Cadet Staff Sergeant Peter Reilly to Cadet Corporal Thomas Burns sometime in 1969. Famous last words.
Most young men - mercifully, they fail to realize it - reach, in the sixth form of a big school, the acme of such power and glory as their lives will provide.
James Gould Cozzens
Another Literary Diversion
As I noted in the last installment attending Xavier High School was not like going to one of the prep schools commonly portrayed in literature about teenagers A Separate Peace and Catcher In The Rye for example Still, even working class Catholic kids can identify with the adolescent angst of the Waspocracy. Adolescent angst is adolescent angst.
And the best chronicler of that group is not that well known nowadays. Immensely popular in the late fifties, James Gould Cozzens fell out of favor, a long complicated story. Among the reasons for his unpopularity was a sense that he was prejudiced against Catholics, Jews and blacks. It was rather unfair. In reality, he had a low opinion of people in general including his own tribe of High Church Episcopilians who flirted with Catholicism, but had no use for the manner it was practiced by the immigrant hordes.
Regardless, his best portrayal of prep school adolescent angst is in a collection of short stories published in the early sixties called Children and Others. His viewpoint characters are always not quite at the center of things and new to the school will be impressed by the Sixth Form prefects who carry sticks as a badge of office. The Cozzens protagonists will never be prefects themselves and pretend that it does not bother them, but it does
Prep School Prefects With Sabers
And the cadet officers were a bit like that to Freshmen. Remote God like figures going through mysterious motions at drill as we stood in the ranks next to Seniors who belonged to the privates club and mocked the pretentiousness of their contemporaries. To graduate from Xavier as a private was an accomplishment. In order to go four years not qualifying for promotion even once without getting thrown out required that you walk a fine line.
Cadet officers would come into our homeroom once a week to inspect us. Failure meant attending re-inspection. Failure there meant the God awful prospect of Saturday Jug - not staying after school, but having to come in on Saturday in uniform. And the cadet officers and senior ncos ran jug. We did not otherwise see much of them since the school facility could only accommodate two class years on recess or lunch at the time - Freshmen with Juniors and Seniors with Sophomores. So the MPs who served as hall monitors and patrolled the lunch room were juniors corporals at most at the beginning of the year and none higher than staff sergeant - even the mysterious Junior Provost Marshalls in the Prefect of Discipline's Office.
As part of the school blue uniform besides the web belt with a shiny buckle that held up our pants and was covered by the uniform jacket we wore a "garrison belt" outside the jacket. It was the same sort of wide black belt fifties juvenile delinquents wore on their jeans and would use at as a weapon until they graduated to switch blades and zip guns. It caused the jacket to flare a bit over the waist making the uniform look rather ridculous on fat kids. Over the bill of the hat there was a black chin strap (never used as such).
Cadet officers had a gold trim on that hat in lieu of the chin strap and rather than the garrison belt they wore a Sam Browne
They even wore the Sam Browne with the summer uniform. And at reviews and parades a saber hung from the belt. It made quite an impression on a fourteen year old lad.
Where We Left Off
I deviated a bit from a linear narrative, in the last installment of this series collapsing two years worth of Military Science into a brief discussion in order to give a full appreciation for the Sergeants, the most colorful members of the Xavier High School faculty and also in general above average teachers.
I left off the linear part at the first half of Sophomore year - 1967 noting that was the first year that over 10,000 Americans would die in Vietnam including a Xavier graduate who would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor during the Carter Administration once his conduct in captivity was documented.
1968 was an even more momentous year. 16,899 Americans would die in Vietnam in 1968 including Major Alonzo Toal who had just completed a tour as Senior Army Instructor at Xavier High School. Our new SAI, Captain Smullen, had just completed a tour in Vietnam as an adviser which would provide some grist for the lectures that Major Smullen gave us in Military Science class as Seniors.
For perspective the 16,899 is more than the total American war deaths in the last 15 years including the civilians who died in the 9/11 attacks. On the other hand, it is dwarfed by the 52,725 traffic fatalities in 1968.
A Break In The Narrative
I find it necessary here to totally break with the linear narrative and pretty much ignore the surrounding circumstances as I explore the peculiar phenomenon of cadet rank. My interest in this odd topic was revived last year when I reconnected with Jerry Snee, Class of 1971, who was a year behind me at both Xavier and Holy Cross. Jerry's class was the last Xavier class to have four years of mandatory military participation.
