The unique history of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1978 is extraordinary and notable in both collective events and individual accomplishments. It is equally a microcosm and reflection of several significant transitions in America’s modern history.
Because of an unparalleled exodus of officers leaving the naval service following the end of the Vietnam War, the class of ’78 was, and still remains, the largest class ever enrolled at the institution founded in 1845, with 1,513 young men taking the oath of office on 8 July 1974.
Unfortunately, a recession in the early to mid-70’s resulted in a flood of officers returning to active duty and giving rise to a significantly reduced requirement for the number of graduates required from the class, leading to a real or perceived ‘purge’ during the final two years at the ‘boat school by the bay.’ As a result, only 985 ultimately became graduates of the class of ’78.
At 40.9%, the Class of ’78 has the highest attrition rate of any class in the modern history of the Naval Academy. Of note, the USNA Registrar’s Office officially places our attrition at 34%. The 6.9% difference is explained by the method used to determine the rate. In 1978, the Registrar’s Office calculated the attrition rate as the difference between those who took the oath of office on 8 July 1974 and the number who received a diploma in June 1978. The Registrar’s Office attrition rate did not include or take into account (1) the men who checked in on 8 July 1974 and quit before the oath of office, (2) the 150 men who were offered appointments and joined our class after induction day, (3) those who began in earlier classes and, for academic or medical reasons, were rolled into our class, and (4) the few who rolled back into the class of 1979.
By comparison and in perspective, the total number of plebes who quit or were involuntarily separated during the entirety of plebe summers in 2017 and 2018 were 18 and 9, respectively.
Among other significant transitions during our time at the Naval Academy:
One of our most extraordinary achievements is that, since the first USNA graduating class in 1854, the class of 1978 is one of only four classes to ultimately produce four four-star admirals:
Mark Ferguson Cecil Haney
Harry Harris Kurt Tidd
- We were part of a significant technology shift, being the last class to be issued slide rules and the first class to requisition a calculator at the Midshipman Store
- We were the last class to be served meals by Filipino stewards
- We were the last class with a June Week, as the service academies structured their commissioning schedules to match that of ROTC
- We were the last class with four years of Saturday classes
- Harry Harris is the first Asian-American to achieve the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy, the first 4-star admiral to have participated in the Navy Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (NJROTC), and the first officer from the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aviation community to achieve 4-star rank.
- Alan “Blues” Baker is the first Naval Academy graduate to achieve the rank of rear admiral in the Navy’s Chaplain Corps.
Tidbits from Induction Day
On the morning of 8 July 1974, the sun rose at 5:47 am and would bring with it a high temperature of 92 degrees, a high temperature that would be repeated on our second day as midshipmen. The winds were light and would remain that way throughout our induction day, or I-Day, with a maximum wind speed of 5.8 knots. There was no precipitation on our first day and, unknown to us, there would be no precipitation for the next twelve days as temperatures soared quickly into the upper 80’s and low 90’s. Even if we could have known that rain was twelve days away, it would likely have depressed us to know that the showers on 19 July 1974 would only yield 0.04 inches of precipitation.
The calculation and adoption of a ‘heat index’ was still five years way. On I-day, based on today’s calculations, the heat index would likely be well into the low 100’s.
When our day finally ended in the cozy confines of Bancroft Hall, ‘Mother B,’ our home for four years, an 85% moon rose thirty-nine minutes after lights out.
Fortuitously, I had the opportunity to spend almost thirty minutes with Vice Admiral Mack at a book signing in Annapolis a few years before he died. He admitted the ‘black flag’ temperature was raised and surpassed three times before our induction ceremony, and was raised and surpassed several times more during the long summer of ’74. He also added that, being the last class he’d induct, we became his favorite class, and followed our progress through the academy and in the years following our graduation.
During a very quick breakfast on I-Day, we learned how to sit and eat at attention, our backs three to six inches away from the backs of our chairs. We were taught that ‘Yes sir, no sir, aye aye sir, I’ll find out sir, and no excuse sir’ were the only acceptable responses to any question, comment or order.
We were called plebes and would be branded with that subservient title for our entire first year. We were issued a uniform, having surrendered our civilian clothes, and then we collected seabags of uniforms, books, toiletries, and other items. We were issued shoes and towels. Our hair disappeared. We learned to march. We belted out movies, chow calls, and duty officers three times a day.
