Copyright 2014 John T. Reed
Today, our West Point class scribe Dave Gerard sent me and my classmates whose email addresses he has a link to a YouTube video which is a recruiting film for West Point made when I was there. It’s called “West Point: The Army Challenge” and has a date of 1968 on it. That is the year my class graduated.
Finally, a way to convey to people what West Point was like back then both at West Point and the public’s view of West Point then!
Unlike the West Point TV series of the 1950s which used both actors and real cadets, this uses only real cadets, including me! (The central cadet in the film is apparently an unknown actor, and maybe one or two others in certain scenes with a lot of dialog, but the rest were us 1960s cadets.) Also, unlike some other movies back then, like Into Harm’s Way which is about the Class of 1967, there is no blending of recent cadet footage with 1960s footage. This film was made during my four years there. They had no later footage to use.
This recruiting film show the actual uniforms we wore, our buildings, the training we went through, the cars of the era, the civilian clothes of the era, and perhaps most importantly, the mindsets of the cadets and the civilians of the time. In later films like Into Harm’s Way, which were purportedly about the same period, you often see stuff you would never have seen in the actual mid-1960s.
For example, in the West Point TV series and Into Harm’s Way, you often see multiple cadets in a scene with them wearing various uniforms. Not in this training film. There were uniform flags at West Point visible from every single cadet room. During a day, they would change the flag depending on the weather, time of day, and day of the week. Everyone wore what the flag said, period. And that is exactly what you see in this recruiting film. Also, the real cadets in this film darned well wear their hats properly, not back above their foreheads like in the Holly-wooded-up movies. At 19:35, you actually see the star of the film check his two-finger space between has nose and hat.
I was a guidon bearer at West Point twice—Camp Buckner (July and August before sophomore year) and in the winter of my junior year. I have commented that in current West Point parades, the guidon bearers are doing some really sloppy, but apparently authorized, technique of carrying of the guidon, totally different from what we were required to do. You can see a brief version of what academic-year guidon bearers in the ’60s had to do at 14:47 into the film. There are also guidon bearers doing their 1960s thing in all the parade scenes.
I remember when I was a cadet thinking that recruiting film crew was doing an awful lot of filming in winter. That is probably the worst time to photograph West Point. New fallen snow is pretty everywhere, but there is none of that in the film, only lots of ugly, week-old snow. The period from the end of Christmas leave to the 100th night before graduation is aptly named “Gloom Period.” The sky is gray, as are the buildings, mountains, paved areas, uniforms, and moods. Someone once said,
Never make an important decision in New England in the winter.
Technically, West Point is not in New England, but only technically. It is only 22 miles from Connecticut, which is New England, and for decision-making or getting depressed by the prolonged gray gloom purposes, they are indistinguishable in winter.
Showing all that gloom is commendable full disclosure, but I suspect it was just an oversight. The film crew probably just gave the rubes at West Point the worst dates each year because the West Point bosses were too ignorant of film and setting and season to think to insist that most outdoor, academic-year scenes be shot in early to mid-fall or spring. I’ll bet the counterpart Dartmouth recruiting film has one Christmas-card-like scene of new fallen snow and all the other outdoor scenes early fall or late spring or summer.
The star of the film expresses gratitude that policy was changed so the plebes could go home for Christmas. Amen. My class was the first to do that. The subsequent scene of the star of the film at home on Christmas leave was shot at West Point obviously. You can see characteristic West Point buildings in the background for Chrissake! Low-budget film apparently.
When he gets back after plebe Christmas leave, he says he was a few hours early so he walks around looking at the monuments and views of the Hudson River Valley. You might think that’s pure Hollywood stuff just to put those scenes in the film, but I actually did that many times. I would walk to the cemetery where Custer and other famous grads were buried. We were greatly over-scheduled so I was conscious of making sure I periodically took time to reflect on what a special place and situation I was in and to try to make sense of it all in terms of my past and future. I wanted to make sure, while I was there, I fully appreciated the brief four-year period for the rare thing that it was not only for Americans in general but even in the lives of its graduates because of how quickly it goes by. I don’t think all my classmates did any such thing, but maybe they always did it alone as I did. In which case, I would’t know.
