National Geographic : 1936 Jun
WEST POINT AND THE GRAY-CLAD CORPS BY LIEUT. COL. HERMAN BEUKEMA, U. S. A. r HE importance of this post is so great as justly to have been consid ered the key of America." So wrote George Washington about West Point 153 years ago. He referred, of course, to its strategic value as the Gibral tar of the Hudson, the fortress which pre vented the British from splitting the Colo nies in two along the line of the river and then destroying the halves, one at a time. Gone today is West Point's high strate gic importance. Other posts have displaced it as military "keys of America." Yet in another sense West Point still is vital to the Nation, for from the halls of the United States Military Academy there come the men who direct the Army in peace and war. Lay a straightedge on your map, passing through Albany and New York City, and you will have marked the general course of the Hudson River. Yet, about fifty miles north of New York, there is a small double bend, a scant quarter-mile diversion from the north-south line. On the inner or west ern side of that bend lies the town of West Point. The visitor today sees relics of the Rev olutionary defenses all about him. From water-line to the craggy summits of guard ian peaks, the crumbling parapets of earth and moss-covered stone tell their story. At Trophy Point on the grounds of the Academy hangs a part of the huge chain, with links more than two feet long, which was stretched across the river to trap Brit ish men-o'-war under the guns of the forts (Color Plate VI). WASHINGTON SAW NEED FOR ACADEMY But Washington saw in West Point some thing more than a fortress. He knew that America's future armies must be built around a nucleus of trained officers. On his recommendation in 1793 Congress created the grade of cadet and assigned the new men to an engineer unit stationed at West Point. Here was the germ of the present United States Military Academy, but no more than that. The real birth of the Academy came in 1802 when Congress instituted the Corps of Engineers and made its chief the Super intendent of the Military Academy. Later the Academy was allowed to lan- guish, but in the disasters of the War of 1812 the Nation learned one lesson it has not forgotten. Congress made atonement in 1816 by reopening the Academy on a greatly increased scale. To the West Pointer, Major Sylvanus Thayer will always be the "Father of the Military Academy." As Superintendent from 1817 to 1833, Major-later General-Thayer established a program based on stern discipline and a rigid code of personal and group integrity the Corps honor system of today. The honor system could be established and can be maintained only because of the full acceptance of a high ideal by the Corps of Cadets. Discipline can be enforced by a superior upon his subordinates; integrity is a bond uniting equals. In the century since Major Thayer's regime, wars have caused their flurries from time to time. During the World War, classes were graduated so rapidly that at one time the four-year course had been reduced to a year or less. WEST POINT ON PAGE AND SCREEN The United States Military Academy is better known to the American public now than at any previous time in its history. The motion-picture camera, the writers of history and fiction, all play their part in telling its story, sometimes with rather amusing results. Flirtation Walk, the mile and a half of romantic pathway winding down the cliffs to the river, was to figure importantly in one picture largely filmed on the Academy grounds, and an officer asked when the cameramen were going to shoot those scenes. "Oh, we're not going to use your Flirta tion Walk," was the reply. "We can build a much better one in Hollywood." A youth may obtain appointment to West Point through his Senator or Repre sentative, many of whom hold competitive examinations; or he may enlist in the Regu lar Army or National Guard, and after one year's service qualify by high standing in a stringent examination. There are special quotas of appointments for Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, the Territories, the President and the Vice President; also a quota for honor graduates of picked military schools.