By Brandon O'Connor, Pointer View Assistant EditorNovember 7, 2018
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Engraved on pieces of brass, 43 names stand as permanent testaments to the graduates of the U.S. Military Academy who gave their lives fighting for America in World War I.
One hundred years after the conclusion of the Great War, the shock waves that rippled across the Atlantic Ocean from the battlefields in Europe and lapped against the banks of the Hudson River where USMA stands can still be felt permeating throughout West Point.
Officers at the Academy were sent to war, classes were graduated early and the battle in Europe laid the groundwork for massive changes to the curriculum and atmosphere at West Point that enabled it to become the school it is today.
From the time Sylvanus Thayer served as superintendent in the early 1800s, except for a blip during the Civil War, West Point had been a four-year experience for the cadets. The traditions of the school were built upon the classes starting as plebes and graduating four years later following intensive study of math, engineering and military science.
The foundational four-year curriculum on which West Point was built was shattered during World War I, and nearly done away with for good, as the Army expanded rapidly from thousands to millions, creating a need for leaders on the battlefield.
"Some (cadets) were here just a year and a half. The Army was desperate for Soldiers. We went from 98,000 Soldiers in the U.S. Army to 4 million in less than a year. You need officers," Sherman Fleek, the USMA historian, said. "The acceleration of classes caused turmoil and frustration here … Four classes were graduated early (during World War I). They brought in new cadets through the summers of '17 and '18 at different times and then there was another huge entrance in November of 1918."
The duty to produce officers fell mostly to West Point, because the ROTC program as we have it now did not exist yet. World War I also marked the first time in American history where the entire war effort was led by professional Soldiers.
A century later, West Point graduates Gen. John J. Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces, as well as Gen. George S. Patton and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who both cut their teeth in World War I before playing major roles in World War II, remain three of the most recognizable figures in American military history. At the highest levels of the Army, almost all of the leaders were West Point graduates, assuring the role West Point still plays in today's Army.
"World War I does solidify the idea that West Point and the professional Army will control the management of the Army in the United States and it won't be these amateur politicians," Col. Ty Seidule, the head of the Department of History at West Point, said. "It was the first war we had in American history where there were no political generals. In that sense, the professionals controlled the Army."
Putting West Point more or less in charge of the war paid dividends on the battlefield as the leaders knew each other and could work together. After seeing the impact disease had on the Spanish-American War, hygiene was taught to cadets in the years leading up to World War 1 and beyond, which kept Soldiers alive as they fought in Europe.
With the rapid expansion of the forces, their time at West Point meant graduates were some of the few people within the Army who actually had experience and knew how to be Soldiers.
"Pershing said that the standard of the American Expeditionary Forces will be those of West Point," Seidule said. "He really set the standard of what that Army would look like from his experience at West Point."
As the war waged, so many cadets were graduated early that it left the Academy with only one class, whose members had only been at USMA for a few months. More than 500 graduates, from two classes, were graduated together Nov. 1, 1918, only 10 days before the war officially ended. The chaos stripped the school of almost all of its traditions as the curriculum was diluted with the rapid progression of classes, cadets were graduated early and classes entered the Academy at multiple times during the year.
For all the stress the chaos created at West Point, it also left the door open for changes to be made. Leaders who had spent multiple years in Europe fighting the war returned with knowledge of how the battlefield actually was and would be going forward, what the Army looked like and what changes needed to be made to prepare future Army leaders for the new world.
"Change, until very recently, came very slowly," Seidule said. "When MacArthur comes back (as superintendent), he implements a number of changes. Instead of training out on The Plain, it used to be that out on The Plain they would put tents and they would have these drill practice parades every day and then at night they would have dances -- he moved to Fort Dix over the summer and starts to move the curriculum to more of a balance between humanities and math."
MacArthur also fought to return the school to a four-year curriculum, albeit not the same curriculum that had existed before the war. In Europe, he had fought with American Soldiers who spoke different languages and came from different cultures. The battlefields were no longer the open plains of the West, they were cities and trenches. This led him to change the training the cadets received and open the curriculum to subjects beyond math and science.
The changes he first implemented, some of which were then rolled back before being reinstituted in the 1940s, also included giving the cadets more freedom, implementing the honor code and more. Those changes can still be felt today as cadets study languages and social sciences and spend the summer training at Camp Buckner.
"He introduced hygiene and psychology and broadened the curriculum for cadets to learn more about the world," Fleek said. "These were all things that needed to be done, and the trauma of what happened here during World War I was the open door to make all these changes, which probably wouldn't have happened if business was usual."