As a result of the Vietnam war and other things, the prestige of the Army and West Point plummeted during and after Vietnam. Plus, it is simply a different world today. When I coached high school football in the 90s and 2000s, my impression was that students today consider West Point a sort of weird trade school like a school of mines or a culinary institute.
What you do not see in the film is also revealing, namely affirmative-action cadets, fat cadets, cadets shorter than 5'6", female cadets, gays, lesbians, and zillions of foreign and exchange cadets each wearing uniforms from their country instead of West Point uniforms. We had just two foreign cadets in my class, and they damned well wore West Point cadet uniforms. Parades at West Point now are full of foreign and other U.S. service academy cadets wearing their uniforms from back home. It looks like shit—a variation on the bar scene in the original Star Wars movie. The word “uniform” is both a noun and an adjective.
There is a scene in a soda fountain of high school students discussing going to colleges like the Ivy League, Cal Tech, MIT, “State,” and West Point—with the former apparently being who the admissions office considered to be their main competition back then. I had almost that exact same discussion with my classmates in high school back then. Also, when he gets the appointment letter saying he has been admitted to West Point, he says his parents reacted “as if he had been elected president of the United States.” That was the way people thought about West Point back then. (The appointment per se actually comes from the President.) Plus you see him getting congratulated by his peers and counselor in high school—almost exactly what happened to me back then.
There is a YouTube of me talking about getting my appointment letter at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acOKOstjaMo#t=18. In the film, the appointment letter comes in a #10 business envelope. That’s BS. In my YouTube about the same scene as it happened in my family, it was a big envelope, with all sorts of instructions. Maybe, just maybe, you can see a resemblance between me and the Russian class plebe in that 21st Century YouTube, although I must note that my classmate Gerard had a great line about the recruiting film showing that, “We were soldiers once—and thin.”
The script of the film is a bit sappy and trying to make West Point look like fun and like a civilian college. Gimme a break! At one point, the featured cadet says, “It helps to have someone to study with [scene of cadet and attractive college-age girl in the cadet library] on a weekend afternoon…West Point is co-ed on the weekends—just like many colleges!” Double ha!
For one thing, we did not take our dates to the library to study with them. Some guys may have taken them to the deep stacks to make out with them. The girls came from far away (the area around West Point is more or less uninhabited mountains for maybe 30 miles), at their own expense, and wanted to do the glamorous stuff: Flirtation Walk, football games, parades, hops [dances], walking around the extremely beautiful campus, etc. Our dates would have killed us if we took them to the library to watch us study. Hell, our classmates would have killed us. “Lend her to me if you have nothing better to do with a pretty girl!”
A high school friend of mine came to visit me there after I had whined about the lack of girls. He said he never saw so many good-looking girls at one place at one time in his life. “Fine,” I told him at the time, which was a summer weekend at Camp Buckner (depicted in the film). “And where is my girl? I’m hanging around with you. And let’s stop for a minute and watch the cadets walk by. What percent are with a girl and what percent are with fellow cadets?”
I, and almost all of my classmates, did each and everything they show in the movie: mandatory military training in the summer, boxing, gymnastics, slide for life, golf, skiing. We really did all that, and about ten times as many similar things that they do not have time to show. Our yearbooks were always two inches thick because they did feel obligated to have photos of every single thing we did.
I would guess than on a given weekend at West Point, only about 25 to 30% of cadets had a date—called “escorting” in official West Point language. If you were one of them, the “so many good-looking girls at one place at one time in his life” were more of a tease than transforming us into a co-ed college on the weekends. We walked around on those weekends looking at all those pretty girls, grinding our teeth, and vowing to somehow, some way make up for this deprivation of female companionship. My best man and I succeeded spectacularly at that—later. See the chapter in my Succeeding book about “The System” as we called it.
