Much of the tenor of daily life at Kings Point, the Pass Christian and San Mateo schools was defined by the Regiment, which was created under the charismatic second Superintendent of Kings Point, Giles C. Stedman. Stedman and his first Cadet Regimental Commander, George Agee, put in place many of the rules and traditions that came to define the Kings Point experience.
Agee is best remembered for his invention of a local version of West Point’s demerit system, which many decades later, in a much-modified form, still sets limits on the Regiment and imposes sanctions on wayward Cadet-Midshipmen. (Graduates from that era can still recite samples of Agee’s terse prose: Word, failure to get…6 demerits.) Although cadets had participated in regular drills since the inception of the Academy, it was not until the interventions of Stedman and Agee that the regimental system became expanded and codified.
As the training program gathered momentum, Cadet-Midshipmen were accepted in sections of 25 students. The sections completed basic training together, shipped out on merchant ships in small groups and if possible later reunited at the Academy for their advanced training. Though this system created major administrative headaches, as many subjects had to be taught continuously, it allowed Kings Point to graduate groups of Cadet-Midshipmen every two weeks, thereby providing a steady flow of new officers to the merchant marine and U.S. Navy.
The section quickly became the new cadet’s family. Sections ate together, attended classes together, got their vaccinations together, worked together and came to grips with the hair-raising stories of wartime life at sea that were beginning to make their way back to the Academy. This bonding began on Day One. The following account details the experience of the members of a typical section, in this case, section 074, as they arrived at Kings Point and were immersed in the life of a Cadet-Midshipman:
“Friday and Saturday: Ten men arrived by train or plane. Three find they have traveled 3,000 miles in the same airliner without knowing of their common destination. Others believe denim-clad cadets to be laborers; all anxious to change into whites, demand, “When do we eat?”
Sunday: The section receives two more members, both from California, gets church leave, attend Catholic or Episcopalian services. Later, baseball at Grace Estate; is served iced tea and cakes.
Monday: Cadets become oriented to barracks discipline; some swim in Schenck pool; others spend day reading Sunday’s funnies, investigating Academy’s environs. All are given physical fitness tests by Mr. Cohen.
Tuesday: Men begin week of work detail, break scrap iron until noon—lessen heterogeneity of dress by purchasing dungarees and shirts at canteen—are moved from separate, scattered quarters to the “Bonita” barracks.
Wednesday, Thursday: New Cadets continue work detail—are given jobs for which they are best fitted—groan over aptitude tests and prospect of Kings Point duty for next week. Are measured for blues; told uniforms will be ready in two weeks.
Friday and Saturday: Last of preliminary sections, still incomplete, undergoes barracks inspection. Dust flies Friday night, and no white cotton gloves are dirtied Saturday morning as officers investigate high beams, shelf recesses, immaculate bunks, closets. Sprained ankle, injured shoulder, and stomach ache send three men to sick bay.”
As the Cadet Corps grew, the rhythms of the first week solidified and became the core of what would later become a formal indoctrination (“indoc”) period. Even before the end of the war, the first week of training exerted a profound impact that cadets would later recall with some nostalgia. One cadet’s account of the experiences gives a strong sense of the new world into which these Cadet-Midshipman were thrust
“Memories of our first week will remain with us forever. Some of the events are written indelibly on our souls—that short haircut, all those clothes to be stenciled, that huge armful of books, making the first bunk, folding so neatly the first blanket, learning how to brace, memorizing the Plebe Pledge, and falling in for our first muster.”
Another ritual of the first week was the lecture given to incoming plebes by the Executive Officer of the Cadet Corps, Lieutenant Commander John F. (“Jackie”) Wilson. The Corps had no room for candidates who couldn’t handle the pace, workload or demands of war. Wilson’s lecture gave the new recruits a clear picture of what would be required of them:
“[You] must spend every waking moment with the exception of recreation period in study. The instruction which you will receive in small-boat work must be taken seriously, and during your period of outdoor instruction you must refrain from any conversation whatever. Listen intently, bearing in mind that the instruction may aid you in saving your life or that of a shipmate. You must also remember that absolute silence must be maintained during group study….
When you return to the Academy, your advanced course of instruction will be stiff and you must prepare yourself well in advance of your reporting here. You must choose your shipmates carefully; protect your personal property and the books and uniforms which have been entrusted to you. Your attention is called to the fact that should you resign, be requested to resign, or be dismissed, you will be required to turn in all government property which you have in your possession.”
