31 Knot Dirck
The USNA Class of 1960 Graduates
One thing that separates Marine Corps basic training from that of the other services is the Corps’ emphasis on history. Drill Instructors at Parris Island and San Diego are continuously teaching new recruits of the historical epochs of the Corps and of those Marine heroes who made them happen from the beginning in 1775 until the present. From Belleau Wood through Iwo Jima to the Chosin Reservoir and onto Khe Sahn and beyond, when the new Marine leaves boot camp, he is well indoctrinated into the legacy he has inherited. This is one reason that the Marines have such a distinctive culture that sets them apart from the other services, and one of the primary functions of boot camp is to immerse the new Leatherneck into that culture.
As I was thinking about this I recalled my own Plebe Summer at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1959 and how we received a somewhat similar indoctrination in naval history. This was less than 15 years since the end of World War II, and all of the new Plebe Class of 1963 had grown up during and just after the end of that conflict. The soldiers, sailors and Marines of that era were our heroes. Every Saturday night during Plebe Summer we were trooped to the auditorium at Mahan Hall and shown movies about the Navy and Marines in World War II: Run Silent Run Deep, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Enemy Below, Away All Boats, The Fighting Lady, Victory at Sea, and on and on. We were told of the exploits of Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance, Mitscher, Burke, Vandergrift and others. Although not quite as intense as Marine boot camp, it was effective indoctrination which just reinforced the actions of our heroes and placed them in the context of being part of it all as Midshipmen.
Class Crest, Class of 1963
During our Plebe Year the Chief of Naval Operations was one of those heroes we learned about that summer. He was Admiral Arleigh “31 Knot” Burke, the great destroyer squadron commander of the Pacific war, and holder of the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart, Legion of Merit and other decorations. He probably reviewed one of our fall or spring weekly parades. We always had high ranking officers or government civilians honored at parades.
In any case Plebe Year proceeded about as usual with intense Plebe indoctrination presided over by the First Classmen of the Class of 1960 and with the heavy academic load that would eventually lead to an engineering degree for each of us…whether we wanted it or not (in my case it only took the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico six months to beat that degree out of me and turn me into a rifle platoon leader). Plebe Year along with academics took its toll on the Class of ’63. Four years later only about 74% of our original class that entered in July 1959 graduated. We lost one in four.
Admiral Arleigh “31 Knot” Burke…the CNO
Eventually the calendar clicked over to May 1960 and June Week and graduation were only a month away. The First Classmen waited in eager anticipation of throwing their caps in the air and cutting the umbilical cord from Bancroft Hall. Us Plebes waited with equally eager anticipation for Plebe Year to come to an end. It had been a long and difficult haul and we desperately wanted to get that single diagonal gold stripe on our uniforms that showed we were Third Classmen.
Exam week came and went and ’63 suffered several more casualties to academics, and then June Week arrived with its parties, parades, dances and other festivities. Plebes were finally allowed to talk to and touch women during June Week, and I invited a high school friend from Kansas who was working in Washington, D.C. We were still Plebes and couldn’t fully participate in all the fun and games that would mark our future June Weeks as upperclassmen, but most of the pressure of the year was off. But Plebe Year wouldn’t be completely over until we placed a cap atop the Herndon Monument after ‘60’s graduation ceremony.
I was assigned to be an usher at the ’60 graduation ceremony. Today graduation is at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, but in my day it was held in Halsey field house, just inside Gate One on the Academy grounds. I can’t remember with any clarity what my duties as an usher were, but I remember indelibly one incident that occurred. I was assigned to one of the side entrances to the field house. I guess I was to direct guests entering through that door to the spectator seats. It was some time before the ceremony began and I was just standing there daydreaming waiting for someone to show up.
Someone showed up! The door opened and there stood Admiral Arleigh “31 Knot” Burke, the CNO and, as it turned out, commencement speaker. He was wearing the dress white uniform with large medals and he had a big smile on his face. There was nobody else visible behind him. It was just him and me; the craphead Plebe farm boy from Kansas and the Chief of Naval Operations. I had no idea he was to be the speaker or that he was even going to be in attendance. I just stood frozen and he asked me something…what I can’t remember. My reply was similar to Ralph Kramden’s reply when he was on the quiz show in the TV series “The Honeymooners”. I said something like “Homina homina homina”…just like Ralph. 31 Knot realized immediately how frozen up this future combat leader was and did his best to calm me down. I think he asked me where I was from or what my name was or what battalion I was in, or something. He soon went on his way and left me standing there open mouthed. It is something that I will never forget…face to face with one of my heroes. All I know for sure is that 8 years later, when confronted by my first firefight in Vietnam, I reacted much differently.
So that is my story from the Class of 1960’s graduation day. And that is how I became known as “31 Knot Dirck”.
Dirck Praeger sends