What a Week That Was
May 16, 2011 02:58PM ● Published by Anonymous
Once more, it’s upon us. That colorful, hectic, event-filled week of graduation at the Naval Academy. Full of tradition, camaraderie, and a few salutes in between, this pinnacle week dates back more than 150 years.
At last! The song “No More Rivers” is played and then, practice parades. Packing trunks and cruise boxes. Presenting the colors for newsreels. Baseball with Army here. Lacrosse and track at the Point. The Superintendent’s garden party. Baccalaureate service in the Chapel Sunday morning. Freedom to ride in automobiles in Annapolis. The Color Parade. The Graduation Parade. The June Ball that night at Dahlgren Hall in full-dress regalia. Exchanging vows under a June moon with your OAO. Next morning, Dahlgren Hall, again. This time packed end-to-end with some 2,000 midshipmen, plus family and other guests. A distinguished speaker, the awarding of diplomas from the flag-draped stage, then, the newly commissioned officers toss their hats in the air.
Sound familiar, maybe just a little? That’s a recap of June Week 1935. The name and much else has changed since then. It became Commissioning Week in 1979. Graduation wasn’t always at Dahlgren. Sometimes it was at Thompson Field, site of today’s Lejeune Hall. The Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium wasn’t completed until 1959. Graduations weren’t held there until 1967. As today, the week of graduation was packed with tradition though. Midshipmen have been tossing their hats since 1912. Rules, however, were different then. Out in town, midshipmen had to refrain from doing anything non-reg like walking hand-inhand with their dates or riding in cars. Until 1922, only first classmen were permitted to smoke and then only in Smoke Hall. Many midshipmen had in-town sponsors who extended the privilege.
Young women who dated midshipmen were called drags; the homes in town where they stayed were, of course, drag houses. Because of the ban on riding in cars, drag houses near the Academy were much in demand and were always full to overflowing during June Week. An invitation to June Week was a much coveted laurel in a young woman’s cap. She assembled a wardrobe of finery that would take her to a week’s worth of public events—foremost of which were the hops.
For music during the thirties, the choice was “dreamy and swingy.” Of course, there were the daring few who caused the matrons on the sidelines to raise their eyebrows with the “Harlem Hop,” the “Tuscaloos Toddle,” and the infamous “Fanny Wobble.” The Ring Dance and the June Ball, now the Farewell Ball, called for a good deal more decorum. Even more formal were the “Germans,” popular into the 1930s. Germans were performed to set figures that required some hours of practice beforehand. They were for first classmen only. A young woman wore her most elegant gown, for an invitation to a German was tantamount to a proposal of marriage. Those so chosen were presented with elaborate favors, a bracelet or a peacock feather fan, perhaps. At other hops, young women carried dance cards and each midshipman got his date’s card filled beforehand. In those days of the stag line, cutting in was taboo at the June Ball.
June Week was an end and a beginning for each class. The graduates would soon report for duty as navy ensigns or marine lieutenants. In the 1930s, the new Second Class looked forward to an aviation summer learning to fly seaplanes on the Severn. The Youngsters were off to board a battleship for their summer cruise. June Week marked for each class another step towards greater responsibility.
For many years, there was one responsibility graduates would not assume. That was marriage. They were not allowed to marry for two years after leaving the Academy. That led, inevitably, to secret marriages. A favorite pastime for some was speculating about engaged couples. Generally, graduates were able to ease into their new responsibilities. Not so for the class of 1898. At lunch in the mess hall one day, the First Classmen were summarily presented with their diplomas and shipped off to the fleet. The United States was at war with Spain. It was much the same for the class of 1917. They missed out on June Week entirely, graduating three months early to join British and European forces already engaged in the First World War. Right behind them in June that same year, the class of 1918 graduated after a condensed three-year course, which remained in effect until 1921. The class of 1940 was just months out of the Academy when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Members of the classes of 1941 and ’42 were graduated several months early. The Academy again instituted the shortened, three-year course for the next three classes.
War was a very recent memory when Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter assumed command and the job of rebuilding the Academy when the U.S. Army’s occupation ended at the end of the Civil War in 1865. When the midshipmen, faculty, library, and academic paraphernalia arrived from Newport, Rhode Island, Porter set about recreating the academic and military courses of instruction, and establishing discipline and a code of honor. By 1867, he could boast that the steps he’d taken produced midshipmen who committed “less wrong than any other equal number of young men in the country.” In the process, his program gave the midshipmen a much needed boost in morale. It wasn’t all work and no play. Porter saw to it that the young men had a variety of athletic contests and elaborate social events. Throughout each year, the midshipmen held dress parades and entertained their young ladies at elegant balls, or hops, attended by prominent government officials and foreign dignitaries. Come June, graduations brought a similar array of lunimaries including secretaries of the navy and, in 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant. The elaborate graduation ceremonies begun in Admiral Porter’s day were the genesis of today’s Commissioning Week,with nearly a century and a half of cherished traditions, one of the most notable of which is the Herndon Monument climb.
There’s no clear date for when the climb originated. It’s believed to have come about after a graduation ceremony around 1912, when the former plebes, now Youngsters, were acknowledged by the upperclassmen. In assuming their new status, they promptly reversed their coats and caps and did a snake dance through the yard, chanting “Ain’t no mo’ plebes.” As upperclassmen, they could now run through Lovers Lane, which was previously forbidden to them. That brought them to the Herndon Monument, and a new tradition was born. When graduation was moved to the stadium, the youngsters couldn’t run to Herndon afterwards. As a result, the contest between men and monument was rescheduled to earlier in the week. Today it begins the week that ends with the hat toss and Chapel weddings.
Author’s Note: For more on the Academy, see The U.S. Naval Academy: An Illustrated History, by Jack Sweetman; sources for memories, my parents, Margery and Fred Dowsett, Class of ’36, and for anything Academy, James W. Cheevers, Associate Director and Senior Curator of the Naval Academy Museum.
Read What’s Up?’s interview with current Naval Academy Superintendant Vice Admiral Michael H. Miller, click here.
Check out this great slideshow from last year's commissioning week.
Commissioning Week 2011
Friday, May 20th through Friday, May 27th
A selection of public events taking place on:
Monday, May 23rd
10 a.m. Color Parade at Worden Field
1:30 p.m. Class of 2014 Herndon Monument Climb
7:30 p.m. Men’s Glee Club Concert at Mahan Hall
Tuesday, May 24th
2 p.m. Blue Angels Flight Rehearsal over Severn River
7:30 p.m. Women’s Glee Club Concert at Mahan Hall
Wednesday, May 25th
12:45 p.m. USNA Band Concert at Ingram Field
2 p.m. Blue Angels Flight Demonstration over Severn River
4 p.m. Organ Concert by Monte Maxwell at Main Chapel
Thursday, May 26th
10:50 a.m. Silent Drill Team Performance at Worden Field
11 a.m. USMC Battle Color Detachment Performance at Worden Field
7:30 p.m. Gospel Choir Concert at Mahan Hall
Friday, May 27th
10 a.m. Class of 2011 Graduation at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium