Story by Mike Strasser
WEST POINT, N.Y. (May 22, 2013) — Wallace Speed found a seat on Thayer Walk and enjoyed a cool breeze on a warm and cloudless day at West Point. He was early for the Alumni Wreath Laying and Review Tuesday and watched as dozens of cadets hustled by, wearing their rucks and wiping sweat from their faces.
Speed, a Class of 1963 graduate, learned the cadets were completing the ruck march needed to qualify for Air Assault School. Some things never change at West Point, he said.
“You never see anyone just lying around here,” Speed said. “Cadets are always doing something. It’s good to return and see some of the good things, the traditions, are still enforced and that the changes made are improvements.”
Speed was among more than 400 alumni attending the day’s events and was also here for his 50th reunion, a class which had 504 graduates. Though the start of Graduation Week is all about the alumni, the culminating event is the graduation and commissioning of the Class of 2013. As a member of the 50-year affiliation class, Speed shares a unique bond with the soon-to-be graduates. For him, that began in 2009 when he made the trip from his Atlanta home and participated in the 12-mile trek called March Back to mark the completion of Cadet Basic Training for the Class of 2013.
“We sort of moved up and down the march column and just talked with the cadets as we moved along,” Speed said. “I was tremendously impressed with them—their stamina, their enthusiasm—it was just great to see, and I get the sense it’s probably still there after four years.”
Speed took a shorter hike Tuesday as hundreds of alumni made their way from Jefferson Hall to Thayer Statue for the wreath laying ceremony. After a two-year hiatus due to inclement weather, the alumni were clearly enjoying themselves. The Class of 1963, wearing special gray caps for the occasion, was near the back of the formation. One graduate marked time for his colleagues with a sharp, “Hup, Hup” as they made their way along Diagonal Walk.
Five years ago, retired Maj. Gen. Neil Van Sickle joined the alumni while here for his 70th class reunion. This year, the Class of 1938 graduate had the distinction of being the “oldest grad” in attendance and laid the wreath of yellow roses at the foot of the statue.
“It’s always a thrill to come back to West Point,” Van Sickle, 97, said. “You can always relive the best moments of your cadet chapter.”
Van Sickle first enlisted in the North Dakota National Guard before receiving his appointment to the academy. In 1940, the Cavalry officer transferred to the Army Air Corps and served with the Army Air Forces Antisubmarine Command during World War II. In 1944 he flew combat missions over Japan and by the end of the war Van Sickle was deputy commander of the 497th Bombardment Group. He retired in 1968 as deputy inspector general at U.S. Air Force Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
In his class yearbook, the Howitzer, he was described as “an archer of ability” who could “shoot the bull as well as the bow.” Still full of gusto today, the sole ’38 graduate in attendance spoke fondly of his time at West Point.
“Well, I was a pretty good archer,” Van Sickle said. “But my fondest memory was when a bunch of plebes and I built a ski jump up by Delafield Pond on the landing hill. In order to do that I went to the riding hall and borrowed a team of horses. I remember riding a horse up Professors Row to Delafield Pond where we hitched them up to horse-drawn shuttles. We had a lot of fun and it was a good operation.”
Six alumni were honored as this year’s Distinguished Graduates and were presented with medallions during the Review and feted at a special luncheon hosted by the Association of Graduates in Washington Hall.
Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Yerks was among the recipients and said it was a wonderful feeling to have been chosen for the award.
“I tell people, in my case, it’s really a longevity award since it was 1951 when I graduated,” Yerks said. “It is a significant recognition that at least you’ve tried to live by ‘Duty, Honor, Country.’ At 85, when someone pays you a compliment you accept it. There’s not going to be many of them left.”
Yerks said he’s very proud to have graduated from the academy and has had two sons and a daughter also joining the Long Gray Line. In addition, a grandson recently graduated from the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School.
Yerks served as a company commander in the Korean War when he received the Silver Star with Valor, and then a battalion commander in Vietnam.
Even today, the Army slogan “Be All That You Can Be” resonates strongly in American pop culture. So successful a campaign, Yerks said everybody in the Army was claiming credit for it. As the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, he was more involved than most.
“Recruiting was in trouble and the public thought the Army was nothing but walking down dusty and muddy trails,” Yerks said. “But the Army was as sophisticated as any of the other services, of course, and so we did a survey and came up with the items and themes that America at that time would be attracted to.”
Yerks collaborated with a New York ad agency to explore and survey a variety of slogans. While the Army had always projected an image as one team, Yerks countered that a team cannot be formed until you successfully recruit the individual.
“And so, it didn’t go over very well with the Army staff…but I made a decision to go with ‘Be All That You Can Be.’ It was a great success.”
Retired Gen. John Foss, a Class of 1956 graduate, was also grateful to accept the title of Distinguished Graduate. The former commander of the Training and Doctrine Command and 18th Airborne Corps first enlisted at 18 as a paratrooper before receiving his appointment to West Point.
“I thought it developed us in such a way that we were able to do the jobs we had in the Army,” Foss said. “We graduated right after the Korean War and it looked like there was no more war. Well, it turned out we had plenty of wars.”
Two years in, his Airborne unit was deployed to Lebanon for three months, which he described as the first penetration into the Middle East by U.S. forces. During his career Foss served two combat tours in Vietnam and commanded 3rd Battalion, 12th Infantry.
Alumni gathered on Thayer Walk awaiting the start of the procession to Thayer Statue for the wreath laying ceremony Photo by Mike Strasser/USMA PAO.
Retired Maj. Gen. Neil Van Sickle, Class of 1938, renders a salute at the foot of Thayer Statue as the senior graduate
at the Alumni Wreath Laying Ceremony May 21.
The Alumni and Distinguished Graduate Award Review was conducted by the Corps of Cadets May 21 on the Plain. Photo by Tommy Gilligan/USMA PAO
Click on the photo above to see a video from the Alumni Wreath Laying and Review.
The demands he said on the Army were great, and following the war there was a period of rebuilding the force and transitioning away from a draft Army to an all-volunteer one. During the Cold War, he served as commandant of the Infantry School where the light infantry unit was developed.
Foss said the Class of 2013 cadets will have challenges ahead as they become second lieutenants, but also great careers ahead. If he had the opportunity to address the graduating class, Foss would tell them to adapt to changes.
“There are lots of things that change, and I would tell them not to worry about it,” Foss said. “The men and women who graduate from West Point today will find they can have a very interesting and exciting life and do a lot for their country.”