The Boy Who Would Be Colonel - Or Not
As I indifferent to military advancement found a way to be part of the Regiment without having to march, Jerry Snee a freshman formed a different vision. At the assembly at which the officers in the class of 1968 were announced, Jerry looked up at Lou Saco, our new colonel, and resolved that that would be him in three years. He dedicated the next three years to the project of becoming cadet colonel of the Class of 1971.
Jerry's dedication may have been unique, but a large number of cadets, regardless of their feelings and thoughts on the military and war, cared about their rank and had opinions on whether others deserved the ranks and positions they ended up with.
What got me about Jerry's quest was that I realized I did not have a clue as to how one would have gone about seeking high rank in the regiment and and what it was that got you there.
The Structure Of The Regiment
It was quite appropriate that the student body made up a regiment, as at just shy of 1,000 it was about the size of full strength Civil War Regiment. The Army had abandoned the regiment as an organizational level after WWII, although designations were retained for purposes of heritage.
There were two regular battalions with lettered companies and beginning sometime during our term at Xavier the special units were grouped into a third battalion. I think the regular battalion and regiment table of organizations were somewhat similar to the real Army at some point in time
Three or four squads of 10 with squad leaders and assistant squad leaders, who would be juniors, I think, would make up a platoon with a second or first lieutenant platoon leader and a platoon sergeant - both seniors as would be anybody higher up. Three or four platoons made up a company with a company commander first lieutenant to go to captain, an executive officer second lieutenant to got to first and a first sergeant - master sergeant to go to first sergeant (which counted as a rank in the Xavier regiment).
Four companies made up a battalion with a commander (major to lieutenant colonel), executive officer (captain to major) and four staff officers S-1, S-2, etc who have NCO assistants and Sergeant Major. Frankly I'm a little hazy on the battalion and regimental staff officer ranks.
The third battalion was more officer heavy than its numbers called for. The band had several officers. The reason for this I believe is that they did not want kids who were good at playing their instruments to have to leave the band or forgo being officers. The tiny color guard had an officer. I think the X-Squad, which also had a Junior X-Squad had three officers.
The Regimental Supply Corps in one sense did not share in this surfeit of officers as the Supply Corps Commander was the Regimental S-4. There was also Supply Corps Executive Officer, which made about the right number for a unit that was about platoon size. But! The three battalion S-4s, who had no apparent duties were drawn from Supply Corps members. So, as it happens, my desire to avoid marching that had put me a rag tag group modeled on McHale's Navy had actually given me pretty good odds of becoming a cadet officer as a senior, particularly since other officer slots were not, as far as I knew, foreclosed to Supply Corps members.
The peak of the Regiment was of course the Colonel, the Commander of the Regiment followed by the Executive Officer, initially the only lieutenant colonel. Battalion commanders and the Provost Marshall had to wait for the round of promotions to achieve lieutenant colonel. Battalion and Regimental command and staff wore a red special unit cord on their left shoulders.
The inner corps which I would define as regimental command and staff and battalion command, but not staff, was less than 10% of the class. Besides the colonel, there was the Regimental Executive Officer, three battallion commanders and their XOs, four regimental staff officer (S-1, S-2, S-3 and S-4) and the Provost Marshall. Maybe you could call it the Colonel and his 12 apostles, although that is something I just thought of.
After the December promotions which brought many of us to the rank suited for our position the most common rank for a senior was first lieutenant. 85 of the 225 in the class were officers and another 52 had high NCO rank. As I remarked above, though, I have a special appreciation for the 17 privates and 28 PFCs, who may well have been the more sensible members of the class.
How You Got Rank
There were routine promotions for Sophomores and Juniors, that seemed to not have much relation to military merit. If you got good grades and did not get in trouble you would get promoted twice as a sophomore and twice as a junior bringing you to staff sergeant. There was a wave of rank inflation that hit when my class was juniors allowing freshmen to get PFC, sophomores sergeant and juniors Sergeant First Class.
The connection with grades was pretty obvious. I had a couple of reference groups. Probably the most important was the sort of Unclique that had been formed by myself, Tom Burns, Mike Oleske and John Sabini. The other was a sub-group of my homeroom 3-F (We were still classics honors taking Greek, Latin and a modern language. I think F became G through student attrition). There were five of us. The other four were Mike, Victor Donovan, Lenny Langelotti and Bill Orchard. Besides 3-F we were in AP Latin and AP English and were only split up for modern languages. Victor and I took German. Victor and I also became very close friends although he was not really part of the Unclique. I think there were 17 of us from my class that would go to Holy Cross, but Victor was the only one that I hung with there including taking several classes together.
