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Scuttlebutt: Naval Academy Urban Legends
Scuttlebutt: (noun) Pronunciation: ['skê-d(ê)l-bêt or 'skê-t(ê)l-bêt] Definition: The drinking fountain aboard a ship; (colloquial US) idle gossip, rumor...
These are U.S. Naval Academy “urban legends”. Some are unwritten traditions, while some are just things that Midshipman have always believed to be true. If you have any information on any of these things, please let us know at [email protected], particularly if the item is unverified... (Through this mechanism, we have discovered that the composer of California Dreamin’ did spend Plebe Summer at the Academy, and that Nimitz Library is supported by giant jackscrews...)
The Captain Drove Him Nuts

Sarcophagus of John Paul Jones
Item: John Paul Jones, one of the first American Naval heroes, is buried in a beautiful sarcophagus in a crypt under the Naval Academy Chapel. To show the services’ level of respect and honor to Captain Jones, a Marine honor guard patrols the crypt at all times when it is open to the public. Given the tedious and somewhat spooky nature of the task, one of these Marines cracked up and was found leaning against the sarcophagus, talking to John Paul Jones.
Status: Unverified.

Philo McGiffen and the Cannonballs
Item: Philo N. McGiffen was a member of the Class of 1882 and was such a prankster that his actions are still the stuff of legend at the Academy. He graduated near the bottom of his class of ninety, of which only the first twelve were commissioned. McGiffen became a soldier of fortune, rising to the rank of Commander in the Chinese Navy, where he served as Superintendent of the Chinese Naval College and later commanded the Chen Yuen, a seven-thousand-ton battleship, in the first battle between modern warships. (The most complete details of the life of Philo Norton McGiffen can be found on the site of novelist David Poyer ’71). The common mid version of the cannonball story has it that Philo could not sleep one evening and decided to pass the time by collecting all the cannon balls in the yard, hauling them up to the top floor of the quarters (which probably would have been the “New Quarters”), and rolling them down the stairs to the bottom floor. Since the heavy iron balls were wreaking havoc, no one could stop him until the Officer of the Watch shinnied up a drainpipe and apprehended him from behind.
Status: True, with some qualifications. According to the biography of McGiffen quoted on Poyer’s site, the cannonballs were already in a pile on the top floor of the quarters. For this prank he was sent to the Santee (an old hulk of a sailing ship that served as the brig for Midshipmen being disciplined) where he befriended an old man-o-warsman named Mike. When Philo returned to the Regiment from the Santee, Mike gave him six charges of powder, which he loaded into six of the Mexican War cannon scattered about the Yard and fired a salute on July first, shattering windows all over the Yard.

Hey, You Put it On...
Item: When a young lady puts on a male Midshipman’s cap, she owes him a kiss. Yes, even if she doesn’t know about the tradition.
Status: True, absolutely and completely. Really. Have we ever lied to you?

The Ghost at West Point
Item: A widely-reported, widely-sighted ghost seen at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, was a creation of the Brigade Activities Committee. The Brigade Activities Committee is a “spirit activity” of the Brigade of Midshipmen, and historically has been a great outlet for the natural college-age penchant for pranks. The group made a black-and-white film of a mid dressed in bits-and-pieces of Civil-War-era Army uniform; then through the use of strategically-placed tape recorders and an 8mm projector, they created the illusion of ghostly soldier marching the halls of a Cadet Barracks at West Point. (Other alleged BAC pranks have included placing 2 tons of limburger cheese under all the seats on the Army side of the field the day before the Army-Navy game at the old JFK stadium in Philly, and dropping an entire planeload of ping-pong-balls emblazoned with “Go Navy Beat Army” on a dress parade at West Point.)
Status: True, but we would really like complete details and press clippings...

The Ones in White...
Item: Midshipmen who have physical education wear whiteworks (the traditional white “middie blouse” [sailor’s jumper] and bell-bottoms) over their gym gear to classes for the morning or afternoon that they have P.E. One day a tourist in the yard stopped a Midshipman and asked him why most of the mids were in blue uniforms but some of them were in white. He looked at her and replied “Lady, the ones in white are virgins!”
Status: Unverified.

