ON July 1, 1943, I was one of 500 apprentice seamen (several of whom, like me, were from Ohio) who reported for duty at the United States Navy V-12 Unit at Middlebury College in Vermont.
The V-12 enterprise was a hurry-up program, designed to give potential officers a skeleton college education before assigning them to various midshipmen's schools, where the successful ones would be validated as ensigns.
Our appearance in the Green Mountain State represented, in one of our instructor's witty observation, ``the first naval invasion of Vermont since MacDonough fought the British on Lake Champlain in 1814.''
Suddenly, after we had been under way about six weeks, the word went out that our unit would be inspected by no less than Frank Knox, then secretary of the Navy. He would review the sailors in a full- dress parade, visit the dormitories, and otherwise inquire officially into whether the training program was shipshape.
Most of us wouldn't have known Frank Knox from John Knox, so we repaired to the library and looked him up. We discovered that he had not only been the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket with Alfred Landon (R) of Kansas in 1936, but also, and more importantly for us, he had been one of Theodore Roosevelt's ``Rough Riders'' in Cuba in 1898. Wow! In 1943, that sounded like ancient history to us!
You can imagine how the prospect of such a person's visit galvanized officers and men all new to the Navy. The commanding officer particularly let it be known that he wanted radical spit and polish.
So we practiced marching in platoons hour after hour, working especially hard at moving in long straight-line flanks capable of satisfying a secretary's eye. We stood at ramrod attention for extended periods of time without keeling over (by carefully scrunching our toes). We washed our ``whites'' to a gleaming radiance (with an assist from Clorox) and pressed the collars into the salty three razor-sharp creases.
We immediately began squaring our white hats absolutely. We saluted anyone above the status of apprentice seaman. We walked in step, even when only two or three brethren were gathered together. We made sure to call doors ``hatches,'' floors ``decks,'' walls ``bulkheads,'' and stairs ``ladders.'' And to top it all off, the unit's band worked hard at a snappy ``Anchors Aweigh'' while in parade motion.
In the afternoon of one of Vermont's radiant August suns, Secretary Knox duly arrived - to our astonishment in a civilian suit and tie and under an enormous Panama straw hat. Not being up on Article 2, Section 2, of the US Constitution, we all expected some kind of admiral's uniform and were a little disappointed. But no matter.
In due course, the secretary, the commanding officer, and other members of the inspection party walked slowly past lines of white-clad sailors who were standing at rigid attention. Now and then, one or another inspector appeared to look into a given sailor's landlocked soul, but nary a knee buckled.
Then the inspection party repaired to a reviewing stand on the steps of a classroom building while the men formed into companies at the far end of the quad. To the tune of ``Anchors Aweigh,'' they marched up the greensward in flanks past Secretary Knox.
At the proper moment, each group responded smartly to the command, ``Eyes, right!''
All went very well indeed, and the commanding officer beamed accordingly. But not so fast!
The last stage of the secretary's visit was for the inspection party to make a swing through each of the four Navy dormitories. Up the steps of the first one they came and sailed (so to speak) into the foyer where a lone sentry, his white bell-bottoms neatly tucked into puttees and white hat squared absolutely, snapped to attention.
But here the pressure was just too much for a boy from Ohio. As the secretary drew alongside his desk, the sentry suddenly and unceremoniously fainted, simply crumbling to the floor, (sorry!) deck.
The inspection party of course moved right along, in accordance with military protocol, which calls for more or less ignoring such ill-timed human foibles. But the commanding officer must have immediately seen that what was, up to that point, a perfect 4.0 inspection rating had now begun to decline. And Secretary Knox must have wondered precisely what kind of US Navy he was presiding over.
On the other hand, the boy from Ohio would remember for the rest of his life that of all the sailors in Middlebury that August, he alone had had a faint brush with history.