Red-letter Days

Red-letter Days                                                                         

The grinding routine of classes, examinations and graduations at Kings Point was punctuated by a few standout dates during the war years. These were moments of reflection that prompted a contemplation of the important work already being done and the enormous challenges still to be overcome.

One of these days was the formal dedication of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on September 30, 1943. Little more than a year and a half had passed since cadets first had set foot on its grounds, but Kings Point had undergone a complete transformation. The former Chrysler mansion, now the administration building, had been renamed in honor of Admiral Wiley, the first Maritime Commissioner in Charge of Training, who died in May 1943 at the age of 73. Six new barracks, a mess hall, and several academic buildings had been erected, and the training facility was now nearly self-sufficient, with its own heating system, (powered by two Liberty Ship boilers also used for engine instruction), fire department and water supply.

The dedication ceremony was held in O’Hara Hall in front of the Regiment of 2,500 Cadet-Midshipmen and 2,000 guests. A nationwide radio hookup allowed several million more listeners across the country to listen. The ceremony began with a letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that was read to the assembled visitors by Sam Schell, Executive Officer of the War Shipping Administration. Roosevelt’s words were complimentary and inspiring. One phrase in particular became both a touchstone and a point of affirmation for the young Academy,

 “This Academy serves the Merchant Marine as West Point serves the Army and Annapolis serves the Navy.”

Maritime Commissioner Macauley followed Schell and used the occasion to present the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal to Cadet-Midshipman Frederick Zito. Zito had risked his own life to save that of a ship’s fireman who in the process of abandoning their torpedoed ship had become entangled in the rope of a cargo net and was hanging upside down off the side of the ship. The young cadet climbed up the boat falls from his lifeboat, extricated the fireman and both fell into the sea, from which they were rescued.

“For your quick thinking and coolness under action and your valor shown on this occasion,” Macauley read to the assembled crowd, “you are hereby commended.”

Commissioner Telfair Knight also spoke, paying tribute to Richard R. McNulty, the Supervisor of the Cadet Corps in Washington and the man aptly called the “guiding genius” of the Academy. McNulty himself was not in attendance. Disliking ceremony of any sort, he had arranged to be in California at the time of the dedication.

Following Knight’s speech, Macauley officially presented Captain James Harvey Tomb, USN, with the command of the Academy. This presentation was only a formality; the well-respected Tomb had been Superintendent of the Academy since April 11. Following the ceremony, the crowds moved to Kendrick Field (later renamed Tomb Field), where a formal review of the 2,500 Cadet-Midshipmen, divided into three battalions and 18 companies, was held on the grounds. Captain Giles C. Stedman, Commandant of Cadets, and soon to be named the second Superintendent of the Academy, presented the Regiment before approximately 8,900 guests. More than 76 busloads of people had been ferried in from the Great Neck train station and some 1,200 cars were crammed into every corner of the Academy. It was a stirring occasion for those who had witnessed the birth of the school and who believed in its potential for the future.

Another red-letter day for the Academy was the May 5, 1944 visit of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. After a tour of the buildings and a review of the Regiment, Roosevelt toured the grounds in the freshly washed convertible of Engineering Professor Lauren McCready, escorted by Superintendent Giles C. Stedman, and Chief of Staff P.C. Mahady. Her account of the visit was later reprinted in Polaris:

“Saturday morning at 10 o’clock, Capt Giles G. Stedman, USNR, called for me and we went to visit the USMMA at Kings Point, NY. This is a very unique spot, beautifully landscaped and with permanent buildings. The old Chrysler house has been painted to conform with the newer buildings…The first thing I did on arrival was to be conducted to the Amphitrist [sic] pool, where just before exams the Cadet-Midshipmen toss in pennies. They brought a supply for my use, but when I delved into my pocketbook, I found two. Luckily, the second one landed in the correct spot, which I suppose indicated that I would pass my exam when I took it.

Those pennies have an ultimate purpose, as well as an immediate one. Someday, they hope to erect a memorial to the group who have died at sea during the war. Already 124 have died, and some are missing, for the Merchant Marine is a dangerous service. There are some fine stories of heroism on which to begin building the traditions of the Cadet-Midshipmen of the Merchant Marine Academy.

As they marched past us in review I was greatly impressed by them. The work must be extraordinarily heavy. 42 hours a week is a hard schedule, and they still find time to engage in extracurricular activities… I decided they never slept.”

The memory of Cadet Elliott Earnest ’44 was at variance with the official records of the dedication day with regard to the weather; he said that on September 30, 1943, there was bad weather, sufficient to cancel a regatta. Since there were more than 8,000 guests and the event was moved to O’Hara Hall, most cadets were confined to barracks. He said that when the Regiment was assembled in front of Delano Hall for photographs, the wind blew so hard that many lost their hats and cadets and guests were wet from the rain!

A major milestone in Kings Point’s social history occurred on July 18, 1942, when faculty and students gathered for the Academy’s first dance, the “Midsummer Hop” presented by the upperclassmen. With music furnished by Noble Sissle and his orchestra (brought in for the occasion from Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub in New York), 400 officers, Cadet-Midshipmen, and young women “danced from 1600 to 2000 on the nautically decorated Quarter Deck and entire main floor of the Administration Building.”

The event was a great success, by all accounts. It was notable, in part, for its sheer normalcy. A group of young men and women got together on a Saturday night to flirt, brag, and boast, and otherwise enjoy each other’s company. Surely, the uniformed men in attendance had earned the right to let their hair down and, if only briefly, put thoughts of war out of their minds.

Of course the biggest Red Letter day for each Cadet-Midshipman was the day he was assigned to his first ship. He was prepared professionally and physically. Many were sent off after a meeting with the Chaplain who gave him a straight forward talk about life at sea. In some cases the Chaplain gave him a prayer book and for the Catholic men a rosary and medals. The Chaplain would also send a letter to the family advising them that their son was in his prayers.

 

 

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