Plebe Summer

                          (Click on images to expand) On July 5, 1960, Naval Academy discipline became my world. My father drove me to the front gate and wished me luck. Following the appointment letter warnings, I brought a shaving kit with toothpaste, comb, and watch. At the front gate a Marine guard let me enter after he saw my authorization letter. Walking toward the largest dormitory in the world in a yellow-brick courtyard, home to nearly four thousand midshipmen, passing cannons that protected the massive stone structure, I climbed the concrete steps to tall doors and entered Bancroft Hall. Awe-struck by the marble floors, arched ceilings, and expansiveness, could I survive this challenge?     A sign directed me to a room where and enlisted man handed me a large canvas bag to carry my new equipment: tee shirts, skivvies, socks, white sailor jumpers, trousers, rain gear, white sailor hats with blue trim, navy blue shorts, Naval Academy shirt, sweatshirt, sweat pants, tennis shoes, drill shoes, leggings, and towels. My first military haircut occurred after I joined the end of a long line of plebes. At my assigned room, I brought my initial issue and met my new roommates for the summer. Tall and husky George Sefcik from New Jersey confessed, “I was lucky the Academy took me, hope to survive the academics, and want to make the boxing team.”Short and scholarly, George Detman from Massachusetts had a strong interest in naval history and was a good bet to graduate. I introduced myself and said, “My Dad and brother graduated from the Academy. I left Duke as a sophomore to come here.”The Academy issued me stencils with my laundry number “4473” that I carefully filled in with indelible black ink on my white sailor jumpers along with my other stencil: “LAVERY, D.C.” that soon appeared on all my tee shirts, clothes, and laundry bag. When the announcement blared over the loudspeaker system: “Plebes assemble in front of Bancroft Hall parade area for the annual swearing-in ceremony,” I hustled to the spot with a new-found pride in the naval uniform my father, brother, and I wore. This was the oath that I had refused two years earlier at Duke. It marked the official turning point for every plebe and first year freshman in any ROTC program when we became wedded to military service for at least eight years. The Naval Academy Band played the Star Spangled Banner and the Commandant of Midshipmen, Admiral Charles Kirkpatrick, gave a patriotic speech. At the end he asserted, “You can do whatever you set your mind to.” Each midshipman with raised right arm recited, “I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” Upon our return to Bancroft Hall, our second class platoon leaders immediately attacked George for the way he wore his uniform, shined his shoes, folded his clothing, and stored it in his locker—he always fell short of the standards they required.                      Our platoon leader was skinny, medium height, and had a German accent. He immaculately squared-away his uniform, spit-shined his shoes with a sparkle, and had a military bearing with an arrogant flare. He usually spoke clearly, but occasionally his accent made it difficult to understand his commands. Our first introduction to him occurred at the noon meal formation. We straggled to the location in front of Bancroft Hall where each platoon commander had a sign indicating the number of his platoon. Midshipman Lindenstruth stood erect at the front of my platoon. I saluted him as Chip had instructed me, “I request permission to speak.” “Speak plebe.” “This is my assigned platoon, sir. Where should I go from here?” “Start a line here, Plebe,” pointing to a spot on the ground next to where he placed his left spit-shined black drill shoe.   Tall George nicknamed our leader “Struts” in conversations between roommates. Struts gave us his introductory speech: “As plebes, you may not speak unless you first ask permission to do so when you want to talk with any upper-classman. Always line up in the same order I assigned you when doing drills or preparing to march into Bancroft Hall to eat at the mess hall. The Academy will indoctrinate you into a naval career that depends on discipline. You must always have an impeccable appearance, and follow orders precisely as given. Some of you won’t complete plebe summer because many plebes are not officer material. Every year plebes that meet the high standards for entrance into the Academy are "bilged" (flunked) for poor discipline, too many absences, or poor performance on tests from academics to physical fitness.”   Our typical day began at 6:15 AM when a bugle sounded reveille on the loudspeaker system throughout Bancroft Hall followed by a series of shrill bells. We immediately arose from our beds, got dressed in the uniform-of-the-day and stood at attention outside our rooms lined up with our backs against the bulkhead (wall). Our platoon commander inspected us and took roll call. If any plebe failed to spit-shine his shoes, “square away” any part of the uniform, or arrived late to the formation, the platoon commander would charge him with five demerits for each offense. Five demerits meant one hour of marching before reveille, or after classes. The platoon commander marched us into the mess hall for breakfast when the inspection concluded. We marched to our assigned table for ten and stood silently at attention behind our seats for a prayer from the Chaplain.                           