By Jug Varner
June 1994 Visit
Their 17-hour days of heat, sweat and humidity begin with 0530 reveille and for the next 49 days they learn the value of teamwork. They also learn to wear a uniform, march in formation, use firearms, develop seamanship and navigation skills, send and receive flag signals and Morse code, compete in sports, run obstacle courses, practice damage control, stand watches and find the meaning of “can-do” spirit. When it is over, they are leaner, harder, lighter and ready for what may be the most difficult year of their young lives. They are ready to enter the first academic year at the U. S. Naval Academy, Annapolis.
As Maryland's capital city for 200 years, Annapolis once served briefly as the capital of the United States. It is surrounded by Chesapeake Bay and the Severn and Magothy Rivers. Baltimore or Washington, D.C., is a mere 30-mile drive and coastal cities from Norfolk to Boston are within easy reach. The quiet countryside of the Eastern Shore provides much to explore and enjoy. Annapolis still retains a small town atmosphere where shopkeepers know their customers by name and people walk leisurely down Main Street. It offers a variety of historical, cultural and recreational opportunities.
In 1845, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft established a Naval School at Ft. Severn, near Annapolis. Fifty students attend the first classes taught by four officers and three civilian professors. Five years later it became the United States Naval Academy and adopted a curriculum still in effect today — four consecutive years at Annapolis with at-sea training in the summer. During the Civil War, the Navy moved the academy to Newport, R.I., but returned to Annapolis in 1865.
Over the years the academy gradually expanded from ten acres to its present 338-acre complex and 4200 midshipmen brigade. One thing that has not changed, however, is the basic mission: “To develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically; to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty; to provide graduates who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.”
Commander John Paul Jones, the legendary Revolutionary War naval hero, is enshrined in the Chapel of Midshipmen. This “Cathedral of the Navy” offers a serene place atop the Yard's highest ground for midshipmen to worship. Two massive bronze doors grace its entry and two anchors from the first armored cruiser, USS New York, flank the long steps to the chapel.
Inside, majestic windows of stained glass symbolize Navy ideals and remind naval officers of their commissions — one to God and the other to country. The words of the Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save,” dominates the altar. The congregation concludes every service by singing the Navy Hymn.
A single pew, cordoned off in blue velvet with a single burning candle, is dedicated to the memory of all Prisoners of War and those missing in action.
During the first academic year, plebes take the same courses. These include leadership, fundamental naval science and engineering, chemistry, English, naval aviation, surface and submarine warfare operations and calculus. Eight percent of a plebe's time is spent in physical fitness. Men take boxing and wrestling, women take self defense. Everyone takes swimming.
Middies refer to their Bancroft Hall residence as Mother B. There, upper class midshipmen and squad leaders frequently question plebes on military knowledge and current events as part of their professional training. They call these oral quizzes “come-arounds.”
As plebes progress through these difficult months of transition from civilian to military, they make friends amongst their squad of 12 and their larger company of 110 in classrooms, on playing fields and in Mother-B.
Plebe year winds down in the spring with the ritual scaling of Herndon Monument's greased granite sides. One by one, as body upon body stacks up like building blocks, plebes struggle as a team until one of them makes it to the top and replaces a plebe's cap there with an upper class midshipman's hat. The act signifies “no more plebes!”
Summers bring training at sea on the Yard Patrol craft or sailing sloops. Midshipmen learn shipboard duties as they steam up and down the Chesapeake Bay or go north or south to other naval bases on the East Coast. Standing deck, operations and engineering watches are all part of sea duty. They also get an introduction to the Marine Corps for one week and spend three weeks in leadership training at the Marine Base, Quantico, Va.
When Plebes become “Youngsters,” or third class midshipmen, (sophomores), they can pursue courses in their newly-elected academic major and are required to study navigation and naval engineering. The 600 military and civilian professors are experts in their fields.
Having completed most of the initial training, there is now time for sports, extracurricular activities and community service projects. Midshipmen engage in 33 intercollegiate and 20 intramural sports during an academic year as well as a variety of professional and activities. However, the pressures of full academic courses and professional development will carry through until graduation.
Wherever they go, the training never ceases, including the opportunity for graduate study and future assignment to war and staff colleges.
Commissioning week is equivalent to graduation at civilian universities, but more so. The entire Yard relishes the week-long celebration of concerts, dances, baccalaureate services, parades, the Superintendent's garden party, and presentation of prizes and awards, that culminate in the best ceremony of all — graduation and commissioning of new Navy Ensigns and Second Lieutenants.
A breath-taking flight demonstration by the Navy Blue Angels precision flight team adds the final touch!