Published by Gravel, A Literary Journal November 1, 2018 University of Arkansas
To the ladies who come up in June, We'll bid a fond adieu, Here's hoping they be married soon, And join the Army too. “Army Blue,” Traditional West Point Song
He, too, had come up in June. Up from Abilene, Kansas mostly to play football and baseball. Other driving interests were outdoor cooking and indoor poker. An avid reader of ancient history, he merely tolerated other academic subjects, particularly despising algebra but holding a keen fascination for plane geometry. After high school he spent two years working in the Belle Springs Creamery’s ice plant to help finance his brother’s education at the University of Michigan. Craving the same, but from a family of slight means, he sought his higher education at a tuition-free service academy. He took examinations for both Annapolis and West Point passing both. A quirk in regulations deemed him a few months too old for admission to the Naval Academy, his first choice. By default, he chose West Point.
So on the morning of June 14, 1911, he came up the west bank of the Hudson by rail to the quaintly gothic train station at West Point. Valise in hand, he climbed the steep hill to the Administration Building. There, he enrolled as a twenty-one year old plebe in the entering Class of 1915. The harassment and training of plebe year—he called it “a series of shouts and barks”—began immediately thereafter.
A bright but underachieving student, he mostly dedicated himself to athletics and probability calculations regarding poker, his favorite indoor sport. A running back with star potential, his left knee imploded from a fierce tackle in the Tufts game in 1912. His athletic career abruptly ended. Undaunted, he became a cheerleader. The knee would trouble him lifelong. West Point discipline also bothered him. Like most intuitively recalcitrant cadets, he became a dedicated system-beater. Pipe and cigar smoking were allowed in cadet rooms. But, for some arcane reason, cigarette smoking was banned. Doing what came naturally, he resisted and hand-rolled his cigs with Bull Durham tobacco and smoked in his room, and elsewhere.
He drew discipline reports like peonies drew ants. During his last five months before graduation he was slugged eighteen times for offenses such as Smoking in Room, Improper Saluting, Unauthorized Visiting, Unaccounted Absences, Lateness, Unclean Room, and excessive whirling on the dance floor, sanitized into Improper Dancing After Being Warned. Of the 164 graduates in his class he ranked a lowly 125th in discipline. His insouciance continued.
Upon graduation, medical authorities advised him that his injured knee might disqualify him from receiving a second lieutenant’s commission. He said that was all right with him, adding that he had always wanted to go to Argentina and, since he loved horses, maybe even become a gaucho. In turn, he was offered a commission in the sedentary and largely obsolete coast artillery, known derisively as “cottages by the sea.” He said no and immediately sent for travel literature about South America. Finally, he was offered a lieutenancy in the infantry which he accepted. Near the end of his life he reflected:
“From the first day at West Point, and any number of times thereafter, I often asked myself: What am I doing here? Like the other young men, I sometimes wondered—where did I come from, by what route and why; by what chance arrangement of fate did I come by this uniform?”
Algiers. February 24, 1943. His first command, Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, was going poorly. The German Afrika Korps, led by the brilliant Erwin Rommel, had humiliated and badly bloodied the combined British-American force at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia pushing the lines back fifty miles. There were significant command, control and political problems. Something had to be done, and fast.
Quickly dispatched from the Pentagon, Major General Omar N. Bradley would serve as his battle-field eyes-and-ears, a deputy commander on the front lines. Bradley met his old West Point classmate and new boss, Dwight D. Eisenhower, at Ike’s command post in the seaside St. George Hotel in Algiers. Now a four-star General of the Army and Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces, he told Bradley the situation and his plans for solution. Bradley listened, thought, then took his measure:
“I was impressed with his detailed tactical grasp of the battlefield situation and his clear, concise manner of describing what had happened. He had matured into a charming man with a first-class mind.”
Eisenhower would continue to mature, and quickly. The allies, under the new command structure, mounted a counterattack. In three months the Africa Korps had been destroyed and Rommel had escaped back to Germany. North Africa was secure and plans for the invasion of Sicily had begun. A year later would come Normandy—June 6, 1944, D-Day, a day in June like no other, a day forever associated with Ike.