Wilson wasn’t exaggerating; he was simply stating the facts. Many men did not make it through the first few weeks of their Kings Point experience, (even though faced with the certainty of the draft if they left), and many of those who did had to struggle to survive. Cadets soon learned that the best way to make it through, indeed, the only way to make it through, was through teamwork. Upperclassmen refer to the fourth class program as an accelerated course – that is the acme of understatement. It is a super-accelerated maelstrom of physical and mental activities, and God help the bottom man on the totem pole.
The 28 men in one section occupied one large room on the third deck of Furuseth Barracks. Here they lived the axiom that barracks life is the intro to military discipline. Limited quarters were a source of great confusion the first few days, but the disorder gradually diminished and eventually disappeared. They learned almost immediately that intelligent cooperation was of paramount importance. Four months ago they were total strangers and they became a veteran section, intimately associated and closely allied in thought, word, and deed, working and studying in harmony for the mutual benefit of all hands.
In spite of the busy schedule and cramped conditions, and the grim tidings of war beginning to filter back to the Academy, the cadets managed to create a vibrant and optimistic community at each school. As the first two sections of cadets who had begun their training at Kings Point graduated, the editors of Polaris took a moment to acknowledge the achievements of these trailblazers:
“18 deck Cadets and 16 engine Cadets have completed their prescribed course of training at the USMMA. They comprise the first group to have this distinction. They have had the honor of watching the Academy grow. Despite the many fond memories of comradeship and pleasant days of work and study, these Cadets are anxious to return to their careers at sea.”
“They, the Cadets of 1-H-1, 1-H-2 realize their country is in greater need of their services now than at any period in her history. They, too, realize that they were instrumental in building the Academy to its present status. This group formed the first class organization and held its first meeting June 2, 1942. Its aims were: 1) to build an organization with honorable traditions, 2) to provide the Upper-classmen with the necessary social functions, and 3) to indoctrinate the Lower-classmen.”
“On July 18, 1942, the first dance sponsored by this class was held at the Academy. The plan to publish the Cadet Corps’ own publication, The Polaris, was instituted by Cadets of this class… The tradition of tossing coins at Amphitrite’s pool was born of this group. They carried out the suggestion that this money be placed in a fund to acquire a memorial for Cadets lost at sea.”
The first classes of cadets had laid an admirable foundation. Along with faculty, local administrators, and the Maritime Commission, they had helped put their Academy on a special course. Generations to come would benefit from their persistence, patience, and inventiveness.
Who were the members of the Cadet Corps?
They were young men from all across the country from all walks of life who answered their country’s call and enrolled in the Cadet Corps. Some came from seafaring traditions; others had never seen the ocean, but couldn’t wait to escape the confines of the small towns in which they had grown up. Some chose the merchant marine because the path to officer rank was speedier than in the corresponding Army and Navy programs. Others were drawn by the romance of the sea.
Their backgrounds were as diverse as their motivations. One Cadet-Midshipman, writing in Polaris, described in detail the diverse origins of his section mates:
“Our section represents an excellent cross section of American youth… One lad is the son of a bank president who left Harvard to join the Cadet Corps. Another owned and operated a truck farm in Idaho; his locker is filled with seed catalogs. Another is a former Yale swimming star. One lad was an assistant buyer for Sears Roebuck. They hail from all walks of life and are truly a heterogeneous conglomeration. The clown of the section is a former bell-hop from a Chicago hotel… He has been on extra duty squad working off demerits ever since his second week.”
Another Polaris article provided a tally of the pre-war occupations of many cadets, showcasing the variety of experiences (and the sometimes dry sense of humor) that students brought to their alma mater.
Cadet-Midshipman Allan Gibson: “Before entering the Cadet Corps, I was employed as a fire underwriter, which is one of the many branches of the insurance game.” Cadet-Midshipman R. A. Perlatti: “I operated a surface grinder for the Eaton Manufacturing Co. in the aircraft division.” Cadet-Midshipman Alva Andrus: “I got through junior college by doing watch repair work, as well as being a clerk in a small jewelry firm in Salinas, CA. During the summer months, I was first trumpet with the Monterey County Symphony Orchestra.”
All too often war turns individuals into statistics, grim statistics. When reading accounts of the terrible trials of the merchant marine in World War II, it is worth remembering that the service was no more or less than a fleet of individual ships, and those ships were manned, in large part, by young people who had only begun to live their lives and pursue their dreams. They were from Iowa farms and small coastal cities in Massachusetts. They were clerks, trumpeters, machine-tool operators and salesmen. As they embarked upon dangerous waters, they left behind anxious parents, fiancés, and friends.
On balance, they were probably no braver than any other random assortment of young Americans, but they were soon called upon to be so.
Cadet Section E-7, San Mateo, CA August 25, 1943