Arrival and Beast Barracks
I was to report to West Point on July 1, 1965. To do so, I left the Des Moines Airport on June 30th aboard a jet passenger plane. This was my first trip aboard an airplane, and I traveled by myself. After the plane landed in New York City, I took a bus to the Port Authority building. I remember looking for lunch there and found a burger, fries, and a Coke cost $1.25 and that seemed like a great amount of money to me at the time.
I caught a bus to the front gate of West Point and stayed overnight at the Thayer Hotel. I thought the buildings across the street from the hotel were part of the cadet buildings. I had never been to West Point before, so I did not know the layout. The next morning, July 1, I took a bus to the buildings that would be my home for the next four years.
There are several things I recall from that first day. I carried my bag through the portal and was told to report to ‘the man in the red sash.’ When I did so, he told me to drop my bag. I did so gently, but that was wrong, of course, as I was to drop it. It was the first time I was corrected, but most assuredly not the last. Somehow, I ended up in an athletic T-shirt and gym shorts that would be my uniform for the rest of the day. A visit to the barber led to a buzz-cut for each new cadet. At the end of the first day, all of the new cadets were marched to Trophy Point and administered an oath. The day ended with Taps, sleeping in rooms with other squad members. See Appendix 4.
I was assigned to the First New Cadet Company, and my roommates were John Eagan and Paul Dimler. Paul was recruited to play football, while John and I were there without any special regard. The squad leader was Charles Horwath, a Cow or junior. I recall his saying as he looked down the line of new cadets in his class, “All I can see is Dimler’s gut.” Dimler’s gut was quite impressive at the time.
Thus began two months of drills, calisthenics, rifle firing, being constantly corrected for the smallest of infractions in a time period called ‘Beast Barracks’. It was not a pleasant experience, nor was it meant to be. For me, it lived up to its moniker.
During Beast Barracks, we learned to spit shine shoes, though I do not think anyone actually spit on the shoes. The toes of shoes and boots were the object of much work and inspection. It took many passes with a wet handkerchief and black shoe polish to get a mirror smooth finish on to toes and heels of the boots and shoes. The rest of the leather was also attended to, but not like the toes and heels. They were subject to much inspection by the upperclassmen. As cadets, we generally kept one pair of shoes for close inspection and another pair of shoes for every day use.
Another material that we polished with repeated vigor was anything that was made of brass. This included the belt buckle and tip of the belt, the brass trim used with formal uniforms, and other bits. As an example, the belt buckle was brass, but it had a coating of some sort that had to be scrubbed off to reveal the underlying brass metal. We used a polish called “Brasso” to do the trick, but it required daily care, like the shoes and boots, to keep things up to snuff. One had to be careful to remove all of the dried Brasso leavings from the brass; otherwise, it would show up as black marks on the white belts used on the parade dress uniforms.
We were required to salute upperclassmen during Beast Barracks, to address them as “Sir”, and to be otherwise stripped of our dignity and uniqueness.
The following was a letter written on USMA stationery to my parents dated July 10, 1965:
Thank you for your letters. They mean quite a bit when your (sic) far from home.
Mother, I think the regular mail is just as fast.
I’m glad the car works well; I hope it keeps on working as it should. (My 1954 blue and white Chevrolet Bel Air)
Dad, I think that there was a lot that went on at the store that you weren’t informed about. Dick (Conwell) said that he was going to tell you after you moved to Mason City.
I think that perhaps I am getting a little more adjusted now. One always has to keep on his toes and advance. There is no room for procrastination here—something which I rather like to do, you know.
Parents’ Weekend is the 29th of August or there abouts. I hope you can make it up. Mother said she would like to come. Maybe Kendy could even come.
Tell everyone “hi” for me.
Kendra recalls that my parents did make it to West Point for Parents’ Day, and that my mother was appalled that I was not being fed enough. I had, in fact, lost about 20 pounds and weighed in the upper 150s, though I think my weight loss was not unusual. There was a lack of consumed food and increased calorie consumption due to the strenuous activity. I did not have access to supplemental foodstuffs and after completion of Beast Barracks I bought and consumed a full box of “Oh, Henry” candy bars.
Among the things that we were required to do as New Cadets was to learn a few dance steps. We gathered in groups wearing our khakis. We stood in lines facing a stage at Cullum Hall. A number of young ladies dressed in formals circulated among the horde of sweating young men trying to help them learn a few dance steps. It was embarrassing and ridiculous at the same time. Apparently, the officers who devised the training schedule were trying to add to our education, though we were never graded.
A number of New Cadets did not make it through Beast Barracks for several reasons, including deciding that USMA was not for them and for lying, a violation of the Honor Code. This meant that the smallest lie could lead to the immediate expulsion of a cadet. There were no second chances. This adherence to the code lasted all four years of the USMA experience and did lead to the removal of countless cadets from the roster. Cadets found to violate the code were immediately removed from the cadet barracks and placed in a special area to be processed out of the academy. The Class of 1969 started with about 1200 cadets and graduated about 800 in 1969. I do not know how many of the approximately 400 left because of code violations vs. academic failure vs. desire to leave the academy.
Beast Barracks ended with a long march to a campground in full military gear, including fatigues, boots, ½-tent, rifle, back pack, and web belt. We were marched up the ski hill next to the golf course that was quite a challenge to all except upper classmen who did not carry anything other than themselves. At the campground, we established a veritable tent city. After a few days we marched back into West Point, accompanied by the USMA band, though we stopped before entering the gates to spit-shine the toes of our boots.
After returning to our barracks, we learned of our assignment to a company. I was assigned to Company B-1, First Battalion, First Regiment. The First Regiment had the reputation, deserved or not, of being the hardest of the four regiments of cadets.
Beast Barracks ended with a whimper, but with a warning from the squad leader that returning upperclassmen would not be kind to Plebes. There would be more upperclassmen around to observe Plebes for infractions.
I did complete Beast Barracks and did not think much about quitting during those two months. I was very unprepared for my initial experience at West Point. I did not know anyone who had gone to West Point and never visited West Point prior to my arrival there on June 30, 1965. All I knew was gained through brochures and the reputation of West Point. I was motivated by some vague desire to fulfill a perceived military obligation and thoughts that an education at USMA would allow for a variety of career opportunities following graduation.
Hair was cut short on the sides and one could grow out the hair on top a little bit. Mustaches and side burns were not allowed.