Letters provide window to Naval Academy's past

April 16, 1995|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Sun Staff Writer

Orin Shepley Haskell was a sophomore at the Naval Academy when the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed tens of thousands throughout the country reached Annapolis. Almost all of the 1,240 midshipmen became ill and four died.

". . . And they say the Germans introduced the disease into his country," Midshipman Haskell wrote to his fiancee in September that year. "This is one more thing to hate them for. I did not hate the German people at the beginning of the war but certainly do now and if I ever get a chance to kill a German, I shall kill him good."

But World War I ended two months later and he never got the chance. His observations and descriptions of academy life early this century are part of a collection of letters and manuscripts dating to the mid-19th century in the academy's Nimitz Library.

"The letters are an excellent example of the daily life of midshipmen," said Alice Creighton, a librarian in the special collections room. "They give the midshipmen a tie back to the past. The letters make the people who wrote them seem more real."

Before telephones and tape recorders, midshipmen wrote long, detailed letters almost daily to their families. For many who were away from home for the first time, written news of home was so important they often complained they did not receive enough.

Some of their correspondence included rough drawings and maps of the academy grounds or their impressions of Annapolis residents they met.

"This is the deadest place I was ever in and there is absolutely nothing of interest to write about," Ellsworth Davis wrote April 28, 1909, in one of the first letters to his mother in Hartford, Conn. Midshipman Davis graduated with the class of 1913.

zTC "If you go into the store you are very apt to find the storekeeper fast asleep. If you wake him up and he finds that you are not quite sure what you want, instead of trying to sell you something, he lets you look over the stock and tells you to put the money in his pocket when you take something, but not to disturb him again."

The letters demonstrate what some consider a lost art of communication.

"People don't write letters like that anymore," Mrs. Creighton said. "It's kind of sad because there will come a time when there is no written record of this kind for this part of the century."

Midshipman Haskell wrote 376 letters to his fiancee, Audrey McDougall, in East Booth Bay, Maine, between 1916 and his graduation in 1920. Mail was delivered twice a day then, and it was necessary only to address the envelope with her name, city and state. Postage was 2 cents. They later were married.

From its founding in 1845 until 1850, the academy was called the Naval School. Midshipmen spent brief periods there to learn basic skills before they were sent to sea in warships. A midshipman's duties aboard ship were more important than his studies.

Midshipman Andrew Boyd Cummings was aboard a U.S. ship of the line Dec. 1, 1847, when it docked in "Rio Janiero," Brazil. In a lengthy letter to his parents in Ohio, he described the South American coast as he saw it from the deck of the ship.

"At a distance it looks really beautiful," he wrote. "The scenery is the wildest and grandest I have ever seen. But the houses and the city look ancient and dilapidated. The streets are narrow and the houses low. The roofs are made of clay tiles that resemble earthen butter pots split in half."

He then toured the city and described to his family buildings, islands in the harbor and churches.

By 1850, a four-year academic program had been established and the Naval School was renamed the U.S. Naval Academy. Studies and class ranking became a midshipman's top priority.

Midshipman Daniel Vincent Gallery, a member of the class of 1920, began every letter to his father in Chicago by reciting his weekly marks in navigation, seamanship and other subjects. He ended each letter telling his "Papa" that he had taken Holy Communion that morning.

"I think you put things a little too strong in that last letter," he wrote Jan. 25, 1919. "I don't agree with you. You said I had violated my word of honor and cannot be trusted. As you say, a Naval officer's honor is his most valued possession and still is mine."

Earlier in the year, young Gallery's grades were slipping and although he had promised his father he would improve them, he did not.

"On the other occasion when I said the same thing I did not intend it to be taken as a promise but merely as a statement of my intentions," he wrote. "That I have not starred is my own fault but it does not mean I lied when I said I intended to."

His father had called him a "bum that was completely lacking in all principals of manhood."

"If I were such a character, I would not have lasted 2 and a half years here," young Gallery wrote. "I have been lazy as far as studies are concerned, but no one can say I have been a bum in other respects. I may be a damn fool for letting my opportunities slide by, but a damned fool can have a lot of manhood in him."

Despite his slipping grades, Midshipman Gallery graduated in 1920.

A midshipman's honor was as important then as it is today, Mrs. Creighton said.

"But then the honor code was not written down, it was just a part of society," she said.

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