So the 3-F gang of five were all good students and accordingly we finished junior year as Sergeants First Class except for Lenny who somehow missed a promotion along the way. A couple of times I sold him my rank insignia at half price to help finance my new acquisition when we both moved up a notch.
Tom Burns on the other hand, who attributes his problems with grades to his high LQ (laziness quotient) seemed to be perennially stuck at corporal. Tom and Mike and I used to continually insult one another and had an undue taste for puns. We used to gather on the "stairs" around the balcony above the "Old Gym". The "stairs" were kind of built in concrete benches of a sort. I had a miniature magnetic chess set that we would play on and we would have intense conversations.
I cannot remember the exact context of my "You will never outrank me, Tom" statement but there were several witnesses. Though I might plead otherwise, there may have been a tinge of arrogance about it. Here though is my case.
Tom's military ambition was to be First Sergeant of the Band. I on the other hand had reasonable hopes of being an officer since officer selection seemed to follow similar principles to the regular promotions. My unit, the Regimental Supply Corps had five officer slots associated with it. The Regimental S-4, commander of the Supply Corps, the XO of the Supply Corps and three battalion S-4s, who had no discernible duties beyond wearing a red cord and being near the front of the battalion at parades and reviews. And other officer slots were not out of the question. Failing all that, there was First Sergeant of the Supply Corps. So my ultimate fallback position was the height of Tom's ambition making it certain that he would not outrank me. Or so I thought.
I just recently talked to Tom about all this and he explained to me why he wanted to be First Sergeant of the Band. "You had enough power so nobody could fuck with you, but not the responsibility of being an officer."
The New Regime
Until I reconnected with Jerry Snee recently, I had never given any thought to what was involved in achieving really high rank. My analysis of the whole process as it played out in my year was that historically good grades and staying out of trouble would have you selected as an officer in the big sweepstakes at the beginning of Senior Year.
In my year things changed as Major Smullen decided to double down on military merit as a consideration and required prospective cadet officers to go through an OCS process. Our collar rank insignia were replaced with a crest. We got the crest by going to see Major Smullen. As part of the process you saluted him and said "Cadet Candidate Reilly requests permission to speak". Permission granted, I did not know what the fuck I was supposed to say. He just handed me the crest and smiled. I saluted and left. Major Smullen somehow always had a warm humanity that channeled with perfect consistency with his occasional sternness.
OCS had already cost me seven dollars, a not inconsiderable sum, that I would ultimately learn was the responsibility of my sometime best friend sometime nemesis Tom Burns.
Junior year MP duty was not something you volunteered for. It was just assigned. The Band was exempt, but not the Supply Corps. So one week in three the loud speaker would summon the third junior guard mount to fall in on the old gym "stairs", Nick Linkowitz, who embodied military merit (He would be commander of the X-Squad and go to the Citadel) was sergeant of the guard, which had a touch of irony. Due to the way grades might trump military merit I remember Nick being a corporal when I was a sergeant, but I guess in the MP hierarchy military merit was supreme.
For most of recess and part of lunch MPs stood “at ease” wearing their hats, coming to attention when faculty or cadet officers passed. In theory they might write up their fellow juniors for infractions, but in practice, they only persecuted freshmen. My post was a landing on the "band room stairs", an odd spot that saw very little traffic. But then one day I nabbed a freshman band member for out of uniform (probably a missing nameplate) and wrote him up.
Tom and Mike were merciless towards me in bemoaning the fate of "Poor Angelo", but verbal criticism did not suffice. Vengeance was required. One lunch time having finished my time on the stairs I found my regular seat at the table with Tom and Mike, put down my hat and lunch bag and went to get a drink. When I returned my hat was top down in a partially eaten plate of spaghetti. I think pressed and twisted to make the stains indelible.
At a Holy Cross reunion I once met a retired FBI agent who had worked the docks in Hoboken back in the "On the Waterfront" days. He told me that longshoremen were great aviation aficionados. Standing near a dead body on the dock, they would all say they had been looking up in the sky whenever what happened happened. That was the spirit of those at the table as I almost wept at the ruins of my hat. It would be years before Tom would confess still maintaining that it was just retribution for my persecution of "poor Angelo".
Slovenly as I generally was, I could have lived with a stained hat. Besides being 6'4" who was going to know? Still OCS was approaching which I took as a shoe shining, brass polishing, head shaving contest which is what seemed to make up military merit. Regardless of the fact that most people, even Major Smullen, are short, I bought a new hat. Recently, my book-bag had totally collapsed. Since we were already in summer uniforms, I started using my garrison belt as a kind of strap to carry books. Not good for the belts appearance, but I wouldn't be needing it next year. Would I?
