By: Michael D. McClellan | Michael Haskew is on to something. His book, West Point 1915: Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell On (released by Zenith Press in 2014), tells the story of West Point’s most decorated and celebrated class, headlined by future president Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, the man who would later become General of the Army and also serve as the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While those men are the most celebrated, a whopping 59 of its 164 graduates attained the rank of general, the most of any class in the history of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Haskew seizes on this narrative and dares to be different, spending plenty of time on the Big Two while having them share the stage with their lesser-known classmates, men who, along with Eisenhower and Bradley, played key roles in two world wars and exerted tremendous influence on the shaping of modern America, which remains substantial to this day. The result is an absolute gem. There have been other tomes that dive headlong into specific aspects of that 1915 star class, but Haskew’s is the first to consider it in its entirety. That he’s able to do so in 208 crisply-written pages is the genius of West Point 1915. It blankets the reader in extraordinary stories, some of them well-known and others obscure, taking us from World War I to the formation of NATO and beyond, all of it anchored by an institution unlike any other in our nation’s history.
“As a writer, I’m always looking for an interesting topic,” Haskew says from his home base in Chattanooga. “Through the years I’d heard about the West Point Class of 1915 and its nickname, ‘The Class the Stars Fell On,’ and I began to think about other books that had been written about various West Point classes. A couple came to mind immediately, but then I realized that nothing had been done on the class that stood head and shoulders above the others.”
That epiphany sparked Haskew, who has been writing and researching military history subjects for over twenty years. The more he dug the more he learned about these remarkable men and their achievements, which remain unsurpassed in over two hundred years of academy history, and he simply couldn’t fathom why something hadn’t been written sooner.
“It surprised me that a book like this wasn’t out there,” he says quickly. “When you look at the achievements of that class – the number of general rank officers it produced, and the sheer number of individuals who had a tremendous impact on the future of the United States from early in the twentieth century to this very day – I just couldn’t believe that someone hadn’t tried to write about West Point’s Class of 1915.”
To call Haskew a history buff is to pay him a compliment and sell him short, because he’s a brilliant writer who just happens to love history. He’s the editor of WWII History, the author of the critically-acclaimed Appomattox, and the driving force behind works like Tank: 100 Years of the World’s Most Important Armored Military Vehicle, and Aircraft Carriers: The Illustrated History of the World’s Most Important Warships.
“It sounds cliché, but I’ve been interested in military history pretty much my whole life,” Haskew says. “Living here in Chattanooga, we are surrounded by Civil War history. I grew up on the side of Missionary Ridge, which is just minutes away from the battlefield where the Battle of Chickamauga was fought. I remember as a young boy, my father took us on a vacation to see the battleship Alabama in Mobile Bay, which had been converted into a floating museum. The submarine USS Drum was also there at the time, so we toured that, too. I remember going to Fort Morgan on that trip, which is a very famous Civil War site – in fact, that’s where David Glasgow Farragut famously shouted, ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!’ But what really got me started was one afternoon the doorbell rang and the mailman brought a book called the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Story of World War II. My mother handed me that book and I was hooked. From that point on, I had a tremendous fascination with history.”
A history major in college, Haskew attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and didn’t start writing about historical topics until the mid-1980s. Before that, he was just a kid trying to get his foot in the door at the Chattanooga News-Free Press.
“I started working there in the summer of 1981,” he says. “Roy Exum was the sports editor and a true gentleman, and he hired me during the summer of my freshman year in college. When fall came around it was time for high school and college football to start, and he asked me if I wanted to stay around and cover some games. Before long I was working full time and going to school full time. I’m very grateful for the opportunity that Roy Exum gave a 19-year-old kid who was really looking for a part-time job.”
Cutting his teeth on jayvee football, Haskew dreamed of one day writing military history. In West Point 1915 he comes full circle, writing about great military leaders, some of whom turned out to be fantastic athletes, guys like Louis Merrilat, Jr., who was a two-time first-team All-American and later played in the National Football League for the Canton Bulldogs. Wounded in battle during World War I, Merrilat was also a professional basketball player and soldier of fortune following his career in the U.S. Army. It was just one of countless stories that Haskew uncovered when taking on the challenge of West Point’s most decorated class.