In 1960 Dwight Eisenhower was the most popular person on the planet. And had been for decades. His best selling memoir, Crusade in Europe, about his experiences as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II was a fixture on American bookshelves. So potent was his popularity that Eisenhower had been wooed by both political parties in 1948 to run for the presidency.
Spooked by the rumor that General Douglas MacArthur might run as the Republican candidate, President Truman even offered to step down to vice president and give Eisenhower the top slot on the Democratic ticket. But the time was not ripe for Ike. He demurred saying: “Generals in politics are bad for the nation and bad for the Army.” He became president of Columbia University instead. There he remained until January 20, 1953 when he was sworn in as 34th President of the United States.
Named Most Admired Man of the Year twelve times by the Gallup Poll, he had won both presidential elections in 1952 and 1956 by landslides. He would leave his presidency as he had come—acclaimed and admired. No midnight-hour concerns about polishing one’s legacy needed. In 1963, out of office three years, 85% of Americans still liked Ike.
He had served his country at the highest levels of distinction both military and civilian. The slogan, I LIKE IKE, had swept the country and, indeed, the world. What better way to cap these achievements than to visit where his public journey had begun, West Point. And to be with his friends of the Class of 1915, the class the stars of generalship had fallen upon. It was more deluge than falling.
He was in the last six months of his two-term presidency. John F. Kennedy would be elected 35th president of the United States in November. And while the New Year would inaugurate a new president, Eisenhower still had a few things left to say. On January 17, 1961, three days before Kennedy’s inauguration, he spoke out. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address remains a masterwork of foresight and warning-come-true: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
He had much earlier revealed his disgust with war. Only three months into his first term, his 1953 “Chance for Peace” speech made plain his social conscience:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
From distinguished soldier to distinguished statesman, peace was his public profession.
His five-star classmate, Omar Bradley would follow Ike as Chief of Staff of the Army. On Armistice Day 1948 in Boston, Bradley spoke his truth as blunt as a bullet:
“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. The way to win an atomic war is to make certain it never starts. And the way to make sure it never starts is to abolish the dangerous costly nuclear stockpiles which imprison mankind.”
Particularly today, the prescient words of America’s two greatest military leaders blare as warning klaxons as we swallow the bitter truths of nuclear giants and ethical infants.
June Week 1960 and the president had come up to reunite with his illustrious class at their forty-fifth anniversary since graduation. Of the 264 candidates that had entered West Point with Ike on June, 14, 1911, 164 would graduate on June 12, 1915. And what a lustrous crop of new officers! Fifty-nine of them—36% of the graduating class—would ultimately receive general’s stars. It was the most profusely star-dusted class in West Point history. Of the fifty-nine generals, Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley wore five stars. Only three other army officers have ever held this rank. How appropriate that they gather at West Point in reunion, recollection and, no doubt, some laughs.
Early afternoon on Saturday, June 4, military brass, civilian dignitaries, a press corps and the president of the United States took a one-hour hop from Washington D.C. to Stewart Air Force base near West Point. Six classmates, all generals, accompanied the president—John Bragdon, Frederic Boye, Joseph Swing, Thomas Larkin, Thomas Hanley and Walter Hess. The president was greeted by Lt. General Garrison H. Davidson, the Superintendent of West Point. Then the president, General Davidson, and the president’s military aide, Major Richard Streiff immediately departed in Ike’s black Lincoln Continental, flags flying from both fenders, to West Point’s Thayer Hotel. That evening he joined his classmates at the nearby Bear Mountain Inn for a buffet dinner.
Being president is a full-time job, even on Sunday. This particular Sunday morning he flew to South Bend, Indiana to address the graduating class at Notre Dame University. He returned to West Point in the late afternoon. That evening he attended a class picnic at Gene Leone’s farm in nearby Central Valley. The president was rumored to have been the barbecue chef…at least according to Omar Bradley. Leone, owner of Mama Leone’s restaurant on West 44th Street in New York City, was well-known for his generosity to West Point. So much so that the Class of 1915 had made him an honorary member. The president departed the picnic at 10 pm to return to the Hotel Thayer.
June 6, 1960 dawned at West Point as “Alumni Day.” Sixteen years earlier in on the beaches of Normandy the date became an indelible memory. “D-Day, the Sixth of June, 1944.” immediately brought a name to mind—Eisenhower.
