THE CITADEL – Plebe Year, 1962
What would you do if you saw a young guy get tortured day after day by the same gang of young toughs? What should you do? How should you feel?
When I was 17 and it was time for me to start college I got on a Greyhound bus in Oakland, California and rode it for 3 days to Charleston, South Carolina. The destination was The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. The road ran down through the central valley, connected into Route 66 near Barstow, then east through Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Amarillo. We’d stop every 2 hours or so for everyone to get off, stretch, have a smoke. It was hot and dry, dusty and khaki; no air conditioning; people moved around from front to back, window to aisle. In the second late afternoon at Oklahoma City, 2 sailors got on. In Fort Smith a young woman with a 4 year old boarded. By Little Rock the swabbies were taking turns making out with her in the back seat while the other looked after the kid. By then I was in a stupor, half asleep for the last 20 or 30 hours Memphis, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Augusta.
In Charleston the drinking age was 18. I checked into a cheap hotel on King Street and grabbed a taxi out to the campus to do a recon. I got back about 5 and went to a skinny bar and, for the first time in my life, sat up on a stool and ordered a draft Pabst Blue Ribbon. I got to sleep in late evening and next morning around 10 got into a cab and got out in front of the main barracks. There were groups of parents hanging around in the street and sidewalks, craning to look inside the iron gates and catch a glimpse of their sons. I walked up to a desk inside the arch way, gave them my name and walked onto the red and white checkered squares of the 2nd Battalion quadrangle and into my new life.
These squares would become the center of our existence. Every morning at 0630 we’d roll out dressed in the days uniform for inspection and the march to breakfast; then again at lunch; then at 4 pm for parade drill or PT; and again at 6 for chow. We’d practice close order drill for hours. We’d start and end PT with scores of pushups, jumping jacks, situps. In the 4 corners of each of the barracks were spiral staircases going up the 4 floors. The center of the spirals were open and provided a clean drop down 4 stories to certain death if one committed suicide.
The basics of the cadet military life revolved around inspections, parades, PT, and hazing. There were plenty of imaginative names for plebes but the standards were: knob, knob-head, smack, smack-head, and squat ( as in you don’t know “squat”), squat-head. The first week was spent teaching the plebes how to stand, salute, march/drill, and pass inspection. The basic “standing position” was the brace = a form of standing at attention with your chin pulled in as far as possible. This isn’t to be confused with “the position” as in “assume the position squat-head” which meant get down into pushup position and prepare to become exhausted. In the beginning we would be marched around for hours each day, learning how to snappily and in perfect unison do such things as present arms, dress right, fall in/fallout, eyes right, etc.etc. There were continual inspections of our personal grooming and uniform as well as our rooms. The biggest inspection was saturday morning which had the unimaginative name of SMI (Saturday Morning Inspection). There were a seemingly infinite things involved in passing inspections without demerits. For example we had lots of brass – belt buckles, webbing connectors, hat insignia, etc., well, that came carefully coated with an anti-tarnish lacquer which promptly had to be removed so that a) the brass could tarnish, b) you had to therefore polish it 2-3 times a day, and c) failing to do so adequately then gave the upperclassmen a reason to torture you.
On day one we were issued an M-1 Garand 30 caliber semi automatic rifle. This was called by Gen. George S Patton “the greatest battle implement ever devised” but in the hands of The Citadel upperclassmen it became on of the “greatest harassment vehicles ever imagined”. By the end of the week we could field strip it and reassemble it blindfolded in less that one minute, polish and oil it such that not one piece of lint attached to it, and shine the barrel to a spotless sheen – and if we failed we’d get 30 pushups and the chance to do it again. Weighting 10 pounds it added to the agony of running up and down the 3 flights of stairs or jogging miles in close formation. We’d often end up sleeping with it in our beds.
The preferred form of torture for the new plebes was an insidious thing called a “sweat-party”. In each corner of the barracks was an alcove with 2 rooms – one large for high ranking company officers and a small one for their personal “knobs”. The little alcove room was a 2 bunk cave like thing: 10 by 15 feet with 2 grey steel metal clothes hanging cabinets, each about 6 feet tall, 2 plain wood tables and chair for desks and 2 wooden footlockers. The 6 foot metal cabinets were called a “press’” since the uniforms hung pressed together; they served a special purpose in the “sweat-party” torture. We had 3 sets of uniforms – summer, winter, and dress. The barracks rooms were heated with steam radiators and had a sink with hot water.
Several times throughout the week, and with as little notice as possible, the CO would call out “time for a sweat party you miserable knobs”. Usually this was a result of some real or trumped up deficiency in the freshmen. Maybe one or two screwed up at morning inspection, or maybe we were out of step as we marched to mess hall, or possibly some of the rooms were not precisely and correctly “dressed” for morning inspection. All the freshman plebes would be gathered in formation on the quad…a Second Classman would then berate us for several minutes telling us how worthless we were…then they’d turn the sophomores loose – screaming in our ears, their faces pushed up millimeters from ours, spittle splashing, they’d remind us we were “worthless pieces of flesh, born of inhuman fornications.”
So what exactly was the torture (need we mince words)..?
As the screaming grew louder the company master sergeant (a junior) would shout… “all you smack-heads go up to your rooms and put on every uniform you have grab your rifles, and go to “Room 3xx” – and anyone who is not there in 10 minutes is going to be in deep shit UNDERSTAND???”
The idea was we would go layer up: first our cotton summer grey’s, then our winter woolen pants and shirts, then on top of that, our wool dress jacket, and on top of that our padded cotton lightweight zipper jacket and finally on top of all those layers our full length heavy woolen overcoats and over that our poncho…all buttoned up, with gloves & scarves. 3 or 4 layers, wool and cotton, about 25 pounds.
Now these sweat-parties started the third or fourth day we arrived at school and were conducted two or three times a week until the Christmas break. So it was about 90 degrees the first time in late August. There were twenty five cadet plebes and 5 or 10 upperclassmen running the show. So about 30 or more guys and “Room 3xx” was one of those little alcove rooms. As the fun had started on the quad, the steam heat radiators and hot running water were turned on full, windows and transoms closed. So the tiny room was crammed with 30-35 men with the heat well over 100 degrees and then the physical punishment really began.
There were 3 basic types of punishment
1. Hang From the Press: the knob would be given a chair and his rifle stacked in the corner..he would climb up and, with a lift from other knobs, begin to hang by his elbows from the front of the six foot tall steel locker. So all his weight was hanging from about 4 inches of his forearm. after about 2 minutes the sharp edge of the press was beginning to cut into his skin, the blood circulation began to be cut off, and his back would begin to burn…if he fell off, which would surely happen around 4 or 5 minutes into it, he was screamed at, pushed around, and rehung from this unique gibbet. You could only do this twice before collapsing in agony – the record I think was 3 or 4 times.
2. Sweat a Penny: This was unique – someone, long ago I am sure, had discovered that if you put a penny between your nose and the plaster wall, then sweat on to it, after a few minutes the combination of salt and surface tension would form a slight bond between the wall and penny and it would stick when you moved back. You were first told to squat down about 12 inches back from the wall, rise up on your toes, lean forward and using your hands place the penny between your nose and the wall. Then carefully let go. The point is that your entire weight was canted forward and balanced between your two toes and your nose. And it had to be canted enough that sweat would pour down within a few minutes because you could not leave the position until the penny would stick of its own accord.
3. Squat with fully extended M1 Rifle: This was the ultimate pain – so simple yet so tough. Just a simple deep knee squat with all the clothes on and the 100 degree+ heat would make you pass out but to this was added the command to hold the ten pound M1 rifle at full extension in front of you. You would maintain that position until you collapsed – generally about seven to ten minutes. Try it with a couple of bags of flour in front of you. It is a horror.
So the scene was pandemonium: the upperclassmen yelling and screaming at us; we having to shout back answers to all sorts of absurd questions or make loud animal noises; several people would be hanging from the presses; two or three others sweating pennies; still others doing scores of pushups or holding the M1. All this for 17 or 18 year old kids who just week or so before were lying by the family pool or hanging out in a drive in with their sweeties.
