Over the last two hundred years, the United States Military Academy at West Point has produced some of the country’s most outstanding leaders. The distinguished list of graduates includes such heroic figures as Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. Each of them found their destiny was to lead men into battle. Perhaps no cadet achieved more fame, however, than an affable, young man from Kansas. He was raised to despise conquest, but he personally led the campaign that liberated an entire continent. His name was Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is the story of how West Point transformed him from a Kansas farm boy into the man who led the Allies to victory in World War II.
Despite coming from an unlikely pacifist background, Dwight Eisenhower early on showed an abundance of qualities that marked him as a military strategist. He was born in October 1890 in Denison, Texas but spent his youth in the bustling community of Abilene, Kansas. His God-fearing mother opposed war, but he still spent his time devouring books on military campaigns and, despite his mother’s forbidding, participating in mock combat with friends and neighbors reenacting famous battles of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Ike, as he was often called, bravely took the whippings his mother dealt out for such disobedience, but it was not the last time he refused to break under pressure. As a young boy, he contracted blood poisoning after badly scraping his knee, but he refused to let the doctor amputate his leg. By the time he entered high school, he was working at the local creamery tending to the furnaces. It was exhausting manual labor, and he learned to grab sleep whenever he could, a skill that served him well later in life. In his free time, he played poker with his friends and developed an affinity for calculating the odds and reading his opponents. Knowing another’s weaknesses allowed him to formulate appropriate strategies for victory. As a football player, he studied neighboring Salina’s trick play and concluded that by hurling his body at the right spot he could destroy their formation. Ike’s analytical mind and martial interests, coupled with his lack of money for college, naturally led him to consider attending one of the country’s service academies.
In the summer of 1910 Ike determined to gain admittance to either the U.S. Naval Academy or to the Military Academy at West Point. He discovered one of his best friends had been accepted to Annapolis, and the two enjoyed countless discussions about the academy. He was enthralled and infected with enthusiasm. Even though he knew his mother’s opposition to military service, Ike could think of nothing else but seeking an appointment. Despite her deeply held religious and moral beliefs, his mother remained supportive of him and encouraged him to go after it if he really wanted it. Over the next few months he threw himself into preparing for the entrance exam. He realized it would be a challenge, so he decided to better his chances by taking the exams for both the Naval Academy and for West Point. He passed both with flying colors — among the Kansas candidates he ranked first in the exam for Annapolis and second in the one for West Point. Only days later, however, he found out the age limit for Annapolis was twenty years old. He would be eight months too old by the time of admittance. He was informed though that the age limit for West Point was twenty-two. Soon after, the highest-ranked examinee failed his physical examination, and Ike was appointed in his stead. He kissed his mother good-bye and embarked on his quest for military glory on the bluffs above New York’s Hudson River.
No sooner had Eisenhower entered the hallowed halls of West Point than he began to lose his previously carefree nature. Until June 1911 he had determined to maintain a laid back attitude. He always had a big smile on his face and a mischievous spark in his eyes. That smile disappeared as he stepped off the West Point Special train car and surveyed the tall granite spires that rose around him. They seemed to envelope him and say that he would become as firm and unyielding to the military code as they. Feelings of uncertainty overpowered him, and for the first time, he began to lose his resolve to maintain his easygoing personality. His determination was further weakened when moments later he and his fellow classmates were confronted by the “Beast Detail,” upperclassmen who were responsible for training the new cadets. One cadet marched right up to Ike and ordered him to wipe his smile off his face. Ike instantly complied. He reminded himself he could outwardly comply while remaining nonchalant internally. His vow lasted until that evening when he stood on the parade ground, known as the “Plain,” and watched the entire Corps of Cadets march in front of him. Ike stared in awe at the long lines of cadets moving past in their crisp gray uniforms with their rifles held tightly at an angle and the bayonets sparkling in the late afternoon sun. It was a sight to behold. At that moment, he lost all sense of levity and adopted the gravity that this new challenge demanded. Then and there, he realized duty called him to raise his left hand and swear allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and to faithfully execute all orders given to him.
During his first years at the academy, Ike evolved from a naïve youth into a strong and capable man. He attended daily lessons on history, military engineering and other demanding subjects in in the tall granite buildings he saw the day he arrived. At the end of his first year, he stood near the top quarter of his class. He also garnered accolades as a feared Army halfback until he wrecked his knee and ended his playing career. His military bearing, however, needed attention, and he spent more than a few hours walking off demerits. Like all cadets, he was expected to live by the honor code that guided a cadet’s actions. Ike thoroughly embraced the concept of honor and, after a somewhat hesitant beginning, the disciplined regularity expected of each cadet. His personal code of conduct was so strong that on several occasions he reported himself in violation of regulations. For him, West Point’s attributes carried with them a spiritual significance. Whenever he spied the American flag flying above the administration building, he was filled with a deep and abiding love for his country and came to believe that God had intended for him to take the path he was on. As the months passed, he vowed he would remain true to West Point and all that it stood for.