The first item in the president’s appointments book was: 9:00 am The President departed Thayer Hotel for the Thayer Museum and the New East Barracks. He was accompanied by General Davidson and GeneralCharles W. Rich. The President walked through the Thayer Museum and the New East Barracks.
And on this day the fortunes of war and peace, life and fate had so conspired that my number had come up for barracks duty as CCQ —cadet-in-charge-of-quarters. My company had been selected for the presidential visit. I was in my second year at West Point. My responsibilities as CCQ were not onerous, mostly spending the day in the orderly room answering the telephone, supervising sick call, making inconsequential notations in the duty book such as recording a visit by the cadet officer-of-the-day, rendering attendance reports and… oh yes!… Today I would greet the President of the United States! Per his schedule, the president would be walking through New East Barracks and would visit Company C-1… and me.
I don’t remember being particularly nervous about it. I knew that the president had not been the most “military” of cadets, that he had played football with Omar Bradley, longed to play baseball but had a bad knee. Had finished in the middle of his class academically. So far so good. And I heard clatter and voices in the hallway. Suddenly the orderly room was full of uniforms, business suits, clamor and stars. And there was neither time nor order. But there was one unmistakable face with an unmistakable smile and, habit now ingrained, I snapped my right hand up to my right eyebrow in salute, saying,
“Sir, Cadet Ryan reports to the President of the United States!”
He did not return my salute, being a civilian.
“At ease, Mr. Ryan,” he said and reached out his hand.
It was a great moment, imbedded as if it happened this morning.
His hand was meaty and strong, the hand of a puncher.
“Welcome to Company C-1, sir.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ryan,” said the president.
I was adrift in stars—General Davidson, General Rich, Lyman Lemnitzer, the Chief of Staff of the Army. The entire chain of command in the flesh. A few more officers, the president’s aide, a major with the yellow braid aiguillette on his shoulder, some civilians probably reporters. The orderly room was packed.
“Do you like it here, Mister Ryan?” asked the president.
I think I may have broken a smile. My career could end right here. Thoughts of the Cadet Honor Code, a cadet will not lie, cheat or steal…
“Yes sir,” I said, adding a cautionary “most of the time.”
The president thought that was funny and he smiled all around his entourage saying, “See? See? See?”
Everyone was smiling, especially the generals. They were acting like cadets, loose and friendly.
“We fully understand what you mean,” said Ike.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
Another voice—General Davidson, “Where are you from, Mister Ryan?”
“New York City, sir.”
“Which part?” he asked.
“The Bronx, sir” “I’m from the Bronx too,” said General Davidson.
“Yes, sir,” I said, my brain rummaging to grasp that a three-star general could actually come from the Bronx.
“I’m from the northern part, sir. Woodlawn, next to the cemetery,” I said.
“I’m from the other end,” said General Davidson, “the 23rd district.”
The South Bronx. My family’s roots. What could I say? I could have told him that my entire family, mother and father, were from there, Mott Haven and Melrose. That my great grandfather, a German-born immigrant, owned a junkyard on 149th Street next to St. Mary’s Park. As a child my father rode with him on the horse-drawn junk wagon. And that this same grandfather had disappeared from the family. Going back to Germany after World War I because of the ferocious anti-German sentiment still prevailing. I could have told him that my uncle had jumped with the 82nd Airborne on this very day in Normandy. I could have said all that…but I just said, “Yes, sir.”
“Thank you, Mister Ryan,” said the president. “We are running a bit late. We have to be at the library now. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Yes, sir, You’re welcome,” I said and again saluted.
On the way out General Davidson shook my hand and patted my shoulder.
They followed Ike through the door. A reporter with a notebook came up to me.
About the Author James Ryan has been published in The MacGuffin, Shenandoah, Washington Review, Wellspring, Eureka, Inkwell, and the English language edition of the Aydinlik newspaper in Istanbul. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, he holds advanced degrees in economics and English literature, and has an MFA in writing from Columbia University. He has studied with James Salter, Frank McCourt, Mary Gordon, Maureen Howard, A. Walton Litz, Alan Ziegler, Michael Cunningham, and Thomas Mallon. Now in the United States, he lived in Turkey for sixteen years.