The fact that Kings Pointers served on Active Duty with the Navy as part of their World War II Sea Year wasn’t even a rumor when I attended Kings Point in the 1970's despite many of the professors and others being veterans of that conflict. I first heard about then when RADM Carl J. Seiberlich, USN (ret.), Kings Point’s first Navy flag officer, called me to talk about he research I was doing for Braving the Wartime Seas. During our discussion he told me a “sea story” about one of these Kings Pointers, whom he termed “The Specials.”
Admiral Seiberlich’s sea story was intriguing. It involved an Active Duty Navy Midshipman surviving the sinking of his ship at Guadalcanal and wound up being assigned to some sort of small craft there. The punch line to the story was that one day an admiral visited the area and found himself aboard the midshipman’s vessel. To say the admiral was started to see the distinctive fouled anchor insignia of a midshipman on the young man’s his shirt collar is an understatement. Naturally, the admiral asked the midshipmen what in the “world” he was doing serving in a combat zone. After explaining his presence the admiral immediately sent him back to the U.S. to be commissioned.
I thought that this was clearly a “sea story” because “as everyone knows” midshipmen haven’t served in combat since the days of fighting sail. But, since Admiral Seiberlich told me that he had personal knowledge of the situation, I felt compelled to take him at his word. Admiral Seiberlich made me promise to look into their story when I finished working on the book. Several years passed, as did Admiral Seiberlich, before I could make good on my promise to him.
Knowing that one of the men I had researched had been assigned to a Navy transport early in the war, I started looking to see if a transport had been sunk at Guadalcanal. In the log book of USS George F. Elliot (AP 13) I found the evidence that lead me to the story of Kings Point’s “Special” Midshipmen and the discovery that six Kings Point midshipmen were serving aboard commissioned U.S. Navy ships at the landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on August 7, 1942. The story of the USS George F. Elliott's Midshipmen is told in the book The Midshipmen's Story.
The story of the Kings Point "Specials" really begins in Washington, DC during the spring and summer of 1941 when the United States was not officially at war. While the U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps was expanding for what many in America could see as an approaching global conflict, the Cadets who were not at sea were housed in temporary facilities, including New York State Maritime at Fort Schuyler. The Kings Point campus was not acquired until the end of the year. Yet, Cadets were being sent to sea for their Sea Year, just as they are today. However, another aspect of preparations for global conflict imperiled the U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps’ Sea Year, threatening to leave Cadets ashore waiting for assignment to the shrinking number of ships that they could serve aboard.
What caused the shortage of Sea Year billets? In making its own preparations for the coming war, the Navy began acquiring from the U.S. merchant fleet passenger ships and tankers to commission as troopships and fleet oilers. The unfortunate impact of this was that the Cadets assigned to ships being commissioned into the Navy could not remain aboard to continue their training after they were commissioned. Something had to be done or the Merchant Marine Cadet Corps’ needs to expand the supply of shipboard officers for the war would be seriously affected. The only thing that could be done is to figure out how to get Cadets back aboard what were now commissioned warships of the U.S. Navy. Since the Cadets were also Midshipmen, USNR, the quickest way to do this would be to put them on Active Duty with the Navy in their present Navy rank and assign them to the crew of former merchant ships that had been commissioned into the Navy. However, the Navy had not assigned undergraduate Midshipmen to shipboard duty for training since the founding of the U.S. Naval School in 1945 following the attempted mutiny aboard USS Somers in 1842, which was led by one of its Midshipmen. Although graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy served in the rank of Passed Midshipman for the first two years of their service, this rank was abolished by Congress in 1912. Clearly the Navy would require some convincing in order to change a policy established in the era of pirates and sailing ships.
So, on May 26, 1941 Vice Admiral Emory S. Land, USN (ret.) the Chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission wrote to William F. “Frank” Knox, Secretary of the Navy to inform him that as a result of the Navy’s preparations for war, the Maritime Commission’s Cadet Corps had lost roughly 35% of its at sea training capacity. Two weeks later, after the Cadet Corps had lost even more of its training capacity he wrote again, stating,
“The situation as it exists is seriously detrimental to the Maritime Commission’s Cadet Training Program. The request herein made [recalling Maritime Commission Cadets to active duty in the Navy] would, I feel sure, serve the double purpose of solving our problem and adding to the Naval Reservists on active duty a very fine body of young men.”