Ike demonstrated how sacred the academy was to him when he returned home to Abilene at the end of his second year. On the train ride home, he sat bolt upright and made sure his gray uniform was neat and tidy, just as had been trained. He wore it whenever he walked around town, and he proudly spoke about life at “the Point.” One girl asked him what was so special about the place. He replied it was not “just a place where they teach you about war,” but rather it was a place that “gives you standards to go by. Duty, honor, country — those words have a tremendous meaning to us.” He spoke endearingly of his friends, including a cadet from Missouri named Omar Bradley. He told her he knew he could rely on each of them “because they live by those standards.” It was that pride that encouraged him to defend the academy against any perceived slights. Such a slight came one afternoon when an old friend told him how a muscular, young African-American had taken up professional boxing and declared he could whip anyone in town. Believing West Point’s honor was at stake, Eisenhower accepted the challenge. Only a few minutes into the fight, he delivered a punch to the left, then the right, and soon after, his opponent was carried out of the ring. No one questioned his abilities after that, and Eisenhower returned to West Point with the satisfaction of knowing the academy’s prestige remained intact.
When he arrived back at West Point, Ike felt strangely comfortable seeing the tall gray buildings and hearing the loud bugle calls summoning cadets to the parade ground. The place seemed as much home as the plains of Kansas did. He came to the realization he wanted to make a career out of the army, but he hoped there would be little chance of engaging in actual combat. He told his classmates he supported a strong military, but he believed “men are getting too civilized — too sensible to go out and massacre each other.” It was this hope, coupled with his understanding of history and his future role as an Army officer, that led him to closely monitor the rumblings of war in Europe as the summer of 1914 progressed. When war did erupt, he followed it purely as an intellectual exercise until the French, British and German armies bogged down in trenches across France. Then on May 7, 1915 a German submarine torpedoed the British passenger liner Lusitania and killed 1,198 people. News of the tragedy shocked Eisenhower. He came to believe war against such a barbarous enemy would be a righteous cause. He would defend his country and his way of life against those who sought to destroy it. A few weeks later, Dwight Eisenhower graduated 61st in the Class of 1915, known to history as the “Class the Stars Fell On” for the many graduates who later became generals.
For the rest of his life, Dwight Eisenhower faithfully served his country, even if it sometimes meant doing his duty far from the front lines. Although he did not see action in World War I, Captain Eisenhower ensured American victory by training soldiers in the art of tank warfare. He later heard how many of his charges had led American forces to victory in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. After the war, he was transferred to the Panama Canal Zone to serve as chief of staff to General Fox Conner. His skillfulness and energy impressed Conner enough that he recommended Eisenhower attend the General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Ike did and graduated first in his class. During the 1930s, he served as chief of staff to General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. He understood the approaching danger as Japan invaded China and Nazi Germany shattered the fragile peace in Europe. Cautions from Eisenhower and other military leaders went unheeded.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he reported to Washington, D.C. to join the War Plans department. His demeanor, knowledge and analytical proposals earned the respect of both American and British leaders. In particular, Chief of Staff General George Marshall recognized the unique leadership and diplomatic skills Ike possessed. In June 1942, General Marshall placed Eisenhower in command of the Allied invasion of North Africa. In that role, he directed operations against Germany’s Erwin Rommel while attempting to maintain harmony between America’s George Patton and Britain’s Bernard Montgomery, two equally vain yet capable battlefield commanders. After securing North Africa and Italy, Ike was named Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAFE) and ordered to invade Nazi-occupied Europe. After months of planning and coordination, the D-Day invasion (Operation Overlord) began on June 6, 1944 at Normandy in France. The bloody Allied advance continued nonstop for the next year until the German surrender on May 8, 1945. After the war General Eisenhower served as Army Chief of Staff, President of Columbia University, and the first Supreme Commander of NATO. In 1952, Dwight David Eisenhower, now a national hero and the most popular man in America, was elected 34th President of the United States. He served two terms and helped guide America through the early years of the Cold War before finally retiring to a farm outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His love of country, commitment to service, and devotion to duty remained with him until his death in March 1969.
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point has as its motto “Duty, Honor, Country.” These high ideals form the foundation of a life dedicated to serving our country. No graduate of that venerable institute embodies those virtues more than the young man who arrived in 1911 from the plains of Kansas. Dwight Eisenhower’s transformation was made complete by his early and absolute commitment to these values. It is fitting, therefore, that his statue now stands on the grassy “Plain” above the bend in the Hudson River where he first pledged his life in defense of those principles.