You can also see old-time stuff like our slide rules (I am holding one in the photo of me from junior year) and the 1960 computers that look like they are from the original Star Trek set. They are also very proud of having closed circuit TV and using TV in class rooms. Because I was a DJ on the radio station, I was in the first group of cadets trained how to use a videotape machine. Okay, I am embarrassed by how much that dates me. Back then a video-tape machine, only just invented, was approximately as state of the art as, say, a self-driving vehicle today.
I laughed at one segment where they show the most famous West Point generals: Grant, Pershing. Lee, Eisenhower, Bradley. It ends with Westmoreland. He would be the West Point grad and former superintendent who was the first U.S. general to ever lose a war—Vietnam. I doubt he made any more appearances in any later recruiting films. And they won’t be erecting any statues of Petraeus either.
The star of the film says “I served as a platoon leader in a regular Army unit [for one month one summer].” Not quite. We all spent one month in a regular army unit. That was what changed me from committed career officer to let me out of here. It was called Army Orientation Training then. Different name now but they still do it. We were NOT, however, platoon leaders. It was more like shadowing and they would occasionally let you be in charge of some multi-hour activity. I was in an artillery unit in the 101st Airborne division and on one move of the battery in the field, they put me in charge of the move for an hour or two. They also had me inventory the rifles and teach some class on digging a proper foxhole. More like a tourist. Not a platoon leader at all. That is a serious job, not given to dilettante college students who are just passing through.
One of the heroes of the film is the high school guidance counselor of the star cadet. Guess why? Because the film was expected to be shown to, and by, high school guidance counselors.
In another article about West Point, I noted that my name, John Reed, was famous there for being the sappy, fictional cadet star of a recruiting film I never saw—to this day. I caught a lot of crap there about that as a result during my plebe year. Also, I said they made a new recruiting film and the recruiting film makers had seen the original “John Reed” version and asked to meet the “real” John Reed whom they were told was now a cadet—me.
They actually gave me my own one-person scene in the film. I was supposedly a plebe pulling a prank where I taped an alarm clock into the parade full dress hat of an upperclass cadet so it would go off during a parade. This was nonsense on its face. Cadets did that, but you could only put it into your own hat. No one is not going to notice an alarm clock taped into his full-dress hat when he puts it on.
Anyway, I heard my scene ended up on the cutting room floor. I never saw the film until today, over 45 years later. Indeed my clock scene was cut. But I got into the film anyway.
I wrote a web article about another West Point cadet of that era, now Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island. I said I was his platoon sergeant during his first month at West Point. Well, guess what? That was Sixth New Cadet Company in 1967 and there is a scene in the recruiting film of the “King of the Beasts,” Bill Ericson, one of my 20 classmates who died in Vietnam, inspecting 6th New Cadet Company during July 1967 at around 8:30 into the film. He is the cadet with a whole lot of stripes on his tunic upper sleeve. I may not be in the scene per se, but if you could zoom back a little, I would be one of the cadets wearing dress gray over white. Senator Reed would be one of the new cadets wearing the open-collared, white, short-sleeved shirt and gray, tropical worsted trousers.
The Beasts are the New Cadets. The first two months of West Point are called Beast Barracks. The scene of 6th New Cadet Company moves rather fast and we upperclassmen are in dress gray over white, the plebes in sierra uniform. With the hats worn properly low and our high collars, I could not recognize anyone I knew including myself or future Senator Reed. I did recognize Ericson.
At around 9:00 in the film, three plebes are looking up at a statue of Sylvanus Thayer. I think the one on the right is my classmate Pete Connor. One weekend that year, after Christmas, about eight girls from my high school class came up to West Point. One was my date. She brought the other girls and I fixed them up with seven of my classmates in the spring of 1965. One of them was Pete. He was also killed in Vietnam.
