1911-1920: An Amazing Decade
By Robert C. Carroll (“1962”) 1
Colonel, US Army Retired
“Military Collector & Historian,
Journal of the Company of Military Historians”
Summer 2013; Vol. 65, No. 2
LOOKING back at West Point one hundred years ago, we see on 14 June 1911 a dripping wet New Cadet “Dwight Eisenhower” (“1915”) wondering what in the world he had gotten himself into. By the end of that decade, Brig. Gen. “Douglas MacArthur” (“1903”) would be West Point’s new superintendent. In the interim, the academy would endure some amazing events and challenges. It would also graduate a pantheon of leaders who would serve our nation with remarkable distinction. What follows is a glimpse of what it was like to be at the Military Academy a century ago and a snapshot of the alumni it produced during the decade 1911-1920.
For those familiar with the post, a 360-degree panorama of West Point from “Battle Monument” circa 1911 is revealing: 2
To the north was the ever-awesome view of Storm King Mountain, the Hudson River, and Constitution Island, once called “Martelear’s Rock”. To the west, the flag pole sported a flag with forty-six stars until 1912 when Arizona and New Mexico joined the union, thus allowing sergeants of the Cadet Color Guard, including Eisenhower, to carry the forty-eight-star version. Looking farther to the west, one could see the two oldest buildings on the grounds, the quarters of the Commandant and Superintendent, and high above them on the hillside the beautiful and lofty, one-year-old, “Cadet Chapel”. 3
View up the Hudson from “Trophy Point”. Courtesy West Point Library.
Across “The Plain” to the south sat the gymnasium, which would be demolished in 1924 to accommodate “Washington Hall” . Next came the gothic “Cadet Barracks” (Old Central) – quite adequate to house the 650 men in the six companies of the battalion of cadets. Next to the barracks stood the “West Academic Building” (later named Pershing Hall), soon to be joined (in 1913) by its East counterpart, named Bartlett Hall. Behind Pershing was Grant Hall, the cadet mess. Following “The Plain” to the east was the old library (later demolished and replaced on site) and, under construction, a new large riding hall which years later would morph into an academic building named Thayer Hall.
The Riding Hall pre-Thayer Hall. Courtesy West Point Library.
To the east sat three relatively new structures: the Officers’ Mess, eight years old; the solemn-looking Cullum Hall, eleven years old; and what would later be named Lincoln Hall (once the Bachelor Officers Quarters), only one year old. At the base of Clinton Parapet (originally Fort Arnold but renamed when Benedict became a traitor), was the almost universally mispronounced “Kosciuszko Monument”, which would have to wait two more years to receive its figure statue of Thaddeus. Completing the circle, where now lie Revolutionary War cannons and huge links of the great chain, stood the West Point Hotel, which had been home to MacArthur’s mother throughout his cadet years, a decade earlier.4
Most of the young men who came to this place in 1911 grew up in small towns or on farms and in big families. The American population of ninety-four million was largely im migrant, with more than a third either coming from another country or with a parent who did. The economy was just starting to move toward major industrialization, with the auto industry in its infancy. In 1914, America suffered a depression (to be followed by an even worse one fifteen years later). Cadets were thankful for their room and board and very well aware of their “free” education, for which they would later pay in service and in blood.
The cadets took a tough entrance exam that would cause any old timer to wince. These questions are from the 1920 version of the exam: 5
Mathematics: Given a square whose side is 2. The middle points of its adjacent sides are joined by straight lines forming a second square inscribed in the first. In the same manner a third square is inscribed in the second, a fourth in the third, and so on indefinitely. Find the sum of the perimeters of all the squares.
English: In a few paragraphs (about 250 words) discuss the Victorian period in English literature, paying attention to the following points: (a) the characteristics of the literature; (b) the chief writers, both in prose and poetry.
History: Write a short account of the War of the Roses. [Author’s note: I don’t think they meant the movie, which then would have been silent.]