Philo McGiffen and the Watch Squad
Item: The most exacting inspection at the Academy is the inspection for the members of the oncoming Watch, traditionally held each evening in the Rotunda of Bancroft Hall. Popular mid lore has it that Philo McGiffen waited, hidden on the balcony above the Watch Squad, until the very second before the Officer of the Watch left his office to inspect the Squad, at which point Philo stood up and dumped a bag of flour all over the Watch Squad.
Status: Unverified (and probably unverifiable) but unlikely: 1) the legends place this action in the Rotunda, which did not exist in Philo’s day and 2) there is no indication that there even was a Watch Squad inspection in the late 1870’s/early80’s; in fact, given the rather casual attitude toward uniforms prevalent in those days, it was pretty unlikely.

I Got Chow Call!
Item: Plebes have a rotating responsibility to announce 10, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 minute before formation, in a strictly formatted ritual known as “chow call”. This is a tough challenge when you have a class the period before noon meal formation. One young lad was hurrying back to do his duty when one of the tourii (the Latin plural of tourist, of course) asked him if he would pose with them for a picture. In a somewhat agitated state he looked at her and said “F*ck no, lady, I got chow call!” Supposedly she noted his name from his nametag and reported him to Main Office.
Status: Unverified.

In This Corner--James Webb! And In This Corner...
Item: Oliver North '68 of Iran-Contra fame--future columnist, radio personality and politician, and James Webb '68--future novelist and Secretary of the Navy, fought each other for the Brigade Boxing Championship.
Status: True. Many feel Webb was the superior fighter but apparently Emerson Smith (USNA Boxing Coach) put in a lot of extra time and personal attention coaching North, who won the bout. There was a film of the fight that was used for training for many years but it was withdrawn from circulation when the men became public figures.

John Wayne as a Mid?
Item: John Wayne (Marion Michael Morrison) was offered an appointment to the Naval Academy.
Status: True, but he declined it because he had already played a season of varsity football on scholarship at the University of Southern California. In high school, before accepting his football scholarship to USC, he was a first alternate for an appointment, but the primary appointee took the appointment. But what about pictures of a 19-year-old Duke in a Midshipman’s uniform, in Bancroft Hall? John Wayne’s little-known (and uncredited) first movie role resulted from his membership in the USC football team, which was cast to fill in for the USNA team in the 1929 John Ford movie Salute. By the way, these facts come from a 1976 USNA Log interview with the Duke, so even if they might not agree with other bios, we got it from the man himself.

The Virgin Cannons
Item: The two cannons on the outer perimeter of Tecumseh Court will fire if a virgin ever walks between them.
Status: False, but charming nevertheless.

The Married Mid List
Item: It is against regulations and a separation offense (i.e. they kick you out) for Midshipmen to be married. Common wisdom says that the Officer of the Watch has a passdown list of Midshipmen known to be married, with no action to be taken unless they get in some other kind of trouble. The fact is that many Midshipmen do get married while they are students at the Academy. Experience has shown a very high probability that any mid who is a devout member of any faith that stresses the sanctity of marriage, and is flagrantly cohabiting with a member of the opposite sex, is married. This is because in every mid’s mind, both personal honor and duty to God take precedence over regulations (as they should), which would be a good reason why such a list would be maintained with no action taken.
Status: Unverified (and never will be here, even though we could; that would ruin the game now, wouldn’t it?). It would seem to demonstrate that “doing the right thing” by one set of standards may be a violation of Midshipmen Regulations at the same time.

Book ’em, Danno!
Item: Jack Lord (of Hawaii 5-0 fame) went to the Academy.
Status: False. The character he played, Steve McGarrett, was a Naval Academy graduate and had a diploma on the wall of his office, which probably gave rise to this myth. We know McGarrett’s a fictional grad, but does anyone know what class? By the way, Thomas Magnum (of Magnum P.I.) is another fictional USNA alumni, probably ’68 or ’69--again, does anyone know what class he fictionally graduated with?