In between the many takes of my alarm-clock scene, I chatted up the film crew—curious about the film industry. My sons laugh at the fact that I frequently engage plumbers and deliverymen and such in lengthy conversations. The film crew was from Southern California. I asked what they normally did, expecting to hear they worked on various feature films.
“Nudies,” they said. Those were films that today are referred to as porn. Nevertheless, they seemed quite professional focusing obsessively on lights, sound quality, and camera angles. They never urged me to show more cleavage. Their “nudies” answer more or less was a conversation stopper. I had no follow-up questions for that—too busy trying to digest the idea that my esteemed alma mater would hire a “nudie” film crew to make their official recruiting film.
At around 10:19 into the film, there is a classroom scene of plebes, Russian class. I am the cadet on the right. I was one of the top Russian students in my class and they probably chose first section for the film because it has the best students in the subject in question. Russian was also the sexiest language they taught there then. Given where I am sitting, though, I have to think it was the first week or two of September 1964. As a top student, I was always in one of the two extreme left seats from the professor’s perspective (called “section marcher” and “assistant section marcher” in West Pointese) after we started getting graded. There is also a photo of me from cadet days on the first page of my article “Should you go to or stay at West Point?” I think you can see the resemblance between the Russian class plebe me in the film and the junior cadet me studying in that photo.
Upon further review of the scene, I see the guy sitting in my normal seat is the olive-skinned actor who was the star of the film. They may have asked me to move for some reason—maybe to make him look like the best student in the room in case the narrator—also the actor—mentioned that the seating arrangement reflected grades. In the end, he made no such mention in the script. Serves him right for daring to pose as the Section marcher.
Who should watch this film? My West Point classmates and those who were cadets in other classes back then, parents and dates who visited West Point back then. Also, recent cadets who wonder what we are trying to tell them when we speak of the differences between West Point then and recently. Otherwise, if you have any interest in the place or the era, this is a great time capsule of it.
Old grads of West Point have long complained that “the Corps has.” That phrase is short for “The Corps of Cadets has gone to hell.” The Corps of Cadets is the student body at West Point. Gone to hell refers to greatly lower standards.
Current cadets, including us when we were there, scoffed at the notion.
Well, the place has changed a lot more since I graduated in 1968 than it did in the 50 to 100 years before that. I checked on the Internet to see if there were any videos of before our time at West Point.
I found a half-hour episode of a 1950 TV program called the Big Picture. This was made weekly by the U.S. Army. A public relations film informing the public about various aspects of “your Army.” It was probably made to be shown like a newsreel in theaters before the cartoons and feature films. Believe it or not, although TV existed in 1950, ordinary people would only see them in bars. My dad took me to see a big heavyweight championship fight at a bar on their one TV. In later years, I only saw TV by going to rich kids’s houses. I don’t think we got one until about 1954. They made a Big Picture episode about West Point in 1950, 5 years after World War II, just before the start of the Korean War, and 14 years before I entered West Point. You can see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9tVrM3315Y.
As with the mid-sixties recruiting film, this 1950 one shows cadets in a Russian class. I guess Russian was the sexiest language taught at West Point both in 1950 and 1964. Now they would probably show Chinese which they started teaching when I was a cadet.
Can the cadets who were at West Point in 1950 say “the Corps has” about my era? Yeah, in the sense that the Corps has wised up and quit smoking. There were a number of scenes in the Big Picture where multiple cadets and officers were smoking cigarettes or pipes. Indeed, they seemed to be going out of their way to say, “Don’t worry about whether you can smoke at West Point. You can. We love smoking.”
I had one roommate at West Point who smoked out of a total of about 30 roommates during the four years. Senior year, I was in an auditorium with about 200 classmates. The instructor wanted to do a demonstration of some kind where he needed a light. He was a non-smoker. He asked us cadets for a light. There was no demo. None of us 200 cadets smoked or had a match or cigarette lighter.
