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Turbulent Times: The Cadets of 1965 & a Form of Collective Leadership

University of Connecticut Seal in 1965

The Cadets of 1965 and a Form of Collective Leadership

Article by Tom Rozman

The Viet Nam situation was accelerating.  The United States had in its post World War II/Cold War evolution found itself committed to containing the spread of Communism with a team of allies, Communism an initiative that had taken serious aim after acquiring the Russian State at establishing a global system. At the same time, heavily influenced by initiatives of President Roosevelt during World War II the U. S. was supporting the gaining of independence of nations that had been absorbed in preceding centuries into various colonial empires the majority of these being lands under British, Belgian, Dutch, and French governments, recent allies in combat. The country found itself in this often conflicting dual track assuming a role to support and stabilize a fledgling South Vietnamese Government after French withdrawal from that country previously part of French Indo-China.  This expanding U.S. support to the South Vietnamese Government was increasingly in conflict with the Communist regime that had formed in the northern half of the country.

There were other layers to the complexities developing. But the march to a full blown war with an Asian country few Americans had much knowledge of only 20 years after the almost superhuman effort required of the nation to work through the 3 ½ WW II years and only 11 years after the Armistice ending the almost 4 year unwanted war in Korea were beginning to produce problematic tears in the American political fabric.  There was a war weariness, especially to engage in conflicts that seemed to have little to do with the average American’s situation—except to defeat and contain this thing Communism which seemed radically opposed to the fundamental basis of the American Republic…individual liberty protected by law, not least of the liberties being property ownership.  Americans seemed to understand the dangers of Communism reinforced by the experiences of the Berlin Airlift and Cuban Missile Crisis—but the national leadership was beginning to experience difficulty in communicating effectively the “why” of the Viet Nam situation to the larger context and providing an effective unifying political leadership to sustain a national will to prevail.

This situation would play out in many ways in the country and overseas from 1965-75.  A snapshot of how one group of young American men faced the impending storm and demonstrated a remarkable collective leadership by their conduct, a noble form of leadership they demonstrated, is worth revisiting for perspective.

A further note for context…in effect, the American Republic and its allies in a “Cold War” with the Communist states of first Russia then Communist China and Russia that had begun essentially with the signing of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 and continued to the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, found itself in one of the several “hot campaigns” of that 44 year war. Viet Nam would become the fifth active campaign of the war after Trieste, the Berlin Airlift, the Greek Civil War and Korea.

However, for political and other reasons this sense of a larger framework of contest to which the “hot campaigns” belonged did not gell in the national discourse in a way that mobilized the country in support of those meeting the call to the colors in a cohesive way.  This failure often was in conflict with a dogged loyalty to the republic exhibited in especially groups of younger American men subject to the coming military duty, a remarkable and brave sense of their commitment to country in retrospect.  These were most admirable young men.

The following vignette recalls these young men…the freshman Military Science I (MS I)  Army ROTC cadets of the University of Connecticut in the 1965-66 academic year.

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The cadet battalion formed on the wide paved way that ran parallel to the east side of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building on the north edge of the University of Connecticut’s campus.  The paved way continued to the back of the building providing access to the main building rear entrance and nearby one story separate cinderblock building that housed the Army program’s equipment and arms room where among other equipment were a battalion’s worth of M1 Rifles.

The ROTC building was a large long rectangular two-story cinder block structure around its perimeter with a high interior raised roof rising perhaps another two stories in the building’s center creating a large indoor drill and exercise space for unit drill and other training.  The building housed the Air Force ROTC Program in its front offices and classrooms and the Army occupied the similar spaces at the rear of the building.  The exterior walls were painted a sort of brick red color.  It was not a particularly attractive building but it was functional.

The building’s general appearance as an aircraft hangar had led to its being referred to on campus as “The Hangar”.  It was across campus from the historic red brick traditional style Hawley Armory built on the south side of central campus from 1914-18.   It was directly across the street to the north from the Albert N. Jorgenson Auditorium, an attractive fairly new large red brick structure and the campus’ main venue for visiting speakers and entertainment.