Along the way, we were issued a Bible with the Naval Academy seal and our name embossed on the cover, little solace to those of us knee deep in personal suffering. We were issued Reef Points, our required reading ‘book du jour’ for plebe summer. We memorized Eternal Father, which we sang just before hitting our racks at the end of the day, chains of command, ships, airplanes, and Navy trivia.
We were required to memorize classmates’ names and hometowns. Some were easy; some took the entire summer.
With the exception of those who joined the class from the fleet, NAPS, or a prep school, many of us struggled mightily as we learned to march very precisely and to stand at parade rest and at attention. We learned how to ‘brace up’, defined as pulling your chin into your throat and holding the uncomfortable facial pose until told to release it. First class midshipmen, ‘firsties’, gladly gave us all their attention as a hot sun pounded unmercifully throughout the day, warmly joining in the seemingly sadistic pleasure of those appointed in charge of the class of 1978.
The rest of the day was nothing if not a mentally agonizing blur. It was little comfort that great men with names known to the world, men like Chester Nimitz, William ‘Bull’ Halsey, James Stockdale, Alan Shepard, James Lovell, and Roger Staubach had endured the same ritualistic and ignominious hardships on the very hallowed ground upon which we stood and would call home for the next four years.
So overwhelming, traumatic, and relentless were those first events on an oppressively hot morning that thirty men in our class quit by nine o’clock. Under an increasingly broiling sun and a withering barrage of choreographed pressure and harassment, sixty more quit by noon. By 1900, just thirteen hours after their day began, a total of just over one hundred fifty of America’s finest young men, the supposed crème de le crème of high school graduates, had voluntarily given up whatever dreams or motivations they may have had and were on their way back home. Their time as members of our class would only be measured in hours.
Within two days, slightly over one hundred fifty additional young men were brought in to take their place.
For those who chose to continue the journey as the class of 1978, the swearing-in ceremony was a brief respite, albeit under a broiling sun. We raised our right hand and said, in response to Vice Admiral Mack’s question, “I do.”
From a total of seventeen hundred young men who were at one-time members of the United States Naval Academy class of 1978, only 985 ultimately graduated four years later from the Boat School, or Canoe U, as we fondly called the institution, on the 7th of June, 1978.
As a result, we were, and remain, the largest class ever to enroll. To date, at 40.9%, we have the highest attrition rate of any class. Of note, the USNA Registrar’s Office places our attrition at 34%, which still places us in the Top 8.
Also noteworthy among our class;
- Jeff Fowler became the superintendent of our alma mater.
- Mark I. Fox scored the first Navy MiG kill of Operation Desert Storm during the first Gulf War. As a carrier air group commander, he led the “Shock and Awe” strike of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 21, 2003, and would later direct military operations for the White House.
- Ken Bowersox became one of our nation’s most experienced space shuttle pilots, logging more than 211 days in space, including five shuttle flights and five months commanding the International Space Station. Equally notable, he was in the space station when the shuttle Columbia was lost, and reassured a nation in mourning that the mission in space was safe and would continue.
The list of those who are no longer with us includes:
- Ken Waldie, our class president, who was onboard American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center
- David Trundy, one of the finest leaders in our class and a former brigade commander, who died when his AH-1T Cobra helicopter crashed on a night training mission.
- Tom Harper, originally entering with the Class of 1977, became the National Cancer Society’s Man of the Year, having overcame impossible odds to graduate from the school he loved.
- Lanny King had handpicked the crew for the new guided missile destroyer that he was to command. His crew didn’t just respect him, they loved him, and were overcome with grief when he died of a brain aneurysm at age 39.
On an entertaining note, the top songs during our plebe summer included:
- Rock the Boat
- Billy Don’t Be a Hero
- Rock You Baby
- If You Love Me
- Hollywood Swinging
- You Make Me Feel Brand New
- Annie’s Song
- You Won’t See Me
- On and On
Popular television shows were:
- Little House on The Prairie
- All in The Family
- Six Million Dollar Man
- Happy Days
- Rockford Files
- Barney Miller
- Hawaii Five-O
- Chico and the Man
Popular movies included:
- Blazing Saddles
- Young Frankenstein
- Godfather Part II
- Death Wish
- Texas Chain Saw Massacre
- The Man with the Golden Gun
- Towering Inferno