There are, of course, some other technical differences between West Point 1950 and West Point mid-sixties like 48-star flags, M-1 rifles versus M-14s, older cars and civilian clothes styles, older versions of Army tanks, trucks, etc. At the end, the captain narrator says this is West Point today—in 1950. Hell, what he was depicting was West Point early 20th century. As the cadets joke,
Two hundred twelve years of tradition unbroken by progress.
West Point 1950 was so similar to West Point 1965 that I could probably do a little editing out of M-1s and such and tell my classmates this was from our era and other than the fact that it was in black and white rather than color, they would have no reason to doubt it. Could I do the same wit film of 2014 cadets? I would have to edit out about 95% of the film.
Maybe that’s the ultimate answer to the question of whether “the Corps has.” How much would you have to edit a film of cadet life to trick cadets of former eras that it was about their era?
To be sure, changes have been made to West Point that made it better, and the phrase “The Corps has” only refers to changes that made it worse. The dramatic drop in the percentage of cadets who smoke, which happened in society, not by action of West Point, is clearly a case of the Corps has gotten better. So when you make your edits of a current film to eliminate ways that prior era cadets could tell is what not their era, look at each edit to see if it is a change for the better or for the worse. You would have to edit out the new buildings, which have made West Point better. But you would have to edit out the fat cadets, which are not signs of old standards being maintained.
We had no affirmative action in 1964-68. We had black cadets, but they got there, and graduated from there, the old fashioned way. They earned it. The far greater percentage of blacks there today almost certainly includes many, if not most, who were admitted because of their skin color and in spite of their application details and academic performance at West Point. I oppose affirmative action. It not only is immoral unethical discrimination by race, it unfairly tarnishes and devalues the accomplishments of those fewer blacks who could have gone to West Point and graduated without affirmative action.
I would argue that the uniforms at West Point today are worse. They frequently wear a camouflage pattern uniform shaped like a two-piece muumuu. A. We rarely wore a combat uniform except in summer training and B. Our combat uniform was a normal shirt and pants that fit and revealed our fit bodies as opposed to the muu muus of today that seem designed to cover up the lack of physical fitness in today’s Army C. We did not roam around at West Point, or, God forbid, off base in the civilian world, wearing a combat uniform to as to solicit free drinks and “thank you for your services” and sympathy and idolatry. When I was in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC in 1969, we wore fatigues on base ONLY. We were allowed to wear them off base only if we were going to work or returning from work. We were allowed to stop to drop off or pick up uniforms at cleaners while wearing the fatigues, and also to shop at stores that sold milk, eggs, and bread, a type of store that existed then but not now. To travel in uniform when I entered West Point, all U.S. military personnel had to wear a class A uniform (military equivalent of a suit), and we had to wear that whenever we were off base for any other purpose. Now you see U.S. military personnel wearing combat uniforms everywhere.
Today’s cadets also worse when they wear the uniforms that we wore back then. “Rumpled” to use my wife’s word. Today’s fat cadets look bad enough in a bathing suit, but wearing traditional dress gray or full-dress gray uniforms, which have a very snug fit, forget about it. Only the most oblivious-to-their-appearance cretin would wear snug-fitting clothing that drew attention to their obesity. This is not an improvement to The Corps or its standards.
Certainly the various sexual assaults that happen at West Point now did not occur at all back then, let alone go inadequately punished. Ditto the honor code violations. We had a few back then. If you committed one, you were gone. Now, the 2012 Army quarterback stayed at West Point after committing an honor code violation that was publicly acknowledged by the Academy. He was not the only one.