And these young men would face a science-heavy West Point curriculum with math, physical sciences, engineering, and ordnance, along with English, history, law, languages, tactics, and gymnastics/physical culture.6 Demanding? Yes! As it is today!
Turning to sports, baseball was the great national pastime and Army played it well. This was long before Doubleday Field, named in 1937 for Civil War hero Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday (1842), who was questionably credited with inventing the sport. 7 “Omar Bradley” (“1915”) was a decent footballer and an outstanding baseball player, known as both a power hitter and an outfielder with one of the best arms in his day. Every player on his 1914 team would earn at least one star in World War II. Later, in 1920, Superintendent MacArthur, who had played an unheralded right field as a cadet, took the opportunity to coach Cadet “Earl Blaik” (“1920”) on hitting curve balls. An outstanding athlete competing in both football and baseball, Blaik would become a legendary football coach at Army, producing three Heisman Trophy winners and an Outland Trophy winner. Colonel Blaik later recalled that, after the superintendent’s coaching, he not only couldn’t hit curve balls, he couldn’t hit anything.8 On the fields of friendly strife …” Oh never mind, Mac!
Jim Thorpe was arguably the best all-around athlete of his time. After winning gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the summer Olympics at Stockholm, Sweden, he led the Carlisle Indians in a football victory over Army and then on to the 1912 national championship. Playing a solid game as a 175-pound halfback and linebacker, sophomore Eisenhower said he tackled Thorpe only with the help of others. A few games later, Ike severely hurt his knee against Tufts, ending his football career and nearly denying him a commission in the Army.9
The next season (1913), a Notre Dame team led by captain/end Knute Rockne beat Army in a game later immortalized by Ronald Reagan playing “the Gipper”. The movie took some license by portraying Notre Dame’s forward pass as a surprise innovation, which the cadets thought to be illegal. In actuality both teams threw the ball, but Notre Dame won the day. The next year (1914), when Ike and Bradley were seniors, West Point was undefeated.10
A plebe on that team went on to become possibly the greatest athlete in West Point history. After earning a degree and all American status at Purdue, the amazing “Elmer Oliphant” (June “1918”) became the first cadet to letter in four sports. This 5 ‘7″ 180-pounder starred as a half- back and drop-kicker, became a two-time Army All-American and College Football Hall of Famer, and set an Army record by scoring forty-five points in one game. “Ollie” captained both the football and baseball teams, played hockey, won the brigade light heavyweight boxing title, threw the discus, and set a world record in the 220 yard low hurdles on grass.11
Army halfback Oliphant (June “1918”)
Not surprisingly, these cadets of yore were interested in les femmes.
Sketch from The Howitzer, 1916.
While this decade preceded the “Roaring Twenties”, there was still some evidence of a shift in social mores, exemplified by raised hemlines, revealing, for the first time, very sexy ankles. One can only imagine what happened to these hemlines on “Flirtation Walk” where cadets could display affection toward the supposedly weaker sex without the overwatch of the dreaded Tactical Department. It is highly unlikely, however, that cadets were allowed to dance the racy 1912 hit by Arthur Prior, The Grizzly-Turkey Trot.12 But for twirling a young lady at Cullum (Dance) Hall in such a manner as to reveal her petticoat, Cadet Eisenhower endured demerits and confinement punishment from the Commandant of Cadets.13
“No horse, no wife, no mustache!” is a traditional West Point edict. During this era, no cars either. But by the end of the decade, Henry Ford’s manufacturing genius would allow graduating cadets to buy Model Ts for several hundred dollars, then to buy gas at about twenty-five cents per gallon at the newly created drive-up gas stations, with the newly ordained gas tax.
Plebes in 1913 swearing oath, uncovered, right hands raised. Courtesy West Point Library.
