Commissioning Week Traditions, Folklore, and Pranks

The following is an excerpt from an E BOOK soon to be published. Its title is:

The Last Real Plebe Summer

There is no tradition more powerful than the climbing of the Herndon Monument. During Commissioning the Plebe Class will climb the monument, but it is still part of Commissioning Week. It is a counterpoint, bookends, so to speak, for four years at the Academy. At its heart are the dying words of James Lawrence to his crew the USS Chesapeake, during the War of 1812.

 

It is a powerful symbol, yet few midshipmen, plebe or first class, really know much about William Louis Herndon, his contribution. As indicated on his monument, he was a Naval Officer, an Explorer. a Merchant Captain. 

1) Naval Officer

Herndon was appointed a midshipman on November 1, 1828. He was promoted to “passed midshipman” (a midshipman who had passed the lieutenant’s exam and was eligible for promotion when there was a vacancy)  in 1834 and then Lieutenant in 1841. From 1842 to 1846, a year after the founding of the Naval School, he worked at the US Naval Observatory with his brother-in-law, Matthew Fontaine Maury, considered the father of modern oceanography. During the Mexican War Herndon commanded the brig Iris.

2) Explorer

In 1851 Herndon led the first scientific expedition to explore the Amazon River Valley. The area was  vast and unchartered. He was to determine the potential commercial resources of the basin. Three years later he published a book about his exploration that is still published and read today.

 3) Merchant Captain

The ship SS Central America was a commercial mail steamer and was carrying gold from California to New York. It met a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina and lost power. Captain Herndon saved 152 women and children, but once he saw the ship was doomed, he donned his full dress uniform, proceeded to the wheel house, and went down with his ship. Four hundred passengers and crew went down with the ship, the largest loss of life aboard a commercial ship.

 

There is much more to Herndon than his accomplishments as an officer, explorer, and merchant captain. It is important for the plebes to understand Herndon, for it is the man that demonstrates what Plebe Summer is all about.

1) His life was dedicated to his country. In 1857 the United States was in financial trouble. Gold from the 1848 Gold Rush was needed in New York to “save” the United States from a financial meltdown. Herndon, by captaining the SS Central America, took on the job of saving the country. The gold was lost at sea, though the meltdown in fact never occurred.

 

2) Herndon was political. His daughter, Ellen Lewis Herndon, would marry Chester Arthur, the 21st president of the United States. However, Herndon would die before Chester Arthur took office. He would have been proud.

Herndon's involvement in politics is also clear in his exploration of the Amazon Basin. The exploration was much more than an effort to explore the commercial potential of the Amazon.  The trip was backed by the US government. Little known is that there was a hidden motive. It was thought that the results of the exploration could resolve the racial issues surrounding the Civil War.

His exploration of the Amazon Basin was influential. His book on the Amazon Basin encouraged Mark Twain to write a book about another great river, the Mississippi. The book was Huckleberry Finn

 

It is very difficult, unless you are a plebe, to understand the importance of climbing the Herndon Monument. In May of 1968, Hank Turowski was the plebe who climbed to the top of the Herndon Monument and replaced the plebe cover with an upper classmen cover. He authored PLEBE: A Trilogy of Novels.  In the book, he conveys well what it means to plebes to climb the monument:

“Climbing the Monument was a holy act, a First Communion that signified the official end of Plebe Year for me and slightly fewer than a thousand of my classmates. My hands were ruby and slime-covered like
everything else nearby, but they held a treasure unlike anything I had ever possessed: a hat. A filthy midshipmen’s cloth dixie-cup. But this was not just any hat. It was the hat.”Until the Herndon Monument is climbed in late May, a plebe is the scum of the earth. He is looked down upon by the upper classmen as

the low man on the totem pole. Once the monument is climbed, the plebes have “carryon.” They are free. They are part of the brigade and respected finally. The importance of the moment can be heard in the chant at the end of the climb. “No More Plebes!” The chant is in the memory of the class. It is a chant that dates back over 100 years. I do not believe any plebe actually knows its origin.

 

 

So, if you watch the climbing of the Herndon Monument, or you just reflect on the event four years ago almost to the day, remember its history and tradition. To the right is a class from the 1970s posing in front of the monument.