These are not improvements or elevations of the standards of West Point. Civilians may not know it, but the U.S. Military Academy constantly hits us up for charitable contributions. I will not bore you with the technical reasons they say they have to do this at a taxpayer-funded college where every student and other person is an employee of the federal government. I have given in the past. I’m done. I surmise that is the position of an increasing number of graduates. Our long-time subscription- and advertising-funded alumni magazine went out of business a couple of years back. Now they send us a controlled-circulation one, funded entirely by advertisers. The implication is that the alumni were unwilling to subscribe in sufficient numbers to keep the old one going. I subscribed every year since graduation I believe.
We had a class fight about the class gift for our 40th reunion. Too few donations. I did not contribute. Now they’re starting to talk about our 50th reunion gift, like we HAVE to do this. It is expected. Our class will look bad if we don’t. We have to compete with the other classes on gift size. I am also a Harvard Business School grad, as is my wife. We get a little of that there, but far less pressure and obligation than we get from West Point. Some of my HBS classmates gave more as individuals than my entire class did to West Point. True, the average HBS grad makes more than the average WP grad, but 22 of my WP classmates are also HBS grads, plus we have a ton of other school MBAs, lawyers, doctors, dentists, and so on. We did not make that much less. HBS grads give because they love their alma mater. West Point grads, increasingly, are being pressured to give to a West Point the no longer recognize. West Point of today is catering to some politically-correct constituency that definitely is not the old grads. I suggest they seek their contributions from that political constituency.
They of The Corps who trod, where they of The Corps now tread, have—stopped contributing to The Corps—because The Corps Has.
The phrase “the Corps has” is no longer just old guys complaining about trivial differences.
My wife looked at a little bit of this 1968 recruiting video and commented, “These guys are buttoned down. The cadets we saw at your 40th reunion looked like slobs. The current cadets looked rumpled, like they no longer starch the white shirts the way they did when you were there.” By “these guys” she was referring to my classmates and me and the six other classes who appear in the recruiting film: three classes before mine and three after mine; the classes of 1965 through 1971.
Our fatigues, white shirts, and white trousers were not only starched, it was extra heavy starch. They were like cardboard. I thought the shirts looked silly, as if we were kindergarten kids wearing pilgrim or some such costumes we had made out of white card stock. Our white trousers were so starched and the legs pressed together so tight that there was a whole rigmarole for “breaking them out,” that is, opening the legs up so you could put your legs through them. It involved a chrome-plated bayonet and hanging from the alcove rail while your roommate held the pants open so you could lower yourself into them without wrinkling them in the process. You would generally avoid sitting down for as long as possible after you did that.
You need to know that my wife generally thinks I am over critical about West Point.
To be precise, we were not “buttoned” down. We were “collar-stayed” down. I wanted to show you what a collar stay was. Almost all the photos in Google were just of stiff plastic or metal ribs that go inside your shirt collar. I have them in my current civilian collared dress shirts. Nah. Nothing like that at West Point. I finally found a photo of the collar stays we were required to wear with our black, wool, class shirts and ties. Demerits if you got caught without one.
My wife’s comment when she saw me at the 10:19 point was, “Oh, when you had hair.”
Smart ass. We met 8 years after that plebe Russian class film was taken. I had all my original hair then, too.
When our second son was about four, my wife had gotten what my former bachelor buddies and I called a “wife cut,” a low-maintenance female hairstyle that looked like a 1930s leather football helmet. I lamented the loss of her shoulder-length hair which I said looked much better. She snarled at me.
Then one day, our four-year old saw a photo of my wife the year she graduated from college, and had shoulder-length hair. His comment, “Oh, mommy! You used to be pretty!”
She grew it longer.
I would do the same on top of my head—if I could.
We were soldiers once—and hirsute.
So to current cadets and graduates after about 1971, this recruiting video, which is extremely accurate regarding the mid sixties edition of West Point, and devoid of anachronisms like the mixing in of recent cadet video in recent documentaries of the mid-sixties like Into Harm’s Way—this is the “smoking gun” evidence of what we are complaining about when we say “The Corps has.”
Great fun for me and West Point family people of my era to watch.
John T. Reed