“The scope of the book was a daunting task,” Haskew says. “When you consider that this class had 164 graduates, there were initially more questions than answers: How do you separate one from another? How do you decide what to include and what not to include? How do you cover the breadth of that many people? How do you focus on the individuals without losing the identity of the class?
“The scope of the book was a daunting task. When you consider that this class had 164 graduates, there were initially more questions than answers: How do you separate one from another? How do you decide what to include and what not to include? How do you cover the breadth of that many people? How do you focus on the individuals without losing the identity of the class?” – Michael Haskew
“One of the toughest things about the book was its length – the publisher wanted it to be 75,000 words. Well, you could go on and on about the members of this class and their incredible stories, and you could easily double or triple that word count. To do it in 75,000 words, and to do it in a way that resonates, is something that I take great pride in. I’ve actually received emails from descendants of the class, who’ve shared their memories of these men, and that has been gratifying. They’ll write and say, ‘My father or my grandfather was a part of this and that.’ That tells me that we’ve reached some people with this book, and I think there has been a positive impact and a great appreciation for it, which is very gratifying. And I think we’ve filled a niche, because nothing of this magnitude on West Point’s Class of 1915 had been done before – there’s nothing else on this class as a group that comes close.”
For Haskew, the scope and structure of the book was just the tip of the iceberg. Getting it to press would prove equally daunting.
“It was a journey,” he says with a laugh. “Fortunately, it was a project that I felt strongly about. There were some obvious things about it that intrigued me, so I started doing a little bit of research, and every time I turned over a rock, there was something under it that was just incredible. As I kept researching, I realized that this had the makings of a really interesting book, and that’s when I went to a publisher with a short proposal. Fortunately, they accepted it…but it turned out that they were in transition, and in the process of selling to a university press at a major university, so it immediately got lost in the shuffle. A year later, nothing had happened, so I asked them to allow me to have a release from the contract, which they did.
“I went to Zenith Press and asked them about their interest, because the editor that I’d originally pitched my book idea to had moved to Zenith, and she was very familiar with the project. I explained that I was free to market the proposal to Zenith, and she was gracious enough to give this project an opportunity. The journey from concept to print took about three-and-a-half years. The folks at Zenith are tremendous, and it has been a really great ride.”
Haskew smartly anchors the myriad stories of West Point’s star class to the academy itself, each tethered to one of the most hallowed institutions this country has to offer. Founded in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson – on George Washington’s earlier recommendation – and tucked in the hills overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York, the United States Military Academy has produced top-tier leaders, such as General George S. Patton and the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. In West Point 1915, we quickly learn that it was Sylvanus Thayer whom Jefferson granted an appointment to West Point, the same Sylvanus Thayer tapped by President Monroe to serve as an early superintendent. Thayer added the study of war to the school’s curriculum, while also stressing mathematics, analytical thought, decision making, attention to detail and — most of all — discipline.
“Sylvanus Thayer is known as ‘The Father of West Point’,” Haskew explains. “It was largely through his efforts that it became one of the premier engineering schools in the United States. He also instituted discipline, although most cadets probably considered it torture – especially the first-year plebes who were tormented so unmercifully that many deserted, or broke down mentally and were dismissed. Looking back, it was Thayer who laid down an array of traditions and policies which are still in use at West Point today.”
During his tenure at West Point, Thayer accomplished sweeping reforms, setting new standards for admission, establishing minimum levels of academic proficiency, and creating a system to measure cadet progress. The academy would continue to evolve in the decades following Thayer’s appointment, but on a visceral, emotional level, it was still very much his house when that historic class set foot on hallowed ground.
“West Point had an extremely high academic reputation by the time this class arrived in 1911,” Haskew says. “It was known for its engineering, as well as for its technical background and curriculum. It also carried a certain military panache, and it was in the tradition of Thayer that many of these cadets existed and evolved.”
“West Point had an extremely high academic reputation by the time this class arrived in 1911. It was known for its engineering, as well as for its technical background and curriculum. It also carried a certain military panache, and it was in the tradition of Thayer that many of these cadets existed and evolved.” – Michael Haskew
The Point, circa 1911, may have been steeped in Thayer’s traditions, but the grounds were undergoing a much-needed fashion makeover.
“There was a great campaign underway to build new buildings on the grounds,” Haskew says. “Some of the existing structures were more than a century old, so there was a boom in construction. The old, dilapidated barracks that the men were housed in, as well as several other large structures – including the great riding hall – were being redone. There were also some new academic halls under construction, so it was an exciting time for these cadets to enter West Point.”
Tactically, much of the training at The Point was also being overhauled.
“When the 1911 incoming class arrived, there was still a heavy emphasis on horse-based Calvary tactics, which was a holdover from the Civil War period. This is understandable, since the last major war that the Army had been involved in was the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th century. West Point’s cadre of teachers had experience during the mobilization of that short war with Spain, but, in 1911, there was some transition going on with a world war brewing. By the time this class graduated, World Word I in Europe was well underway.
“There were all sorts of new weaponry emerging during World War I, technology that didn’t exist before, and the devastating potential was just being realized when these guys graduated. In response to that, the tactics that had been effective in the Napoleonic era, for example, were no longer going to be viable in the face of machine-guns and modern, heavy-concentrated artillery fire. Aircraft over the battlefield was another new development, as was the advent of the submarine as a weapon. Because of these things, it was a very interesting time in the history of the United States, as well as at the Academy. This made the Class of 1915 a class on the cusp in a lot of respects, a bridge between the old ways of doing things and the new. They appreciated an institution that was steeped in tradition, and were very much a part of that tradition, and yet they saw new technology advancing.”
Haskew goes on to explain that the technological advancements came with an interesting byproduct; introducing military opportunities that hadn’t existed before.
“A number of these guys entered the aviation section of the Signal Corps when they graduated,” Haskew explains. “The Army bought its first aircraft right around the time these guys were graduating from West Point, so this class produced some of the first US airmen in the military. Others, like Eisenhower, were instrumental in the development of the tank and armored warfare in the U.S. Army. Eisenhower, as a matter of fact, was one of the early instructors in the Army Tank Corps, and was a big advocate of the tank, side-by-side with George Patton.”
The early years of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s service in the Army are less well known than his service in World War II and the years following the war, but those early years in the Army laid the foundation for his rise to high command and leadership in World War II. Even less well known are the years preceding Ike’s arrival at West Point. Haskew takes the reader on the future president’s journey from the farmlands to the front line and beyond, honing in on his time spent at the USMA. Eisenhower didn’t rise from a position of money, or power, or influence. His talent and ambition lay in stark contrast to his humble upbringing.
“Eisenhower came from a very middle-class, hard-working family,” Haskew says. “He was born in Denison, Texas, and the family moved to Abilene, Kansas, when he was a young boy. He and his younger brother, Edgar, created a pact with one another – one would stay and work in their uncle’s Bell Springs Creamery and the other would try to go to college. Then, the one that was working would send money to the other, and when the college-bound son graduated, he would reciprocate and the other brother would follow.”
In West Point 1915, we learn that it was Edgar who went first, while Ike worked the creamery and pulled double duty as a fireman. That Eisenhower easily handled the workload is hardly surprising, considering the deceptive physical strength that he carried with him all the way to the White House. Dwight was a two-sport star at Abilene High School, lettering in both baseball and football. His nickname? The ‘Kansas Cyclone’.
“Eisenhower was a very good athlete,” Haskew says, “but he wasn’t very big for a football player. When he arrived at West Point in 1911, he weighed 152 pounds and stood 5’11” tall. He would add muscle as a cadet and make the team, but he looked like anything but a football player when he entered the academy.”
“Eisenhower was a very good athlete, but he wasn’t very big for a football player. When he arrived at West Point in 1911, he weighed 152 pounds and stood 5’11” tall. He would add muscle as a cadet and make the team, but he looked like anything but a football player when he entered the academy.” – Michael Haskew
Despite his physical limitations, a young Dwight Eisenhower made no bones about being a football junkie, and would remain passionate about the sport his entire life. Years after he stopped playing, Ike wrote: “It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance I attached to participation in sports. I so loved the fierce bodily contact of football that I suppose my enthusiasm made up somewhat for my lack of size.”
While West Point 1915 shines light on Eisenhower’s passion for football, it also touches on the athletic achievements of his talented classmates, including one who stands out above the others.
“Louis Merrilat was the best-known of any members of the class when he left the Academy,” Haskew says. “He was an outstanding athlete – he was a first-team All-American football player in 1913 and 1914. Merrilat was wounded in battle while serving in France during World War I, but he overcame his injuries and went on to play one season for the Canton Bulldogs in the National Football League. He spent time in Florida during World War II, running the Army post in Miami. He later became a soldier of fortune, training Iran’s Persian Guard, working with the Chinese Army in the 1930s, and serving in the French Foreign Legion. Because of the exposure that he had had in the newspapers, and his reputation as a great football player, Merrilat was probably the best-known of all of the cadets at the time of graduation.”
Unlike Merrilat, Eisenhower didn’t initially set his sights on attending West Point or playing college football, yet he eventually did both, competing against the legendary Jim Thorpe in 1912 before shredding his knee two weeks later against Tufts University. Unable to stay away, he turned in his pads after the injury and became a cheerleader. That a healthy Eisenhower was even able to earn a spot on the Army roster speaks volumes about his drive, and provides a glimpse into what delivered him from Abilene to the banks of the Hudson River.
“Edgar had already headed off to the University of Michigan,” Haskew recalls. “Luckily for Eisenhower, he had developed a friendship with a guy named Edward E. ‘Swede’ Hazlett, Jr., who was getting ready to apply to the United States Military Academy. Swede would drop by the creamery at night and the two of them would talk about their future, and what they wanted to do with their lives. Swede encouraged Eisenhower to apply along with him, and so Eisenhower became convinced that the academies were a desirable path forward.
“Eisenhower had to take a test in order to be considered for either of the academies, and he had to go to the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis in order to do that. He applied, got no response, and then wrote persistently to his congressman until he was accepted. Eisenhower scored high – number four for consideration to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and number two for consideration to the Military Academy at West Point, behind a cadet by the name of George Pulsifer, Jr. It was the congressman’s responsibility to choose the candidate for West Point, but he ended up passing the exam results off to a friend, who flipped Eisenhower and Pulsifer in the order. It eventually worked out for both men, because George Pulsifer also wound up at the Academy – in the same class as Eisenhower – with an at-large appointment. Pulsifer’s story takes a sad turn years later, and those events are included in the book.”
It would be a stretch to dub Eisenhower the bad boy of West Point’s star class, but, as Haskew’s book makes clear, the future president was hardly averse to bending the rules and, as a result, racked up his fair share of demerits.
“Eisenhower had an amazing sense of humor,” says Haskew. “It wasn’t really a disdain, but more of a willingness to push the envelope with authority. He was something of a rogue…a guy who would sneak out for sandwiches, smoke and play cards. He was a mischievous kind of guy in that way, but I think that just adds to the appeal. Those who study Eisenhower learn that he began to appreciate the discipline more and more later in life. He’s often quoted as saying that the discipline he learned at West Point shaped his military career, and also played a huge part in him becoming president.”
“Eisenhower had an amazing sense of humor. It wasn’t really a disdain, but more of a willingness to push the envelope with authority. He was something of a rogue…a guy who would sneak out for sandwiches, smoke and play cards. He was a mischievous kind of guy in that way, but I think that just adds to the appeal. Those who study Eisenhower learn that he began to appreciate the discipline more and more later in life. He’s often quoted as saying that the discipline he learned at West Point shaped his military career, and also played a huge part in him becoming president.” – Michael Haskew
Like Eisenhower, Bradley’s road to West Point was anything but the product of privilege, power, or politics.
“Omar Bradley found out about his opportunity through his Sunday School teacher at Central Christian Church in Moberly, Missouri,” Haskew says. “His father died when Bradley was a very young man. His mother had a house foreclosed upon, so Bradley had a tough existence. He worked in the locomotive shop, for the Wabash Railroad. The Sunday School teacher encouraged him to take the entrance exam, so he went to Jefferson Barracks, where he scored second overall.
“The interesting thing is that Bradley experienced a case of brain freeze during the math portion of the exam. Completely flustered, he stood up to turn his papers in, resigned to the fact that he was going to fail that section. At that moment, he noticed that the soldier who was proctoring the exam was immersed in a book, so Bradley, rather than disturb him, went back and sat down. He later said that, as if almost by magic, he started to remember the theorems. He managed to complete the math portion of the exam, which allowed him to stay there for the rest of the battery of tests. He finished as an alternate behind a student that had been preparing for over a year, but the student – Dempsey Anderson – eventually failed his physical. That’s how Bradley got the appointment. Fate, it seems, played a hand in the future of both Eisenhower and Bradley.”
Haskew’s book drives home a salient point: The two biggest names in the class – one of them a future President of the United States, the other the last five-star general in the US military – ascended to greatness without any previous connections to the academy.
“There were a number of legacies in the class of 1915,” Haskew says. “There were sixteen second-generation cadets, and three third-generation members of that class. Some of the ancestry is pretty impressive: One of their classmates – James Basevi Ord – was the grandson of a union general who was instrumental in the final campaign that defeated Robert E Lee. So there were some definite ties in these military aristocratic families, but neither Eisenhower nor Bradley had a background like that. They were hardscrabble guys from the heartland, which kind of set them apart.”
Haskew’s book also touches on other common bonds between the two men. Like Eisenhower, Bradley was a distinguished athlete, and we learn that his devotion to sports prevented him from excelling academically at West Point.
“While Eisenhower favored football, Bradley excelled in baseball,” Haskew says. “He was a baseball star, and often played on semi-pro teams for no remuneration, which was to ensure his eligibility to represent the academy. In fact, he was considered one of the most outstanding college players in the nation during his junior and senior seasons at West Point. He was noted as both a power hitter and an outfielder with one of the best arms in his day.”
Eisenhower and Bradley admired each other on many levels. Prior to graduation, Ike wrote a brief portrait of Bradley in West Point’s yearbook, Howitzer. Ever prescient, even at this early age, Eisenhower opined that Bradley’s most “promising characteristic is ‘getting there,’ and if he keeps up the clip he’s started, some of us will someday be bragging to our grandchildren that, ‘Sure, General Bradley was a classmate of mine.’”
Later, Bradley would go on to become Eisenhower’s most trusted an indispensible lieutenant – which is saying something, given that George S. Patton, Jr. and Mark Clark were also under Eisenhower’s charge and vying for his affection. Summing up his assessment of Bradley, Ike later stated that although Bradley lacked some of the extraordinary and ruthless driving power that Patton could exert at critical moments, he still had ‘such force and determination that even in this characteristic, he was among our best…he is a jewel to have around.’
“Eisenhower had a tremendous amount of respect for Omar Bradley,” Haskew says. “Patton was a friend and a favorite, and so was Mark Clark, but Bradley was the most consistent over time. He didn’t have the failings of a Clark or a Patton, and Eisenhower respected this greatly.”
“Eisenhower had a tremendous amount of respect for Omar Bradley. Patton was a friend and a favorite, and so was Mark Clark, but Bradley was the most consistent over time. He didn’t have the failings of a Clark or a Patton, and Eisenhower respected this greatly.” – Michael Haskew
Clearly, both men were destined for greatness. What made them so special?
Haskew: “First of all, I think they had an ability to maintain their cool. Eisenhower had a volcanic temper, but he learned to rein it in. He learned the virtue of patience, and also of a little bit of decorum and tact. To see someone who would just as soon get in a fistfight as a young boy, because he was as rough-and-tumble as anybody else, develop into the greatest leader of coalition warfare in our nation’s history, is a pretty remarkable thing. The evolution is what separates him from someone like Patton, who was an incredible leader in his own right. Eisenhower began to develop that ability to lead by more of a consensus than by a strong arm – although he was able to do that when needed – and he made many difficult decisions in his career. He was a consensus builder among Allied commanders when that’s what it took for that coalition to stay together.
“I think Bradley was more of a soft-spoken, more willful person to begin with. He kept his head down and he worked hard, but he never lost touch with the common soldier, and that’s one of the things that he was so well known for – his concern for the individual soldier.”
Haskew’s book brilliantly walks a journalistic tightrope, telling the story of these two giants without selling everyone else short. No easy task, considering the accomplishments and character of the men involved.
“I think their very difficult upbringings, and the challenges that they faced, Bradley in particular, began that process of forging greatness, and then West Point refined it,” Haskew says. “I think both men developed and even temperament at West Point that served each of them well. The fact of the matter is, when you’re in a situation like they were in many times, you really don’t get a do over. You’ve got to do the best you can do at the time that the situation presents itself. I think West Point played a big part in their preparation to lead in some very difficult circumstances.
“The remarkable thing about Eisenhower, that I think towers above everything else, is that he never put himself or his career above the mission at hand. He was disappointed that he didn’t go overseas in World War I, but when the time came, he was willing to step up and take on the responsibility. He wrote that stirring note that he didn’t have to read to the media on the eve of D-Day, taking full responsibility in the event of a failure. I think there’s a sharp contrast between that quality in Eisenhower, and someone like Mark Clark, which I learned about when researching for this book. Clark served as deputy theatre commander in North Africa during World War II, and after the defeat at Kasserine, when Eisenhower asked Clark to take second corps, he viewed it as a demotion and refused. In that moment, Clark put himself above the mission. Eisenhower would have never done that. And when Clark had the opportunity to cut off all of the Germans in southern Italy, or turn left and take Rome, we all know what Clark did – Clark took Rome, and thousands of Germans escaped to the north and continued to fight.”
Another fascinating element to Haskew’s book is the way it sheds light on how these friendships played a part in shaping both military careers and American history.
“Eisenhower and Clark were friends until the end,” Haskew says, “and if it hadn’t been for Clark, Eisenhower might not have ever come to George Marshall’s attention the way that he did. When Marshall asked Clark – who was a rising star and two years behind Eisenhower at the academy – for ten names to head up the World War II war plans, Clark said, ‘I will give you Ike Eisenhower and nine sets of ditto marks.’ So, if it hadn’t been for Clark, Eisenhower may not have risen the way that he did. And the respect between the two men was mutual; when Eisenhower went to England on a fact-finding mission – to see how the infrastructure buildup was going for the impending D-Day invasion, Marshall instructed Eisenhower to take someone with him. When Marshall asked for a name, Eisenhower said one word: Clark.”
Marshall, of course, was a towering American statesman and soldier, famous for his leadership roles during World War II and the Cold War. He would serve as Chief of Staff of the United States Army under two presidents, and also served as Secretary of State. His ability to mentor, coach, and grow subordinates is legendary. Even as he ascended to the most senior positions of leadership, his ability to bring out the best in those he led and to influence those around him remains nonpareil. Communications with senior commanders require tact, diplomacy, and the ability to convey clear meaning, and Marshall’s personal relationship with then-General Eisenhower was particularly telling in this regard. Having served together before World War II, they maintained a close relationship throughout the conflict. Marshall never interceded in trying to influence Eisenhower to take a particular line of action, but instead communicated on a daily basis during the war and only offered food for thought in the decision-making process. The final decision was Eisenhower’s to make, and Marshall backed it. It was a lesson Eisenhower learned well, and one that shaped his relationship with Mark Clark.
“When Eisenhower and Clark reach North Africa, there’s a diversion in the way the two men see the world,” Haskew says. “I think that Eisenhower clearly presents a distinction, in that he does not put himself above the mission. He always considered himself nothing more than a part of the process. I don’t think the same can be said for Mark Clark. Or for someone like General Douglas McArthur, who had a towering ego – in fact, Eisenhower was fond of saying that he studied dramatics under McArthur for twelve years [laughs].”
Despite the failings of Clark, the two remained lifelong friends.
“In his last days, Eisenhower had a frequent visitor in Mark Clark. After Eisenhower had passed away, Clark said that, whenever the two men were together, Eisenhower always wanted to talk about their time at West Point. I wonder why he didn’t want to talk about North Africa, or Italy? Because that’s where Clark let him down. Eisenhower wanted to focus on the good times, when the two men became friends at the Academy, because those were the great days.”
In West Point 1915, we learn that Bradley’s inauspicious start differed from Eisenhower’s in that he was a long-shot ‘Augustine’ – a cadet who enters in August and who misses the hell of June at Beast Barracks – because of a special late congressional appointment. It’s an unexpected element of the book that shines.
“The Augustines were the latecomers,” Haskew says, “and Bradley was among that group. There was a certain stigma attached to it, because those who have came to West Point in June experienced Beast Barracks and were part of what fraternity initiates call ‘Hell Week’. There was great deal of importance associated with being part of Hell Week – which actually lasted longer than one week – because it was thought that the process helped to prepare cadets for what they were about to become. If you came to West Point with a big head – maybe you were the top guy in your class, or the best athlete in your town – you were going to quickly learn that you were among the best students and athletes from other towns. You’re going to be among guys who were used to being successful in whatever their endeavors were up to that point.
“In order to empty the vessel, so to speak, some people who had been through Hell Week felt that there was value in the hazing process. It’s like this; in order to put up a new drywall, you’ve got to strip and tear down everything right down to the studs. So, in a way, that’s what the process of Hell Week was all about. If you could withstand Beast Barracks, you’re going strip away any over-inflated ego. You’re going to find yourself. You’re going to learn what your weaknesses are – which may not be that readily apparent to you when enter West Point. You’re also going to be more malleable when it comes to acclimating to Academy life, and more receptive to understanding what it means to be a part of something greater than yourself.
“There was a methodology or a mindset that we might not necessarily support today, but back then that was a big part of cadet life. So, if you came in August, there was always that stigma that followed you that you hadn’t gone through that process, and that you might not be necessarily ‘worthy’, or as much a part of the brotherhood of the corps because you had not had that experience, because it was not a shared experience for that group that had come in August. Bradley made no bones about it. He felt like part of the reason why he didn’t have as successful a cadet career has he had hoped, was because he was in Augustine. He understood how the system worked, and he knew that it was a blemish that would stay with him for awhile. Obviously, he overcame that, but certainly there were some differences, and those that came through Beast Barracks looked down on the Augustines during most of the time that they were there.”
In addition to Eisenhower and Bradley, the Class of 1915 produced another pair of heavy hitters: Four-star generals Joseph T. McNarney, who later commanded US Forces in Europe (1945–1947), and James Van Fleet, the commander of US 8th Army during the Korean War from 1951 to 1953. Haskew spends plenty of time on both.
“McNarney was the guy who reorganized the War Department for Marshall. He streamlined it to the extent that Marshall was able to execute what he needed to execute during World War II. McNarney was a tough guy and a hatchet man, and perfect for the job that needed to be done. As I was researching him, the folks at the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington, Virginia, helped me tremendously. I also found a transcript of the notes that Forrest C. Pogue, the Marshall biographer, had composed during an interview with McNarney for his multi-volume Marshall biography. In it, McNarney talked about his clandestine flight out of Portugal, in the last Pan American clipper plane to the United States before the government interned all of the diplomats from the warring nations, holding them there in Portugal. There were also notes on how McNarney went before the Roberts Commission, which was created to investigate the Pearl Harbor attack. In my opinion, McNarney may have saved Marshall’s reputation by being Marshall’s representative on the Roberts Commission, because Marshall had a lot at stake in the wake of Pearl Harbor. There was plenty of criticism and a lot of questions after the attack…like, how well did Marshall and McNarney communicate with Walter Short and Husband E. Kimmel, the Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii? How much information did they withhold from them? Was Marshall largely responsible for lack of preparedness around the surprise attack on December 7, 1941? McNarney was Marshall’s man on the Roberts Commission, and I think he protected Marshall and had his back, so to speak. And without that, I think there may have been a change at the highest level. Marshall went on to achieve great things, not only militarily, but diplomatically. He became Secretary of State, and was the architect of the Marshall Plan, which was the initiative to aid the rebuilding of Western Europe after the end of World War II.”
It’s refreshing to hear the passion in Haskew’s voice as he talks about the labor pains that come with researching a book of this magnitude. His enthusiasm is apparent in his writing, which injects adrenaline into the stories that he’s uncovered while researching West Point’s star class. Which begs the question: Does he have any favorites?
“I like them all,” he offers quickly, “but there was one that struck me as particularly poignant. In Bradley’s book, A General’s Life, he talks about when he and Mary, his first wife, got married and took a honeymoon trip out to the West Coast. They were on their way to the Los Angeles area to visit some of her relatives, when, along the way, they decided to stop and visit one of Bradley’s classmates. The classmate was Jo Hunt Reaney, who was stationed in Texas at the time. Reaney showed them a good time; they went to a ballgame on the post there, had a nice lunch, and Reaney gave the newlyweds an authentic, handcrafted Navajo rug, which Mary thought was beautiful.
“Well, that got me to thinking – ‘What happened to Jo Reaney? So I started digging, and I learned that Jo Reaney served in France during World War I and was killed in action. One of his fellow company commanders later writes a letter to Reaney’s mother, and in it recounts how he was blown into a shallow hole, and how he took off his heavy coat and covered the body of the soldier that was in the shallow hole with him – which, it turned out, was Jo Hunt Reaney. Reaney was 26 years old when he died. He never made general like a lot of the others in his class, and he wasn’t famous like Louis Merrilat, but that kind of story just resonates across time.
“Pulsifer is another interesting and tragic story – and not only because of the part he played in Eisenhower being selected to West Point. Pulsifer went into the aviation section of the US Army Signal Corps, flying for the troops on the Mexican Border, before being sent overseas where a freak accident cost him his military career. He flew many missions over Germany, but, after returning to his base from one of these flights, was shot by an American sentry posted at a crossroad from the air field to the chateau that housed the flyers. When Pulsifer flew out on his last mission, a sentry wasn’t stationed there. In the dark, George, along with other pilots who rode in the car, passed up the sentry without stopping, and the sentry fired and hit George as he slept in the car. The bullet lodged in his liver after hitting his spine, paralyzing him below the waist.”
West Point 1915 also has its fair share of drama and intrigue, as is the case with demoted major general Henry J.F. Miller.
“Miller was one of the best mechanics in the U.S. Army air forces,” Haskew says. “He was at a dinner party at London’s famed Claridge Hotel. Cocktails were flowing. All those present, including three or four women, were in uniform. Miller was talking about the tough time he was having to get certain crucial supplies, when someone said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be okay.’ And Miller said something to the effect that it wasn’t going to be in time for the D-Day invasion, because the invasion was going to happen before June 15.
“Two weeks after the landings, Time magazine published an account of what happened. Miller denied it but the damage was done. His close relationship with Eisenhower disintegrated, thousands of lives were put at risk, and all because Miller had a couple of drinks under his belt and had a slip of the tongue. That breach of national security was his undoing. Eisenhower, his own classmate at West Point, wrote a scathing letter to him, and he was demoted from the rank of major general. He ended up as lieutenant colonel and was shipped home in disgrace. Well, that got me to thinking about the rest of his story. I learned that, before he died, he was actually promoted back to the rank of brigadier general…he was no longer in the military, so this was a promotion on the retired list, which was only symbolic at that point.”
In West Point 1915, Haskew also uncovers stories that inspire.
“Louis Estevez was born of foreign parentage, and became the first appointee and first graduate from Puerto Rico. He tutored Eisenhower in Spanish, because all of the cadets were required to learn a second language and Eisenhower needed help learning it. The interesting part about Estevez’s story is that, at the time he was about ready to graduate, there was some question as to whether or not he was eligible for commission in the U.S. Army. When Estevez was ready to graduate, Puerto Rican nationals were not United States citizens, and therefore were technically not eligible for commissions in the U.S. Army. Someone actually researched to see if there had been any type of precedent established. Lo and behold, there had been a precedent set during the Revolutionary War period, when people like Baron von Steuben had actually received commissions in the Continental Army. So, there was a precedent set, and that’s how Estevez was able to obtain his commission.”
Haskew’s book is filled with rich narratives just like that, making it a must read not only for war buffs and history fiends alike, but also for anyone who wants a glimpse into one of the world’s most storied institutions, and the lives of the men that it has shaped.
“I’ve met a number West Point graduates, and I’ve gotten to see what an impact and influence the cadet experience has had on their lives. In every case, you immediately sense a presence that tells you that they are people of accomplishment. That doesn’t mean that they are bombastic or egotistical people whatsoever. What it means is that you just see that bearing, and I think a lot of that comes from their West Point experience and the character that it has undoubtedly built in them.”
“I’m on the outside looking in,” Haskew continues, “but, in my opinion, West Point is as good as it gets. It’s not perfect: Through the years, it has withstood difficult times and intense scrutiny, perhaps on a grander scale, than many other institutions, and it’s had its own fair share of scandals and misadventure. But very few institutions in the world carries the same prestige or commands the same respect as the United States Military Academy. I think West Point is a great molder and shaper of men and women today, and I think that those who aspire to military careers and take on the challenge of a West Point and succeed, are to be commended and looked up to as the best that our country has to offer. The tradition speaks for itself. The way it prepares young people to lead other people in life and death combat situations is second to none. It’s one thing to prepare for life in the business world, but it’s quite another to prepare for life on the battlefield. West Point is one of the few institutions in the world that shapes leaders for any situation – whether that is the boardroom, the battlefield, or the Oval Office.”