Despite initial scepticism about the plan on the Navy’s part, on June 18, 1941, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation (later Bureau of Naval Personnel), Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, recommended, and the Secretary of the Navy approved, authority for the Navy to appoint as Midshipman, Merchant Marine Reserve, U.S. Naval Reserve those Cadets that volunteered for Active Duty. On August 12, 1941, in Bureau of Navigation Circular Letter 101-41, RADM Nimitz outlined for the fleet how the program was to be managed and the status of these Midshipmen on active duty. About their duties the Circular Letter states,
“Most of these Midshipmen, Merchant Marine Reserve, have had at least one year’s experience at sea. They will be designated as Class D-M [Deck - Merchant Marine] or E-M [Engineering - Merchant Marine], and they should be assigned to duty as junior officers in their respective branches.”
In terms of rank and precedence aboard ship, the Midshipmen were to rank between Chief Warrant Officers and Warrant Officers and were berthed with them. This led to some interesting discussions. For example, one Midshipman related that on being assigned to berth with the ship’s thirty-year veteran Chief Carpenter his “roommate” told him in no uncertain terms to take the top bunk and to never touch his Old Crow “joint oil.”
On August 16, 1941 the first Midshipman to be part of the ship’s company of a commissioned U.S. Navy ship in nearly one hundred years, Midshipman Duane M. Skinner, USNR (O-88850), reported aboard USS Alcyone (AK 24). On November 15, 1941, Richard R. McNulty The Maritime Commission’s Supervisor of Cadet Training, and later, the third Superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, wrote to Rear Admiral Henry A. Wiley, USN (ret.) stating,
“Another 50 cadets have gone on active duty as Midshipmen, Merchant Marine Reserve, in the merchant vessels to which they were attached before the Navy took them over. We believe these 50 young men are the only seagoing Midshipmen of the Navy.”
My research has identified over fifty Kings Pointers that served as U.S. Navy Midshipmen on Active Duty aboard U.S. Navy ships between August 1941 and August 1942. The stories of their Navy service, and their experiences, range from routine convoy operations to combat in the darkest days of the war and desperate missions through Japanese controlled waters.
What happened to the Navy’s first Midshipmen in combat since the 1800's? By end of 1942 all of the Kings Point Midshipmen on Active Duty had returned to the U.S. Of these all but one passed their license examinations, were commissioned as Ensigns and then remained on Active Duty for the duration of the war. Only one, LT (j.g.) Floyd E. Calleson, USNR, did not survive the war. The one midshipman who was not commissioned, Sumner A. Long, was permitted to resign his appointment as a Midshipman, USNR in order to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. He subsequently passed his license examination, sailed briefly, and became a wealthy benefactor of the Academy and its sailing program. Some of the former Midshipmen remained in the Navy as career officers. Others left the Navy at the end of the war and, like so many Kings Pointers of that era, went back to college where they went on to successful careers in various fields, including medicine. Many did not set foot on the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy grounds until homecoming celebrations years later. In 1992, the class of 1942's fiftieth year celebration, several of the Active Duty Midshipmen provided videotaped interviews of their experiences during their Sea Year and life thereafter.
The “official” termination date of the Active Duty Midshipman program could be found. The 1943 index of active Bureau of Personnel Circular Letters does not include the Active Duty Midshipman program letter. Further applications by merchant marine cadets for Active Duty as Midshipmen were officially denied. However, two Kings Pointers, Myron E. Alexander and Walter J. Matthews served as Midshipmen aboard USS LaSalle (AP-102) for over eight months of their Sea Year, including being present for the invasion of Tarawa. The Navy did not have midshipmen assigned to commissioned units again until the post-war Navy’s “Flying Midshipmen” program which lasted from 1946 to 1950. However, this program, that brought the Navy Jesse Brown, its first African-American aviator, and many other talented aviators such as Neil Armstrong likely would likely not have happened if not for the trail blazing service of fifty Kings Point “Special” Cadets in the darkest days of World War II.
Finally, the service of the Kings Point Active Duty Midshipmen qualified them for the award of several U.S. Navy campaign or service medals and battle stars; the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Europe-African-Middle East Campaign Medal, and the Asia-Pacific Campaign Medal with stars for Guadalcanal Landings, Capture & Defense of Guadalcanal and Gilbert Islands / Tarawa. Their unique service should be recognized by the award of the appropriate streamers to the Academy’s Battle Standard which they helped to earn.