The new plebes (freshmen) and the newly commissioned second lieutenants (then as now) swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, which was amended during this period to prohibit alcohol. With this prohibition, Bartender Benny Havens (a pre-Civil War local bartender well known to generations of cadets and immortalized in a West Point song bearing his name) must have been rolling in his grave. Another constitutional amendment during this period gave women the right to vote. It would take another fifty-five years for women to join the Long Gray Line, surely with the approval of Molly Corbin, a Revolutionary War heroine who “manned” her husband’s weapon after he was killed and who is buried in the “West Point Cemetery”.14 In the past thirty-five years, women have served with distinction as cadets and subsequently as officers in the Army, in peace and in war.
Although African-American men received the right to vote some fifty years before women, there were no African-American Cadets at West Point during this period. The country’s racial history during this decade is particularly nasty; the KKK ran rampant, and lynchings were not uncommon. Just a month after the West Point class of 1915 put on their gold bars, ten thousand African-Americans marched in New York City to protest lynchings. In 1917, race riots occurred in East St. Louis, Illinois; and in Houston, Texas; the latter resulting in thirteen soldiers being hanged for alleged participation; 1920 saw a host of race riots from Pennsylvania, to the District of Columbia, to South Carolina, to Texas.15 It was not until well into the 1960s that African-American cadets arrived in significant numbers at the academy. Today, happily, African-Americans thrive at West Point, and West Point thrives because of them.
Cadets of this era observed world events that included the opening of the Panama Canal, thanks to Maj. Gen. George W. Goethals (1880) and Maj. Walter Reed, MD; the return of Mecca and Medina to Arab hands, thanks to T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia); the end of two thousand years of Chinese dynasties, thanks to the Empress Dowager Cixi; the development of the Theory of General Relativity, thanks to Albert Einstein; the introduction of the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 (so designated because it was in 1911), thanks to John M. Browning; the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II, ending over ten centuries of Tsarist autocracy, thanks to a bunch of Bolsheviks; and the sinking of the RMS Titanic, thanks to an iceberg. Cadets were largely spared when a horrific influenza pandemic, comparable to the Black Plague of 1349 swept the globe. The records of the academy indicate sporadic deaths by flu, but nothing like the waves that hit Fort Devens, Massachusetts; Camp Funston, Kansas; and other places.16
But the headline story for this decade was “The Great War” the devastating war to end all wars. The tinderbox was sparked in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, and two months later the battle was joined. It embroiled all of Europe. At one point, there was a small cessation in fighting for an eerie and holy Christmas truce to sing “Silent Night” in German, French, and English.17 At that very time, “firsties” from the class of ’15 were enjoying a short Christmas leave, wondering if and when America would get involved. On 6 April 1917 (Good Friday) the United States declared war. A month later Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing (1886) departed the United States for France, with American doughboys following soon after.
The fighting stopped on 11 November 1918.18 The United States was a pivotal nation in the winning alliance, and West Pointers were prominent in this victory. Three-fourths of the World War I American generals graduated from USMA, and West Pointers earned an amazing sixty-plus Distinguished Service Crosses and one Medal of Honor, “Emory Jenison Pike” (1901), in not much more than six months of combat.19
The impact of the war on West Point was huge! Imagine how this staid old institution had to perform cartwheels to accomplish the following: Two weeks after the declaration of war, the class of “1917” graduated early, in April. Four months later, in August, the second class of 1917 graduated after only three years at the Academy. The next summer, the class of “1918” graduated in June after three years. With the battle raging and demand for leaders acute, the Department of the Army directed USMA to graduate two more classes on 1 November 1918. These men were sophomores and juniors.20
On 2 November 1918 only the plebes or freshmen were left. Imagine that! Consequently a call went out, and on 4 November 1918 a fresh cohort of plebes entered with the intention of graduating the following June. These men arrived with little screening and preparation, and attrition was high – almost sixty percent. Hard-pressed for uniforms, the Academy put them in enlisted olive drab uniforms and campaign hats with a distinctive orange band, from which came the nickname “orioles”.21
When the 11 November 1918 Armistice was signed, the two classes that had graduated on 1 November 1918 had been in “the real Army” less than a fortnight. The newly minted second lieutenants who had left in sophomore year were ordered back to West Point on 1 December 1918 as “student officers”. At a West Point formation one could see a battalion of these “student officers” in olive drab, another battalion of plebes in gray, and yet another battalion of “new cadets” in”oriole” hats. A sight to behold! 22 These “student officers” graduated a second time the next summer and are listed as the class of “1919”. The wartime class acceleration did not calm down until 1923. The class of “1920” graduated after two years; the class of “1921” (only seventeen graduates) after two and one-half years; and the class of “1922”, some after three years, others after three and one-half. 23
The graduates of this remarkable time were destined for greatness, due in part to the timing of the next war, some twenty-three years later (1918-1941). Most Army officers typically achieve significant leadership positions only after twenty years of service. So the experience, maturity, and especially age of these graduates would make them ideal candidates for leadership positions during the next war. As many had predicted, the war came. And West Pointers from this era stood tall.