The God of 2.0

Tecumseh
Item: Midshipmen will make offerings of pennies to Tecumseh, the large bronze reproduction of the figurehead of the USS Delaware that sits in front of Bancroft Hall, to bring them luck on their final examinations. Chinese majors were known to have burned incense in front of Tecumseh. (The figurehead was actually supposed to portray Tamanend, a village sachem of the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) people who signed a famous treaty with William Penn, but Midshipmen remaned him for the better-known Tecumseh. There actually was a USS Tecumseh but it had no figurehead as it was a single-turret monitor; it's now at the bottom of Mobile Bay, just off Fort Morgan. Thanks to Ryan Vest, who corrected our original mis-identification of Tecumseh as the figurehead of the USS Tecumseh.)
Status: True.

Philo McGiffen and a Famous Naval Saying
Item: OK, one last Philo legend: a “famous naval saying” learned by generation of mids, and credited to a pre-Academy Midshipman named Jarvis, has Midshipman Jarvis saying “If the mast goes, we go with it; our post is here!”. Philo N. McGiffen is said to have paraphrased it thusly: “If the mast goes, f*ck it. We’ll get a new one in Norfolk.”
Status: Unverified, but if you've read anything about him, it sure sounds like something he would have said!

Planes on the Steps (and the terraces, and...)
Item: Midshipmen held midnight raids in which they cut loose the heavy bolts and cables restraining the A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft across from the Field House, then moved the plane to 1) the front steps of Bancroft Hall; 2) the Fifth Wing Terrace of Bancroft Hall; and 3) the Nimitz Library/Rickover Hall Terrace.
Status: All true. Strangely enough, the plane was always craned off and trucked back to it’s proper location with the expense charged to the Midshipmen Activities funds, even though the Mids had already proved they were pretty good at moving it around.

Hang ’Em High, Captain MacKenzie
Item: The only officer in the U.S. Navy ever hung for mutiny was a Midshipman.
Status: True--but he was not a Naval Academy Midshipman. Midshipman Philip Spencer and two bluejackets were hung for mutiny in 1842 at the yardarm of the brig Somers. Spencer was the son of the Secretary of War and a founder of the Chi Psi fraternity. There were questions as to whether a mutiny even actually occurred or if this was just paranoia on the part of the captain, Commander Alexander Slidell MacKenzie, who over the course of the 6-month training cruise is purported to have ordered 2,265 lashings. This incident inspired Herman Melville to write Billy Budd, and is commonly held to be the major factor that precipitated the establishment of the Naval Academy.

The Admiral and the Blowtorch
Item: Rickover Hall was named for Hyman G. Rickover ’22 because he was the only Admiral in the Navy who could wield a blowtorch to weld his initials in the metal plate in the cornerstone.
Status: Unverified.

The Cap on the Chapel Dome
Item: Any Plebe class who can place a dixie cup (a sailor hat with a blue ring at the top; the prevalent plebe-summer headgear) on top of the spire at the top of the Chapel dome will be secured from the Plebe system.
Status: Indeterminate. The fact is that this was accomplished by the class of ’77 using a weather balloon with a a collar for positioning of the cap and superglue to secure it. When the class was not secured, a question was raised at the next Commandant’s Call, where the Dant’s response was that he had never heard of this particular tradition. He then turned to the Deputy Brigade Commander and asked him if HE had ever heard of the tradition. The Deputy responded that he had not. Several of his classmates turned him in for an honor offense, as he had been a member of--some said the chair of--a committee his Plebe year to get a cap on the dome. Nothing ever came of the honor offense. Or the cap on the dome, for that matter. Rumour has it that the class of 2000 also succeeded and earned a little carry-on (but were not secured). What's up with that, 2000; is it true?

Hey, Where’s Our Figurehead?
Item: As a “class project”, a class used a construction crane to “steal” Tecumseh, the large bronze reproduction of the figurehead of the USS Delaware that sits in front of Bancroft Hall, and hid him in the Severn River for a while.
Status: Unverified.