After breakfast, our leader marched us to the armory to pick up M-1 rifles for drill practice. Midshipman Lindenstruth made these drills demanding. Extreme heat and high humidity characterized the weather that summer, which added to the difficulty of any prolonged physical activity. After about two hours of drilling the first day, sweat covered my face and rolled into my eyes; but our day had just begun. We also studied naval history, learned sailing, practiced knot tying, endured strenuous physical fitness exercises (PT), and participated in Yard Patrol (YP) boat drills.                     For sailing instruction, they randomly joined us with four plebes. They taught us the Rules of the Road and how to sail with a qualified instructor. Then they left us alone so we could try to develop our skill. They tested any crew that indicated they were ready to qualify. Each plebe had to pass for any crew to check out a sailboat. Unfortunately, two of the plebes in my crew prevented us from qualifying by their lack of skill. The knot tying course introduced us to knots seaman have used for years while also demonstrating contemporary variations.   PT (physical training) involved a number of activities, including a timed obstacle course that we ran until we tested successfully. Our swimming instructor, “Heinz” Lenz, had an Olympic background from Germany. His strong accent rang out as he instructed the backstroke with his words echoing through the Olympic sized pool, “Up, out und togeda.” The command “up” meant to pull your knees and hands up to your chest with your head laid flat and eyes looking to the ceiling of the indoor pool while swimming on your back. “Out” meant to spread your legs and extend your arms straight out wide to the right and left side in a coordinated rhythmical motion. Finally the “together” meant to thrust the legs and arms quickly in the same rhythm to shoot your body swiftly threw the water. “Dis stroke vas the best stroke for survival if stranded at sea. Many people who had fallen or washed overboard successfully reached safety by using dis rhythmical stroke. One could maintain dis stroke longa than any uddah.” Eventually, each midshipman had to swim a mile in a certain time to graduate from the Academy. Failing any of these fitness tests could constitute grounds for dismissal from the Academy. I scored the highest score of 4.0 on the obstacle course that showed my instructors and classmates I could excel in something else besides baseball.   Powerful yard patrol boats, YP’s, or what some midshipman comically referred to as “Yipees,” gave each midshipman an opportunity to learn the art of ship handling. We always marched in formation by our summer plebe platoons to arrive at the dock where four YP’s docked with a naval officer as our instructor for navigation, more Rules of the Road, horn and flag signals, and night lighting for determining direction and general speed of any nearby vessel. Red lights indicated the port (left) side of the vessel while, green lights signified the starboard (right) side. We spent hours reading radar and charting position, learning commands to the helmsman such as “Right full rudder”, “All ahead full”, “All back full,” and other variations, moving the YP where desired. We memorized commands, learned the equipment, and became proficient boat handlers. YP training was no pleasure cruise. The instructors severely criticized many plebes for the slightest error in judgment because a moving vessel on water takes an inordinate amount of time to maneuver in contrast to a vehicle on land. The danger of inaccurately estimating the movement of a vessel at sea can cause extensive damage, as well as injury to passengers. Our intense course qualified as one of the most practical we had given  the profession we would enter upon graduation. I looked forward to the drill away from upper class harassment that showed an investment the Navy made unavailable at any university. The drills stressed me at the beginning until I understood each one. Rifle range was unique. We checked out an M-1 rifle from the armory and got into formation. On our first day for rifle range one of the second classman in charge of another platoon walked up to us, “Mr. Lindenstruth can’t attend today so I’ll take charge of both platoons,” he barked. He showed off his particular penchant for harassment by making plebes run with their rifle at high port. We held the rifle over our head with both arms extended in an awkward position given the weight of the rifle and ran to his designated location. He came up to me and two other plebes from my platoon, “You three plebes run over to that light pole at high port and count the number of flies on it; run back and report that number to me. Don’t speak to each other, shitheads. You better all agree.” The pole stood one hundred and fifty yards away at the end of the parade field. I ran as fast as I could at high port. Exhausted by the time I returned back  first, “There were no flies on the pole, sir, ” I said. The others reported the same shortly. Each of us had difficulty trying to catch our breath and sweat covered our faces in the humid heat. I considered the drill hazing that demonstrated some upper-classmen relished their power to force plebes to do meaningless tasks. My brother warned, “A number of cruel people received appointments to Annapolis. As a plebe  try to avoid them whenever possible.” (Click on photo to zoom)

Related Images: