West Point’s graduating class of 1915 produced some of America’s greatest military leaders including Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. Author and historian Michael Haskew calls it “the class the stars fell on.” In today’s podcast I talk to Michael about his book West Point 1915 and the men who made up this class and what made them so special.
- What made the class of 1915 different from previous and subsequent West Point classes
- What day-to-day life was like for a West Point cadet in 1915
- What Eisenhower was like as a cadet at West Point (spoiler: he got lots of demerits for being a cut-up!)
- The encouraging letter James Van Fleet received from his father when he was about to quit West Point
- The leadership roles the members of the class of 1915 filled during WWII
- How these leaders’ experiences at West Point shaped them for service in the war
- What lessons we can take from the class of 1915 to become better men
- And much more!
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!
Brett: Today on the Podcast, we have Michael Haskew, he wrote a book called West Point 1915: Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell On. Michael and I discussed what was it about this class, the class of 1915 that allowed it to produced so many great military leaders in the same amount of time. It’s a really fascinating discussion and a fascinating book. Let’s do this. Michael Haskew welcome to the show.
Michael: Thank you very much. I’m pleased to be here.
Brett: Okay, so your book is about the graduating class of West Point in 1915. In the subtitle, you call it the class the stars fell on. What made this class different from previous and subsequent West Point classes?
Michael: Well, there are a couple of things that I think are really important about this class. Even prior to the fame that these guys achieved later on in their military careers, first of all, the class of 1915, at the time was the largest class in West Point history. West Point was already over 100 years old, it was founded in 1802. This class was significantly larger than any that had come in before. In the end, by the time they reached graduation in June of 1915, the number of graduating seniors in the class was 164. Of that 164, 59 actually in their career achieved a rank of brigadier general or higher. In the class through the years at West Point, there was about a little over 40 percent of attrition rate.
A number of people that started with the class, didn’t make it all the way through graduation. First of all, it was the largest in history and then afterward, these men and then the events that unfolded in years after they graduated, came together to really set this class apart due to the number of individuals who achieved brigadier general or higher in rank. There has never been a class before or since that’s done that.
Brett: It was … I think what was interesting, I guess the way they did enrollment change that year, right? Is that what happened, why it was so big?
Michael: A little bit, yeah, the congressman were allowed to make more than one appointment and it did change the number somewhat, that’s right.
Brett: Okay. What was West Point like in 1915, because it’s sort of an interesting time in military history because you’re making that transition from how we did warfare for over a hundred years to modern warfare, did West Point changed their curriculum, any to reflect modern warfare or they sort of stick to the same curriculum they did back in the 19th century?
Michael: Well about that time, the curriculum at West Point was heavily weighted toward engineering. West Point was known then and still is, it’s one of great engineering schools in the country. At the time, if you look at the curriculum, there were topics that are still can … that would considered kind of anachronistic. For example, Hippology, how do you take care of a horse. Cavalry tactics and those types of things and this was in an era where technology had advanced to the point where mechanization was becoming more and more of a standard over time. Of course, armies around the world still depended on the horse for transportation in a large part but the horse as a cavalry transportation vehicle was becoming outmoded.
It was certainly kind anachronistic at the time. The curriculum at West Point was in transition as well but in my opinion, based on what I’ve seen, it was a slower transition than you might expect, particularly by the summer of 1915 when a war had been raging in Europe for more than a year, or about a year let’s say. The curriculum was still heavily weighted toward Engineering, toward Mathematics but it carried that feel of an older, bygone era with it through the care of horses, the tactics that surrounded cavalry, some of the things that they did back to the civil wars, as far as the tactical use of military formation is concerned.
Brett: If I remember correctly, at that time, they built like this really giant stable or a place where they could ride horses around that.
Michael: They did, they did. West Point, right at the time these guys reported in 1911, was in the midst of a major building campaign. One of the things that they built was a riding hall, an immense riding hall that was used for cavalry practice, even some of the artillery units. The horse artillery would actually unlimber and deploy their guns in this venue, it was so huge. That building does still exist today on the campus there, it’s called Thayer Hall today. It’s been repurposed many times over of course but it has classrooms and such in it now. At the time that it was built, the intent was for it to be a … just a huge riding hall which is kind of amazing that they would invest those dollars for some … an equestrian pursuits at that time.
Brett: Okay. You talked about, there was lots and lots of leaders that came out of this class and through the famous ones were General Eisenhower and Bradley. Let’s talk about Eisenhower because that’s the one … he was president, he was the commander of the invasion at Normandy. What was his experience like at West Point? I mean, what kind of student was he? Did he play any sports? Just give us an overview of what his experience was as a cadet.
Michael: Sure, interestingly enough. Eisenhower was an excellent athlete and one of the things that he wanted to do was go to college via his athletic ability. He round up going to West Point to play football. This is after he and his brother had made a pact between the 2 of them that one would go to college and one would stay in Abilene and work in the local creamery and send money along as he could and help his brother get through school and then the second one would go. Eisenhower’s brother went on to the University of Michigan and he stayed behind and worked in the creamery and played football at the local high school and then found out that it was possible to get a free, quote, unquote education, funded by the US government, if you were willing to give time back after your years at West Point as an officer in the United States Army.
He pursued that with the intent of playing football primarily. Then, he found some challenges there because let’s face it, he was from really what was then kind of a rough and tumble part of the country. Abilene was a town that had been on the old Chisholm trail, back in the days of the old west. He had a little bit of an independence spirit. He goes to West Point and he can’t help himself, he’s got a great sense of humor, makes a lot of friends but he also engages in some activities of getting into a little of trouble. Smoking, loves to play cards, loves to sneak out at night and go to a little town, maybe 15 miles or so, at the Hudson River Valley and get coffee and sandwiches and sneak back in.
He enjoys just having a little bit of an edge about his educational experience there. There are a couple of things that really stand out, one of which he was ordered with a classmate to report to a junior corporal’s quarters for some infraction in full dress and tails. Of course the guy didn’t say anything about wearing pants. He and his cohort showed up with their nice long tailed coat but no pants. It was a comical situation for the guy’s roommate but the corporal that ordered the men, he didn’t think it was funny at all. Just a little indication of the sense of humor that he have.
When he got to West Point, he did play football and became one of the best backs, running backs really in the country at the time but he did suffer an unfortunate injury in a game against Tufts and had a knee injury that nearly, not only costing his football career but nearly costing his career in the army. After the knee injury, he was not able to play football anymore but he stayed close to the athletic programs and actually coached some with the junior varsity there and with the cheerleader.
Brett: What was his final rank, class rank when he …
Michael: He was 61st in the class which out of 164, put him slightly above the middle of the pact maybe. He really amass quite an impressive number of demerits during his 10 year at West Point. He did display obviously an intellect that had he been more interested and more diligent in pursuing some of his academics, would have put him higher in standing in the class. As it was, he finished 61st in the class. I still believe though, based on some of the things that we see in his West Point career that there were instructors, there were other people, there were classmate who recognized in him that there was a spark of leadership, there was something about him that maybe set him apart just a little bit from some of the other cadets there at West Point. That led to his ability to advance in his post West Point military career.
Brett: Yeah, I can see, you have to have a little bit of edge to be a successful leader, to be able to take a little risk every now and then.
Michael: Well, you do have to think that the return is commenced with what the risk that you’re willing to take. When you look at risk versus return, that’s absolutely correct. He was willing to take a little bit of risk. He was willing to step out a little bit and in return for that, his abilities were recognized probably more rapidly and more readily than others in his peer group at the time.
Brett: Yeah. One of the stories I love that you highlight in Eisenhower’s experience at West Point was, because there was a tradition where the upper class men would sort of haze the younger … the newer cadets. One of the things was if you ran into them, you’re supposed to ask the newer cadet what was his … what was the … like your previous post and …
Michael: Previous form of servitude or condition of serve … something like that.
Brett: Yeah, it was sort of derogatory, right? Sort of …
Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Brett: Tell us what happened to Eisenhower where he decided he was going to stop doing that.
Michael: Well, he was out on campus one day and a young cadet who was an under class men, ran into him and kind of knocked him over and Eisenhower kind of got … was gruff and abrupt and started to dress this young cadet down and he … “What was your previous condition of servitude?” He said, “You look like a barber.” The young man said, “I was a barber, sir.” When he got back to his room, he told his room mate, P.A. Hodgson that he had just belittled a man based on what he did for a living and really kind of who he was and what was his identity was prior to coming to West Point.
I think it resonated with Eisenhower because there is someone that had asked him the question, well, I’m from a lower to middle class family in Abilene and I worked in a creamery. At that point, Eisenhower said, “I vowed never again to display that kind of attitude and to treat other people that way.” That was a great life lesson for him and I think it carried through in his feelings and his interactions with others throughout his military and then his political career and really defined him as one of those things that made him an effective leader.
Brett: Yeah, he had a fantastic people skills.
Michael: He really did and a broad grin that was just unforgettable.
Brett: Yeah. These young cadets graduated at the time World War 1 was going on but Eisenhower and Bradley, famously missed out on this war. What was their response to that?
Michael: Well, at the time that World War 1 was being prosecuted overseas and some of their classmates had gone on to actually be involved in combat, and we see some declarations for bravery, both Eisenhower and Bradley remained stateside. Bradley was in Butte, Montana, essentially leading guard duty over some copper mines. Eisenhower had various post as an instruction and that was one of the things that kept Eisenhower here in the United States, was the fact that he was a very good instructor and they put him to use in that regard. Both of these guys were bitterly disappointed, there is no question about that.
They believe that the fact that they had not been in combat or at least been in France during World War 1 was extremely detrimental to their careers. At one time, Bradley kind of bemoaned his whole situation and thought, “Well, maybe, maybe, I’ll be able to retire after 20 years in the army and hopefully reach the rank of lieutenant colonel.” That was about all he felt like he might be able to do. Eisenhower was disappointed. They both felt like they had been kind of relegated to the back waters of the military and that their careers are going to take a back seat to … actually those who had been in combat and been in Europe.
One of the things that’s really interesting about that though is as they continue their military education, at the infantry school at the Command and General Staff College and those types of things, Bradley made a really interesting point, some of the guys that had been over in Europe had been exposed to tactics and strategy that were archaic, that in the next war would not be applicable and in fact, if they continue to scribe to those, would be a real handicap as far as being able to prosecute another war successfully. When Bradley got into the classroom, he hadn’t absorbed any of that because he hadn’t been in Europe. He had fresh ideas and a fresh perspective on the future which in … kind of an ironic twist, actually helped him.
Brett: Interesting. Were there any graduates of the class that served in World War 1 that showed some distinction?
Michael: Absolutely. Louis Merillat, who was the foremost all American football player on the team at the time of graduation and had the … really, probably one of the most outstanding reputations, just for notoriety, went to France in World War 1 and mysteriously wounded actually did recover and received declarations for that. Charles Ryder, who commanded the 34th division in the Mediterranean in the North Afghan and Italian campaigns, received a distinguished service cross in France, James Van Fleet was a decorated and wounded veteran of combat in World War 1, when he came home. There were number of people that were involved in the campaign and in World War 1, Joseph McNarney was in the air corps.
Several of these guys had some intense combat experiences during World War 1. Others, sad to say were victims of 1918 flu epidemic and actually died either en route to France or in France of influenza. To answer your question, yes, there were several that were involved in the fighting in France and that actually were distinguished in their service.
Brett: You mentioned James Van Fleet. He was … He actually served in several wars, not just in World War 1. I thought that was really … I think he’s at 5 different battles or conflicts.
Michael: Well, think about the span of time that was involved there. The Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916, World War 1, World War 2, Korea and then the Vietnam there. By that time, he was basically retired but he did do some studies on the combat efficiency of special forces in Southeast Asia. James Van Fleet, if you look at the longevity of his career and ending it as a 4 star general is pretty remarkable. He’s a great example of perseverance and really the will to win, kind of was his mantra. He endured some setbacks in his career, that most people I would say would have a great amount of difficulty overcoming. First of all, as he was continuing his educational experience in the classroom, he had always been somewhat challenged.
We all know people like that who are excellent thinkers, great conceptualist and able to do … concede and execute a plan, that maybe when they sit in the classroom and someone puts a test in front of them, that’s not their shining moment. Van Fleet was kind of one of those people. He completed one of the courses there for young officers and was … his file basically said, he really is not suited for further education in the US Army. He kind of had that strike against him early in his career. Then, for whatever reason, and there is still some mystery shrouded around this, but for whatever reason, there was a story that circulated that George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff had him confused with another officer but believed that James Van Fleet had a serious drinking problem.
When he would come up for promotion, that would be held against him erroneously and so to that end, he was actually a regimental commander in the 4th Infantry Division on D-Day and had not achieved a rank beyond colonel when several of his classmates, obviously by that time were wearing not 1, not 2 but 3 and 4 star. There is a lesson there that once that discrepancy was cleared up according to all the information that we see, his advancement was rapid. He went from regimental to division to corps commander and then at the end of his career, it was a 4 star general and commanded the 8th Army, US 8th Army Forces in Korea. Interestingly enough, he never really acknowledge or said a lot about that misconception that may have existed with Marshall.
Another kind of interesting twist of that is, that Bradley, Joe Collins, who was the 7th Corps Commander and Eisenhower to an extent, each of them, seem to want to take at least a little bit and maybe more than little bit credit for straightening Marshall out as to who exactly Van Fleet was, that he had the wrong guy. I have to mention one thing too, that you may want to go back and take a look at in the book but Van Fleet was struggling at West Point. He was having a tough time and his father wrote a very inspirational letter to him to persevere, encouraging his son during some really, really difficult times to stay the course, to work hard and that good things would happen.
I think that that was a really defining moment in Van Fleet’s career or he may not have finished West Point at all. Then later in life, as a 4 star general, he stood in front of a group of cadets and he said to them, “I stand here before you today, not suited for further education in the United States Army.”
Brett: Yeah, I remember that letter and I remember reading it, and you inspired me. I was like …
Michael: Fantastic. I think we need coffee mugs that have that emblazoned on them, do you ever have a bad day when you hit the door at the office. Pick that coffee mug up, take a look at it and say, get tough.
Brett: Get tough, don’t feel sorry for yourself.
Brett: All right. A lot of these men ended up in high leadership positions during World War 2, generals and commanders and colonels. How do you think their experience at West Point shaped them in their leadership in World War 2?
Michael: I think there are a couple of different things here to take a look at. First, you have the external influence of West Point. These guys got off the train, they walked up the dusty hill to deploying there at West Point and their lives changed. Everything that they brought with them was essentially taken away and packed up. All their … Even their money, these cadets were not allowed to keep currency on their purses. They went to the barber, they were given new clothing. They were assigned a room. They were told where to be and when to be there, what to do.
Really they went from an … from being pretty much free people, left to their own devices to a very regimented social framework and military framework there at West Point. What they began to find was just that they were inculcated into that military way of life and it dictated to them several things. One was duty, honor, country, the motto of West Point. How to work together. How to achieve goals, how to take orders, how to understand what a chain of command is, how to deal with adversity that’s forced upon you externally. Then, look at the internal side of it. There is a battle within each one of us when we enter a challenging environment like that.
We get to make a decision as to whether we want to stay in play or pack it up and go home. Each of these guys battle that in one way or another. It was more difficult for some than it was for others, some just rebelled in it, just thrive in that regimented environment. Others had to take a step back maybe and look at this thing and say, “This is physically demanding. This is mentally demanding and stressful. The academic load is tremendous and I don’t get to go home for 2 years.” You got the internal and the external forces that play there and those who were able to get through 4 years of West Point, had achieved more than just getting a college education.
They had been inculcated into a way of life and that experience helped them to understand how to show their leadership skills, how to demonstrate a capability to solve a problem and then also to work together and build a team to get a job done. West Point obviously was instrumental in their lives through the way they looked at the world. Discipline, again, honor, duty and country and seeing an objective being assigned an objective or assigning others to an objective and then achieving that objective.
Brett: Do you think they developed a camaraderie with each other that would be beneficial later in World War 2, like they understood, how each other ticked and so they’re able to get along better.
Michael: I think that there is no question that they did and when you consider the span of time between 1915 to 1940, you’re looking at 25 years. These career army officers by that time have known one another for about 30 years. Eisenhower was born in 1890 so in 1940, he was 50 years old. These guys were approaching the mid to latter mid-term in their careers. Some of them did left the army and been called back to service during World War 2 but the core group that remained officers in the US Army knew one another pretty darn well. They had that common bond of having been at West Point in the class of 1915 and beyond that, those in the classes that surrounded them, the ones that were immediately pursuing and immediately following the class of 1915, all of them knew one another pretty well.
Interestingly enough, they play such a great emphasis on athletics and on the team building that goes on in athletics that that had an influence on the choices that Eisenhower and Bradley both made in assigning Corps Commanders, Division Commanders and other officers who took on certain areas of responsibilities because they said, “Hey, that guy played football at West Point.” That says something about them or I played baseball with that guy. We competed together and both of them made statements later in their lives about how important it was to, have been an athlete. How important it was to play football at West Point and that that made a difference in military careers of a lot of these guys.
Brett: Interesting. After World War 2, what are the graduates … what are these graduates do with their lives. I mean, we know Eisenhower went on to be a … the president of Columbia, correct?
Michael: He did, right after the war, he became the president of Columbia University …
Brett: Then, became the President of the US.
Michael: That’s right, became a 2 term president of the United States. Bradley became the chairman of the Bulova Watch Company. Both of them of course, after the war were instrumental in the formation of NATO, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, those types of thing, they held some very … position of great responsibility during the early days of the Cold War. Several of these guys went on … Well, Joseph McNarney went on to Consolidated Vultee. He was an executive with a defense contractor. Van Fleet kind of retired quietly after the Korean War and lived on a farm in Florida and worked off and on for the government in various projects and such.
These guys were successful in business and in industry after the war and in government in large part due to their discipline and due to their military background and bearing and what they had learned at West Point. Several of these guys went on to make some pretty significant contributions in the post war world. Many of them once they reached their retirement age in the military, retired quietly to their farms or their homes. One who is very interesting is Hubert Harmon who actually was instrumental in the founding and the building of the United States Air Force Academy. Harmon, actually a few decades later was named the father of the Air Force Academy and so it’s been a great deal of his time, in the twilight of his career, devoted to that endeavor.
Brett: Do they stay in touch with each other after … in the twilight years of their life?
Michael: You know, it’s really remarkable. West Point is big on that camaraderie that’s developed, while you’re there and then consistently in bringing classes back for reunions or having reunions or having associations in other cities. Interestingly enough, these guys consistently were able to have reunions to stay in touch with one another, to know one another’s families. Even to the extent that Bradley’s daughter married Hal Beukema’s son, another one of their classmates, so son and daughter of classmates married. Yeah, they stayed in touch with one another. They knew one another well and you can see when you do …having done the research, that they had an active newsletter that circulated among them.
They consistently reported back to the association of graduates so that there was information exchange and it’s funny all the way through it, the secretary who ever it was at the time would always say, you guys got to get me your new addresses, you guys got to get me a letter and tell me something, that’s going on in your lives so that we could put it in the newsletter, just like we would today. It was certainly a situation where they stayed in touched, they felt that camaraderie and that common bond and it lasted throughout their lives.
Brett: We’ve discussed a few lessons that we can take from the graduates of 1915 but are there any big other lessons you think that make and take from West Point 1915 on how to be a better man?
Michael: I think so. I think if we consider the circumstances that these men found themselves in, they certainly were given a great opportunity being accepted at West Point. In order to even be accepted, they had to pass a couple of rigorous test. They had to have an appointment from the congressman or member of government and they had to be physically fit. They had to set some goals and achieve those goals early in life even to get to West Point. Once they were there, they had to work hard and persevere to get to the graduation day. Once they graduated, they were presented with a world that was in turmoil. You can argue that events shape men into what they will become but men have to have something that is shapeable.
I think in both cases, these folks use the assets that were available to them to the best of their ability to achieve what they achieve and so there are a couple of lessons there. One is perseverance, the other is take what you got, identify what your skillset is or what your best attributes are and leverage those to the maximum to achieve all that you can achieve within that sphere. I think you also … All the way through that, you have a common thread of integrity, a common thread of duty and loyalty. Those things sound outmoded sometimes or a little bit corny but when you get right down to it, those are the traits that are most admirable in men.
They are also the traits that are lasting in men and most of the traits that adult men try to convey to younger men. I think in this way, when we look at the class of 1915 individually and collectively, they demonstrate some of the very best timeless traditional traits that men want to emulate.
Brett: Fantastic. Well, Michael, where can people find out more about your work?
Michael: You could find out more about my work in a couple of different ways. There are a number of books available through various sources, Zenith Press certainly has West Point 1915. I do have another book coming out on the civil war, March 1st, it will be available and it’s called Appomattox: The Last Days of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. That will be available through Zenith Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, various outlets there will certainly have books that I’ve written in the past available. I’m also the editor of WW2 History Magazine, which has a circulation about 75,000 and has been around for a number of years.
We publish some excellent stories related to World War 2, around the globe and it’s a great little publication and we’re out there and appreciate anyone taking a minute to kind of take a look at what we’re all about.
Brett: Fantastic. Well, Michael Haskew, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Michael: Thank you Brett. I really appreciate you taking the time and having an interest in the book.
Brett: Our guest today was Michael Haskew. He’s the author of the book, West Point 1915: Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class Stars Fell On. You can find that book on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com and if you listen to this Podcast in iTunes or Stitcher or whatever, I’d really appreciate if you’d give us a review or a rating, that would help other people find out this show. I don’t care what you give us, just give us your honest review. I’d really appreciate that. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com and I’d really appreciate if you also check out store.artofmanliness.com, where you can find art of manliness products. Again, we just launched a journal inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s virtue journal that he developed himself as a young man. It’s a way you can track your progress in becoming a better more virtuous man. It’s pretty cool so go check it out, you can’t find it anywhere else, at store.artofmanliness.com. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.