The class of “1915” gets a lot of attention as “the class the stars fell on” (one out of three). Leading that class, of course, is Eisenhower, elected to two terms as president of the United States. Both he and Bradley earned the five stars of General of the Army. Some readers may not know that Bradley, as the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was awarded his fifth star in 1951 mainly to handle five-star MacArthur in Korea.24
Cadet “Omar Bradley”
One other anecdote from this class bears telling: “James Van Fleet” (“1915”) had been the star fullback on the 1914 Army team. Years later Colonel Van Fleet (with twenty-nine years of service) stormed Utah Beach as commander of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division. Ike complained to Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George C. Marshall (Virginia Military Institute 1902) that Van Fleet should be a general. Marshall had mistaken Van Fleet for another who had problems with alcohol.25 The mistake was corrected, and Van Fleet soon commanded the 90th Infantry Division and then III Corps in the sweep across France as part of the Third Army led by Lt. Gen. “George S. Patton” (“1909”). Van Fleet went on to earn four stars, winning accolades for his service in the Greek Civil War and in Korea. His lifetime awards for valor are, to say the least, impressive: three each of the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart. 26
Cadet “James Van Fleet” The Howitzer, “1915”.
Six graduates of this era became Chief of Staff of the Army: Eisenhower, Bradley, Matthew B. Ridgway (“1917”), J. Lawton Collins (“1917”), Lyman L. Lemnitzer (“1920”), and Maxwell D. Taylor (“1922”). Three became Chief of Staff of the Air Force: Carl A. Spaatz (“1914”), Nathan F. Twining (“1919”), and Thomas D. White (“1920”). Four became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Bradley, Twining, Lemnitzer, and Taylor. [Henry H. “Hap” Arnold (“1907”) was promoted to General of the Army on 21 December 1944 before the advent of the USAF and in 1949 after retirement became the only General of the Air Force in our nation’s history.] 27
Other recognizable names include Alexander M. Patch, Jr., (“1913”), who led the XIV Corps at Guadalcanal and later commanded the Seventh Army; Mark W. Clark (“1917”), an Army training genius and father of the noncommissioned officer academies; Albert C. Wedemeyer (“1919”), who replaced “Joe Stilwell” (“1904”) in the China-Burma-India Theater; Alfred M. Gruenther (“1919”), Ike’s protege at NATO and later president of the American Red Cross; and Anthony C. McAuliffe (“1919”), best known for his “Nuts!” response to the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, who went on to command U.S. Army Europe. In addition, Lucius D. Clay (“1918”) is famed for orchestrating the Berlin Airlift, “Leslie R Groves” (“1918”) for building the Pentagon and the atom bomb and, of course, “Earl Blaik” (“1920”) for his legendary football coaching career.28
A less familiar name is Col. “William H. Wilbur” (“1912”), who landed with his unit at Fedala in North Africa on 8 November 1942, proceeded alone through sixteen miles of hostile territory with a commandeered vehicle and accomplished his mission of delivering letters to appropriate French officials in Casablanca. On his way back Wilbur personally led a platoon of American tanks in an attack. His Medal of Honor citation understates this heroism as “exemplary in its coolness and daring”.29
Cadet William H. Wilbur
Class of 1912.