Man, These Books are Heavy!
Item: When Nimitz Library was built, it was placed on landfill consisting of crushed seashells. Later they had to go back and reinforce under the footings, because the engineers forgot to calculate the weight of the books into the weight of the library when designing the landfill.
Status: Unverified but probably true. Todd Kile, a former member of ’88 writes to us: “Though I never finished my tour of duty at the Academy, I claim a 4.0 QPR in all of my ‘reconaissance’ classes. In fact, during one foray sometime in ’86, three midshipmen made their way UNDER Nimitz Library. I know - I was one of them. To our surprise, underneath the library basement floor there is a void. In that void - about 3 or 4 feet high - there are a series of mechanical screw jacks that hold the basement floor up by pressing on the soft, landfilled earth below. I speculate that there is a facilities manager on the yard that not only knows all about this, but is also responsible for maintaining the upward pressure exerted by the jacks via regular adjustment. After all, these screw jacks still had their steel turning handles in place!”

But Did He Kiss the Whole Brigade on Both Cheeks?
Item: The Brigade of Midshipman was honored with both of France's highest awards: the Légion d'Honneur and the Croix de Guerre with Palms.
Status: True. The President of the French Republic, Vincent Auriol, pinned the cross of the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre with Palms on the flag of the Brigade of Midshipmen on March 30, 1951, in recognition of the Naval Academy's historic contributions, especially the contributions of its graduates to the victory in World War II. However, the streamers associated with these awards are not carried on the Brigade flag (but they should be...). Thanks to Joseph McMillan's Sea Flags for this tidbit.

All the Leaves Are Brown...
Item: The song, California Dreamin’, is actually about the Naval Academy and was written by a Plebe.
Status: Unverified but probably false. Probably true! California Dreamin’ was written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas who spent Plebe Summer at the Academy, and sure enough, the online Alumni Register lists Mr. John Edmund A Phillips as an alumnus of the class of ’58. California Dreamin’ was a popular marching song (yes, we know it’s sort of hard to see it as a march but it does work) at the Academy in the early 70’s. If you look at the lyrics, they make good sense as an expression of a Plebe’s despair. A classmate wrote in to the Alumni Association when ‘Papa’ John died: “He left us at the end of Plebe Summer, but in that short time had gained renown as ‘the guy over in the 4th wing who plays the guitar’.” We are reasonably certain he is the only USNA Alumnus in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. (Thanks to Timothy Elizabeth Woodbury of the USNA Alumni Association for correcting this item!)

Porsches in the Bay
Item: In the early 70’s, on several occasions mids in their Porsche 911’s, fueled by alcohol (the mids, not the cars) came wizzing in Gate One, screamed past the Field House, and sailed off the seawall into the Chesapeake. The picture of the Porsche-on-the-Rocks at left is from the '71 Lucky Bag, courtesy of Pete Baker '71, who assures us that no alchohol was involved, only icy roads. We know there are still some photos out there of Porsches actually being fished out of the Bay...
Status: True, but again we would like details: personal accounts, photos, press clippings, etc.

There’s a Girl in the Shower...
Item: The seaward ends of the Seventh and Eighth Wings of Bancroft Hall have little-used ladders (stairwells) that open directly into publicly accessible doors, making it pretty simple to sneak girls up to the rooms. On several occasions before USNA was coed, the Plebe or Youngster Mate of the Watch entered rooms at the end of the “backshaft” while distributing the Brigade Bulletin to find young ladies in the shower.
Status: True, but details of specific incidents would be real nice to have.

Music for the Heart of Oak
Item: Tecumseh, the previously mentioned large bronze reproduction of the figurehead of the USS Delaware that sits in front of Bancroft Hall, has his own march.
Status: True; Who's Who in Navy Blue March, by the esteemed composer John Phillip Sousa, was written at the request of Midn W.A. Ingram, President of the USNA class of ’20, and at his request was dedicated to Tecumseh.

 New 5/4/01/updated 7/24/01 by Ray Trygstad '77. Copyright 1996-2001 Webmaster Sources, Naperville, IL