropolis. The athletic midshipman's sister or sweetheart on a stormy winter day may wander into the Yard with no proper protection, but her escort appears in the uniform ordered, which very likely includes raincoat and overshoes.

Recreation and Diversion

One diversion at the Naval Academy has continued during the ninety years without interruption, and it is not the field sports, football or baseball, nor the water sports, rowing or swimming. At the universities and colleges there may be a "junior prom" at the middle of the course and a "senior prom" at the end, with fraternity or club dances scattered between, but these are for the wealthy and those with at least moderate allowances to enjoy, and students with limited resources are likely to take no part in them. At the Naval Academy practically no month passes without a regimental hop open to all except plebes, who are interested onlookers. And there are other hops between, limited to the first and second classes. Since midshipmen, like cadets, cannot journey about during term time to attend the parties other youths are attending, the girls accept the situation and come to them. The hops are indeed a highly civilizing influence in the midshipmen's four years of monasticism. With the hops should be mentioned also the homes of the officers and of the people of Annapolis. Among naval educators, mothers and daughters have a place of no mean importance. They prevent midshipmen from becoming hard and boorish, and add cheerfulness to life. At the universities students complain that they have little or no opportunity of meeting the president and many of the faculty. Midshipmen, on the other hand, several times a year are received at the Superintendent's and Commandant's; and only those who are determined anchorites cut themselves off from enjoying the hospitality of the officers' and professors' homes. Another relief from monasticism is found in letter writing. Since the beginning of history, midshipmen have been great letter writers, and in late years they have had a government post-office in the basement of Bancroft Hall, which does a flourishing business.

Hazing, at least in theory, might be regarded as still another reaction to the restricted life. It did not exist in the first two decades of the Academy's history, but was virulent in the seventies and eighties. The last serious outbreak many of the captains and commanders on duty to‑day at the Naval Academy will recall. It occurred in the fall of 1905, following a tragic affair of honor between a second-class man and a youngster, in which the second-class man was killed — on account of an injury received in a fall rather than the undue violence of the boxing, for gloves were worn. This attracted wide public attention and brought still more notice to a case of hazing of the worst type that occurred during the same month. A military court of greatest dignity brought midshipman  p1496 after midshipman to trial, especially of the first class, right up to their graduation day, which because of the need for officers had in 1906 been moved up one term, that is, to the first week in February. Eight midshipmen (four of the first class and four of the third) had been dismissed. The graduating class on being called to receive their diplomas from the Secretary of the Navy showed the burden suddenly lifted as they fairly ran to the rostrum and clutched the coveted "sheepskin." Happily, these events marked the termination at the Academy of affairs of honor and violent hazing.

Organized athletics at the Naval Academy had their beginning in 1890 when Colonel Robert M. Thompson led the way to forming the Navy Athletic Association and to defeating the Army in football, the first game being played on Thanksgiving Day, 1890, at West Point, and resulting in a Navy victory, 24 to 0.​b

Whatever may be the exuberance of midshipmen there is an outlet for it to‑day in the multitudinous athletic sports and extracurricular activities. Thus there is no need for hazing. But midshipmen (and officers) get so absorbed in football, boxing, lacrosse, water polo, and the dozen other sports, to say nothing about their devotion to the masqueraders, juice gang,​c musical clubs, etc., that we who fight for academics are at times very much alarmed lest the side show run away with the main circus.