The Howitzer, 1912.
All told, twenty-four graduates of this era made the full four-star general rank. An interesting note: Remember the ill-fated class that was forced to come back for a second year as student officers? The class of “1919” had a total of six full generals, believed to be an academy record.30
It was stellar leadership that was forged at West Point in the amazing decade of 1911-1920! Today, a century later, we can look back and see the steady hand of this historic and national institution sculpting leaders of character for unique and unknown demands to follow.
Let West Point continue to do so for the ages.
“The long gray line of us stretches
Through the years of a century told,
And the last one feels to the marrow
The grip of your far-off hold”.
(From The Corps, West Point song; words by USMA Chaplain H. S. Shipman; music by W. Franke Harling;31 introduced on 12 June 1910 at the last service in the old Cadet Chapel, before it was relocated from the cadet area to the “West Point Cemetery”, block by granite block, befittingly.32)
1. The author graduated from West Point in 1962. Numbers in parentheses after names throughout this article indicate West Point class.
2. Rod Miller, The Campus Guides: West Point U.S. Military Academy (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), 30
3. Robert Cowley and Thomas Guinzburg, eds., West Point, Two Centuries of Honor and Tradition (The Bicentennial Book of the United States Military Academy) (New York: Warner Books, 2002), 142-144.
4. William Manchester, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978), 54-61.
5. Official Register of the Officers and Cadets United States Military Academy for 1919 (West Point, NY: United States Military Academy Printing Office, 1919), 117-120.
6. Official Register of the Officers and Cadets United States Military Academy for 1919, 21, 45.
7. E. Miklich, Website: Nineteenth Century Baseball: http://www.19cbaseball. com/The Abner Doubleday Myth.
8. Manchester, American Caesar, 123.
9. Michael Korda, Ike: An American Hero (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 93.
10. Wikipedia Encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vernon Prichard
11. Wikipedia Encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmer_Oliphant:College Honors
13.”Dwight D. Eisenhower”, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends (Garden City,N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967), 9-10.
14. Cowley, West Point, Two Centuries of Honor and Tradition, 22.
15. Wikipedia Encyclopedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nadir_of_American_race_relations#Reconstruction
16. Annual Report of the Superintendent, United States Military Academy (West Point NY: United States Military Academy Press, 1919), 43.
17. Wikipedia Encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_truce
18. Ruth T. Feldman, World War I, Chronicle of America’s Wars (Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 2004), 28-29.
19. Cowley, West Point, Two Centuries of Honor and Tradition, 148.
20. Annual Report of the Superintendent, 1919, 3-4.
22. Cowley, West Point, Two Centuries of Honor and Tradition, 170.
23. Annual Report of the Superintendent, (1919), 3-4.
25. Wikipedia Encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Van_Fleet
28. The Register of Graduates and Former Cadets of the United States Military Academy (West Point, NY: The Association of Graduates, 2010), Biography Pages 4-97 to 4-129.
30. http://www.answers.com/topic/list-of-united-states-army-four-star-gener- als#1941.E2.80.93present
The word “man” in the original text has been replaced in recent years by “one” to allow inclusion of female West Pointers.
32. Miller, The Campus Guides: West Point U.S. Military Academy, 10
FIG 15. Cadet “Omar Bradley”
FIG 10. Sketch from The Howitzer, 1916.
FIG 10. Sketch from The Howitzer, 1916.
FIG 9. Army halfback Oliphant (Jun ’18).
FIG 12. U.S. doughboys charging over the top at St. Mihiel. Courtesy West Point Library.
FIG 17. Cadet William H. Wilbur ’12. The Howitzer, 1912.
FIG 16. Cadet “James Van Fleet” The Howitzer, “1915”.
This for the photos
FIG. 3. Engineering class.
FIG. 4. French class.
FIG 3. Engineering class. Courtesy West Point Library.
FIG 4. French class. Courtesy West Point Library.