Oh, and by the way – there was only one rule for a sweat party: NO knobs leave until they pass out! Great- just fucking great.
There was a cadet named Emmitt Sanborn – he was pudgy and a Jew – this was a guaranteed prescription to the most vicious hazing imaginable. He lived at the top of the stairs to the second floor which meant that all the upperclassmen walking up would see him being braced and screamed at, his chin tucked in multiple wrinkles grasping for the back of his spine, fingers hitting him repeatedly on his chest and on his chin. They would all know then that Sanborn had been picked out for particularly brutal harassment and would pile on when ever he was seen. Sanborn was from South Carolina. Having grown up initially in Brooklyn where there were only Catholics and Jews, and then on army bases, I had been surprised to find that Jews were discriminated against in the deep South. The fact that Sanborn was a “local” infuriated the upperclassman cadets. A typical harassment might sound something like:
“Sanborn you FAT FUCK – what the hell is a scumbag like you doing in MY state – we don’t like people like you in South Carolina – why don’t you just call your fat mama and beg her to come and pick you up?”
As we went through the first 2 or 3 months of plebe year the punishments for Sanborn were merciless. He was always in deep sweat doing dozens of pushups. The sophomores would wait for him outside the side gates to the barracks as he came back from dinner, brace him up, and pull his shirt out screaming at him that it was not tucked in in the precise wrinkle-less “shirt tuck” required of all, or his shoes were filthy, or his pants were not properly pressed. Sometimes it might take him 15 minutes to move the 50 feet from the gate to the stairwell.
As we, his classmates, watched from our own disciplining formations and hazing parties we wondered how long he might last. We began going by his room on the few minutes of free time we got in a day to offer him and his roommate encouragement and sympathy; sometimes, as we got ready for a full dress parade or an SMI (Saturday Morning Inspection – the most formal of each week), we’d help him polish his brass or his leather cartridge case.
One day a junior called several of us together and said that it would be deemed a black mark on our class if Sanborn resigned and left school – that, despite the horrific hazing he was going through. it was all a test to see if he could make it; but that if he indeed left it would imply that we, his classmates, had not shown the proper team spirit and leadership (by helping him last). In this case we would be deemed to share his failures. That allowed and motivated us to meet with Emmitt more. As the Christmas holiday approached the pressure on him became intense…in group sweat parties we’d hear them tell him “Don’t come back after Christmas; you are not wanted here; we will crush you, you goddamn knob-head”.
When we returned from the holiday we were surprised to see that Sanborn had returned and that he was committed to not let the hazing defeat him. We were pleased. As the winter turned to spring the hazing subsided – we’d learned all the cruel games, how to pass the never ending inspections and tests, and had built arrays of friendship with some of the upperclassmen. The plebe year was slipping away and everyone’s thoughts turned to beach parties.
Sanborn made it through the year and chose not to return as a sophomore. I have no idea what became of him. Throughout those long fall months we often wondered if he might kill himself. There was one suicide my freshman year – a plebe in 1st Battalion dove from the 4th floor headfirst down the stairwell. The school never admitted it was suicide. My understanding is suicide with college students is not unique given all the pressures of different types. I believe there is probably a suicide ever one or two years at The Citadel – I assume that’s probably a normal rate given a population of 2000 students. There is a bit of chatter on the internet about the brutality of the place. I don’t hold a strong opinion on how it might compare to other hazing environments whether that be basic Marine/Airborne/Ranger boot camp, fraternity hell weeks, or Abu Ghraib. Based on what I can find out, and in light of the upcoming movie called “Zero Dark Thirty” I don’t think there’s a lot of difference – none of them seem to be the “pulling out your fingernails, Roman Catholic inquisition, or drilling your teeth” variety. It was frankly pretty tame but tough. One thing I do believe it is a reasonable way to prepare soldiers, and especially officers, for combat.
POSTSCRIPT: several months after having posted this I received the following. I don’t know how Emmett got it – must be a FB feature. “Thank you. This came at a good time in my life. I am retired and living in Savanna, Georgia” signed Emmet S. Sanborn.