Uniform and Manners

Prior to 1850 midshipmen ordered to the institution dressed in citizens' clothes. Benjamin​d notes that the Regulations of 1847 required a blue-cloth jacket, vest, and pantaloons, but mentioned no distinctive marks or insignia. Since 1850 a uniform has been prescribed, the service uniform being decidedly changed from time to time, the dress uniform only slightly. The question has often been asked, How far do clothes make the man? For the psychologist and educator, always looking for new data, an interesting comparison might be made of the precise dress at the service Academies and the slovenly attire in recent years at many of the schools and colleges. Has not slovenly dress resulted in slovenly manners? The good carriage and the good manners of midshipmen are a source of pride to those of us who are related to the institution. The salute and "Good morning, Sir," are more than a stereotyped greeting. Midshipmen are especially courteous to strangers — and I know their courtesy pays. Some years ago the Superintendent called me to his office to meet one of the editorial staff of the New York Times. Since it was the latter's first visit, it was my privilege to show him about the Yard. In Bancroft Hall he met two first-class men on duty, who did themselves "proud"; and on the way to the gate his progress was interrupted so that he might meet a 3‑striper from Kentucky, who easily led his class in culture and manners. The editor on leaving remarked on what a fine set of young men the midshipmen are, and twice later as I have seen him in New York he has reverted to his brief visit, exclaiming, "I don't know how you do it, but you certainly do teach manners at the Naval Academy."

Religion, Morals, and Morale

Before the founding of the Naval Academy, chaplains on board ship were interested in midshipmen and had a duty in the direction of their education. Chaplains still hold their own in the Navy, and on Sunday mornings at the Academy it is the rule for midshipmen to‑day, as it has been for most of the last 90 years, to go to divine service at the Chapel or at the church of their choice in town. In the universities, compulsory chapel attendance has given way to voluntary attendance, and in most cases a large number of students  p1497 elect to spend their Sunday morning in bed or far from the campus, "seeing America first." Midshipmen, it must be admitted, have occasionally planned to evade Chapel, but not successfully. One clever ruse was that of the sophisticated youth who averred that he was a Moslem, conviction barring him from Chapel or any church in Annapolis. The punishment fitted the crime. He was told by his battalion officer that as a devout Moslem he must say his prayers, facing Mecca, every night and morning, and on Sundays he must remain in his room, reading the Koran on which frequent reports would be expected. Conviction involved too great a sacrifice, and the decision was soon reached that it would be better to become conventional once more.

The Naval Academy has been fortunate in the "holy fathers" who have directed its religious activities. Several of the chaplains I have known have been assigned to duty at this station again and again and this is an indication of the effectiveness of their service — one serving for 17 years, followed by another who served for 12 years, leaving the Academy to become head of the Chaplains' Corps in Washington. The chaplains of the Naval Academy have shown intellectual and spiritual power and they have admirably adapted themselves to the duty. They have made of religion something so natural and manly that strong men could accept it without weakness or compromise. I know of no early Easter morning celebration of the Holy Communion at any of the universities equal to some I have known at which fully 600 midshipmen were present and went to the Communion Rail.

It is important to add that religion at the Naval Academy is not an outward show. The standard of truth and honor is high. Falsehood, evasion, "gouging" (dishonesty in recitation or examination) are not tolerated by officers or midshipmen, and their occurrence is rare. On the other hand, courage, fidelity, and devotion to duty are strongly fostered, and history has shown that in an emergency they stand out as something intensely real.

Conservatism of the Naval Academy

The conservatism of the Naval Academy has its origins in the conservatism of the Fleet. The Navy has never been favorable to radicalism and fads. New inventions or improvements, even those of its own personnel, it has often opposed — witness the early history of ironclads, rifled guns, submarines, and aircraft. Midshipmen occasionally indulge in big talk, but they do not consort with professional agitators and they show little interest in the doctrines of socialism, pacifism, and communism. A small group will be found reading Nietzsche, Mencken, Bertrand Russell, or Spengler, but the weak enthusiasm occasionally developed is an individual affair. If the other side is considered, however, the Academy shows the need of outside interests with their quickening influence. This has been repeatedly voiced by some of the more mature midshipmen, who have realized that because of the same studies, the same athletic sports, the same dormitory, and the same movies, it is only logical that the same ideas, same convictions, and same prejudices are likely to follow. They need at times to step outside their daily circle to estimate rightly the value both of what is outside and of what is within. During the past 15 years, according to my observation, books, news magazines, and newspapers have been read much more than in previous years. Midshipmen have always had some contact with the world during September leave, and now with a 10- or 11‑day leave at Christmas there is added opportunity. During recent years they have had much more contact with the colleges. Respecting the latter, the conservatism of not a few officers has been  p1498 expressed in their fear lest the Academy become a college. Others remark that already it has been recognized as such by the Association of American Universities (on the basis of which Congress authorized the Military and Naval Academies to grant degrees) and they point to list of the leading colleges and universities in the United States such as that given in the World's Almanac, where the Naval Academy is included. They say further that midshipmen are not injured but stimulated by attempting to rival their friends in college, not only in athletics, but in the Log, Lucky Bag, Masqueraders, Combined Musical Clubs, and Quarter-Deck (public-speaking society).