The Great Drama
My memories of OCS are rather dim. It is unlikely that I did well in the shoe shining, brass polishing part of the game, as other kids had been practicing that much harder for the last three years. It is quite likely that the patriotic essay we had to write did not help my chances. I don't remember anything about it other than the title "Dissent The Highest Form Of Patriotism". There would be Woodstock that summer, something which my covivant who is way cooler than I attended. And I had become a regular reader of Ramparts, but more on that later.
I don't know if it was actually any different than any other year, but as we started senior year, it seemed like the announcement of the officers was being held up. Rumors flew. Enough so that there was an assembly of seniors at which Father Heavey, the Prefect of Discipline, chewed us out and told us that if we didn't stop with the rumors the Regiment would be run for the year with us as NCOs.
Finally the officers were announced and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. I don't know if it was unusual compared to other years, but I think it may have been. People who it seemed "should have been officers" were not and by implication it went the other way. I was by all accounts in the "should have been officers" group.
It Was All About The Sam Browne
I realized though that the only reason I cared was because of the Sam Browne and saber. And I still had a chance. The four sergeants major also wore Sam Brownes. I think I went so far as to ask Sergeant McGowan to intervene for me. My new ambition was to be Sergeant Major of the Third Battalion. No gold trim on my hat, but a Sam Browne, a saber and a red cord.
That brief hope was quickly dashed. The NCO list came out and I was First Sergeant of the Supply Corps. I was particularly chagrined that the Sergeant Major of the Third Battalion had not even been in the battalion. It must have taken me a couple of hours to recover from the blow. The reason it was easy was that being First Sergeant of the Supply Corps was something of a thing in Supply Corps tradition and the role and persona suited some of the anit-establishment aspects of my character. I'm sure I got much more satisfaction out of being First Sergeant of the Supply Corps than I would have being the Second Battalion S-4, with no duties other than showing up at drill and standing next to the S-3.
My reference group was altogether remarkable in its military mediocrity. Mike got one of the numerous band officer slots and John Sabini got a platoon. Victor Donovan and Bill Orchard were the military stars of our group Victor S-1 of the Third Battalion and Bill, I think a company commander. Lenny was Victors assistant in his almost non-existent duties. While everybody else was having these leaps, the effect was that Lenny and I each moved up one notch, allowing me to continue our tradition of my selling him my rank insignia for half price.
Thanks to the recent rank inflation, I have the distinction of being one of the first Xavier students to achieve the rank of Master Sergeant one stripe at a time. My friend Tom achieved his dream and gained four stripes and was now equal to me. Well at least I had the comfort that Tom did not out-rank me.
The Famous Last Words
I realize that this has grown too long and that I will need another post to adequately address the mystery of achieving high command in the Regiment. But I must give you the punch line to this part of the story. Sophomore and Junior year, Military Science did not seem to speak to the great events that were happening around us, but Senior year was different as we were largely done with the Sergeants and getting most of our classroom instruction from Major Smullen. One of the blocks of instruction was Counter-Insurgency and that was too much for the reader of Ramparts to take. I deliberately failed in a futile protest. Military Science did not affect our academic average, but my gesture did have a consequence.
In December there were promotions bringing seniors to the rank appropriate to their positions. Company commanders went from first lieutenant to captain and battalion commanders went from major to lieutenant colonel. And First Sergeants went from Master Sergeant to First Sergeant getting a diamond nestled in between their three chevrons and three rockers. Of course if they got in trouble or had bad grades, they did not advance. Or if they, for another example, flunked military science.
So the day came when Tom was promoted to First Sergeant and I remained at Master Sergeant. He chortled about it for years afterward, decades actually - soon to be a half century.
The End Or Not
There was a round of bonus promotions right before graduation moving many of those below lieutenant colonel up a notch. I advanced to First Sergeant and Tom maintained his lead going to Sergeant Major. He had an impulse to purchase a Sam Browne and saber but he restrained himself - a wise decision.
We wore the blue uniforms at graduation, but we were told to remove our rank insignia and we all wore garrison belts. So we ended as we began in a state of military equality.
The last time I reflected on this story over twenty years ago, I thought that was a good ending. That the regiment was a metaphor for our lives where we leave behind the accouterments of one stage as we move on to the next, but my recent meeting with Jerry Snee the would be Colonel and the experience of my 45th reunion have prompted me to take another look, which will be the topic of the next post.
Peter J Reilly CPA should probably be working on tax returns right now, but he can't help himself.