West Point In Review

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There are three other chapels on the post. The Catholic Chapel of the Holy Trinity is historic in an unpretentious, pleasingly humble way. It is a copy of a medieval church in Essex County, England. More striking is the Gothic, spired Cadet Chapel, on the hillside above the Plain. Everything about it, from the exterior carvings to the stained-glass windows, has a military motif. In the long, narrow nave, historic battle flags hang from the triforium. They include colors carried by famed old regiments in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. The organ, with more than eighteen thousand individual speaking pipes, is the largest pipe organ in the world.

No one has summed up the meaning and purpose of the Cadet Chapel better than Maj. Gen. Hugh L. Scott, who was superintendent when it was built in 1911. The combination of organ, cadet choir, and setting would, he thought, fill the “most prosaic American soul with religious and patriotic fervor.” These days chapel is no longer compulsory, but the academy describes cadet attendance on an average Sunday as “heavy.” Visitors are welcome at services in all of the chapels.

Although Simon Levy, one of the two cadets in West Point’s first graduating class, was Jewish, for 182 years the academy never had a Jewish chapel. In recent years the school has averaged about eighty Jewish cadets, and in May 1984 the academy’s first Jewish chapel was opened, financed entirely by private funds and situated along the road between the Protestant and Catholic chapels. The rock-faced, random rectangular granite stonework echoes the military Gothic of the Cadet Chapel. Its serene, light-filled temple section has become one of the most popular places to visit on the post.

For those who want history in large gulps, the West Point Museum is a must. It will be closed for renovation, however, from late summer 1988 until some time in 1989. There are dioramas of famous battles in world history, such as Cynoscephalae, fought in 197 B.C. in Thessaly, where the Roman legion and short sword supplanted the Greek phalanx and lance as the ruler of the ancient world. There are weapons from all our own wars, including the grisly trench knives and clubs of World War I. There are life-size exhibits of a World War I tank and General Pershing’s locomobile staff car and a panoramic mural of Omaha Beach on D-day. In the West Point Room are a superb portrait of Sylvanus Thayer, samples of early cadet uniforms, and vintage photographs of the nineteenth-century academy.

Almost every visitor to West Point who does not come to see a football game wants to see the cadet corps parade. This, too, is a historical exercise. The resplendent uniforms summon echoes of the War of 1812, and the evolutions the corps performs once had urgent meaning in combat tactics. A long, unbroken front gave a unit maximum firepower. To be able to wheel or change direction on command was vital for dealing with flank attacks and cavalry charges.

Cadet days always take on a haze of perfection the moment a graduate drives out the Thayer Gate.
 

The cadets do not parade as often as in past years. Before World War II they used to be on display constantly during the summer. Now most go off to serve with units in the real Army or practice modern tactics at Camp Buckner, about five miles west of the academy. Parades take place only in the spring and fall. The academy issues a schedule on request in mid-August and mid-March, when the marching seasons start.

Ask any graduate and he or she will assure you that the corps does not parade as well now as in his or her day. This holds equally true whether the graduate is from the twenties or the seventies. For all of them their cadet days take on a haze of nostalgic perfection the moment they drive out the Thayer Gate. In time—often a very short time—they become DOGs (disgruntled old grads), convinced that West Point is a mess. Of course, if a mere civilian voices such an opinion, they will defend the old school until their blood pressure goes off the chart.

A review is more than the climax of a West Point visit. It is an occasion when America’s past and future intersect. I try to pick out individual faces. That skinny kid with thick glasses—is he the Omar Bradley of the year 2015? That burly black cadet dipping the colors of his regiment—is he another Sheridan or Patton? That young woman striding at the head of her company—will she sit in a command center in Washington, D.C., and make decisions that change the world of the twenty-first century? Watching rank after rank of faces resolute beneath their shining visors, white-gloved hands gripping the stocks of their M-14s, you can almost become part of the long gray line as it marches into the future, our hopes and fears weighing on their young shoulders.

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