The Continuing Influence of the Naval Academy

Four years at the Naval Academy and then 44 years in the Fleet and at shore stations — what has been studied in textbooks will be quickly forgotten, as even the most enthusiastic of us teachers must recognize. But there is something which we believe will not fade and we like to think that the Academy continues a steady beacon to assist the officer in obtaining his bearings on many a cruise to follow.

The Naval Academy should be a source of authority. Treatises on seaman­ship, navigation, ordnance, electricity, mechanics, and more general works in history and biography have emanated from here. It is constantly receiving problems for heads of departments to answer, and requests for information for the librarian or the curator of the Museum to furnish. As the years go on, such duties and responsibilities are likely to become not less but more.

The influence of the Naval Academy is closely linked with that of the Naval Institute. Officially, the two have no relation, but the essential similarity of aims and interests makes it proper that they should be intimately connected. The Institute is granted a home in one of the Academy halls and in return is constantly called upon to publish textbooks for midshipmen, supplying them at a much lower rate than could be obtained outside. Further, the Naval Institute in publishing the Proceedings, reaching out to the naval personnel in every water and at every shore station, as well as to American embassies and friends scattered widely, is certain to be influenced strongly by the atmosphere of its home office, and whatever is new or stimulating at the Academy is certain to find a place in its columns. If a personal word is permissible, the Department of English and History of the Naval Academy takes pride in its own special relation to the Proceedings. For years, two or more of its teaching staff have been also on the editorial staff of the Proceedings and the arrangement has resulted in mutual benefit.

In their English themes midshipmen have frequently attempted to define Navy spirit but rarely to their own satisfaction. The question is often raised as to its source, and what studies are essential for the making of a naval officer. The work of each academic department may be found paralleled by that of other institutions, yet the alumni of those institutions we think do not bear the familiar stamp. The distinguishing characteristics of the graduates of the Naval Academy, as I see them, emanate from the teaching and influence, not of one department, but of all. It goes beyond all combined. It is in part what has grown with the 90 years of aspiration and effort that we are celebrating; it is in part a realization of the spirit of the Fleet, a reaching after the tradition that has been handed down from captain to commander and to lieutenant and to enlisted men, long before the Naval Academy was founded, which instinctively guides officers and men in battle and at critical moments, and which steadies them during the trying periods of waiting and enforced inactivity.

Thayer's Notes:

a Carroll Storrs Alden was already the principal co‑author in 1925 of Makers of Naval Tradition, which would be updated during World War II; and was among the four co‑authors of the final revised edition (1927) of A Short History of the United States Navy; both books are onsite in full. The former is an expansion of the idea in the last paragraph of the article before you, in which he will show the importance of individual naval officers thru the centuries to that indefinable thing called naval tradition.

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b For some picturesque details on the game, see pp1563‑1564 of this issue of the Proceedings.

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c The "juice gang", according to the Naval Academy's 1948 Catalogue of Information, is an organization of amateur midshipman electricians, providing lighting effects for the Masqueraders and Combined Musical Clubs as needed.

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d Park Benjamin, Jr., USNA 1867, authored an illustrated record of the Naval Academy in his day, wrote several naval-themed novels, and went on to become an influential scientific editor. He was also the designer of the Naval Academy's seal.

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