The paved way’s east edge formed into a graded bank that descended fairly steeply to a large paved parking lot that served as an outdoor drill area for cadet squads and parking for auditorium and other events like graduation and football games at the stadium on the other side of North Campus.  The parking lot’s east side was flanked by the main north to south road through campus. Immediately across the street were the four story buildings that housed the Greek Fraternity compound and its 18 fraternities and several independent male student houses, Just south of this compound was the huge “U” shaped North Campus with its 11 interconnected five story residence halls and the student dining commons that occupied the bottom level  of the “bottom of the “U”.  This large complex housed the freshman male students and was referred to locally as the “Jungle” for a number of reasons.

The North campus complex was sited on a long descending slope toward the north to south running road with the base of the “U’ at the top of the slope and the arms opening wider as the interconnected dormitory hall blocks descended the slope toward the road.  The upper elevation gave a good view south and west toward main campus the most immediate landmark being Jorgenson Auditorium.  The ROTC building was visible off to the right as one walked toward main campus.

It was a bright sunny early fall afternoon.  The 967 Army Basic and Advanced ROTC  cadets were forming in their gabardine wool olive green Class A uniform blouses over poplin tan shirts and blouse matching trousers by assigned cadet company.   The freshman MS I Army ROTC cadets were streaming out of the North Campus dormitory halls down the North Campus concourse slope angling toward the ROTC building.  The uniformed cadets coming from the North Campus dorms were numerous enough to give some sense of robustness in the program.

Soon, the battalion was called to attention and the adjutant took the reports.  He reported the battalion to the cadet battalion commander.  On accepting the report the adjutant moved to his position with the commander and his staff and the commander ordered the battalion to stand at ease.  The cadet commander then addressed the battalion’s cadet companies.

This was the first formation of the entire battalion that academic year.  The new MS Is had been brought to a basic level of drill capability over the several weeks before the formation.   The assembled battalion was a duly impressive formation for many of the MS Is.  It clearly demonstrated that the cadet corps was a body of substance on campus.  The cadet corps had a tradition extending back to the 1880s and a proud heritage of commissioning infantry officers but there seemed a lessening emphasis on this proud and worthy past on campus.

Distinctive Unit Insignia of the University of Connecticut ROTC Corps of Cadets

It was Fall 1965 and the winds of discontent were fanning flames that made the brave ROTC formation more indicative of character on the part of the participating student cadets than might have been apparent.  The situation in Viet Nam was becoming more involved.  The Army was being expanded to meet increased operational needs.  As it did so, reaction to national policy began to form, especially among student elements.  At the moment, the conflagration that would develop on many campuses concerning Viet Nam had not yet started.  But there were indicators.

The University was one of the early schools created under the 1863 Morrill Act.  For a federal grant of land to establish an agricultural and typically engineering school of higher learning, the state would also require the students to train in arms to serve as a reserve resource in time of war.  The intent of the law was a large sustaining pool  of  trained potential junior officers to expand the army if necessary, officers competent in the military discipline.  The act was a reaction to the tragic embarrassment the country was experiencing in the early stages of the then occurring U.S. Civil War.  The country initially did not have sufficient competent junior officers to man the expanded number of regiments the war initially and later  required.

Bit by bit, the land grant schools were deviating away from this obligation prepare potential junior military leaders from the civilian Land Grant campuses.  The mandatory participation by all able bodied males in the first two years of their academic program had been vacated four years earlier.  By 1965, student participation was voluntary though the increased intakes of the selective service system was causing an increase in student volunteering and consideration of ROTC participation, even though at the moment there remained a student deferment.  The point being that at usually 21 years of age upon graduation, the male graduate not already in some military prearrangement would be subject to the draft.

Regardless of the breezes of dissident thought that wafted through the university, the cadet battalion was a sizeable formation on that day.   The assembled battalion gave a feeling of strength and commitment to what the oath of enlistment and commissioning oath spoke to.

As well, the ranks were not made up entirely of neophytes right out of high school.  In the cadet battalion ranks were a sprinkling of veterans who had served two years after being drafted or had served a Regular Army enlistment of four years.  There were veterans from the other services to include the Coast Guard.  There were a few National Guardsmen and Reservists.  One MS I had been serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve for some two years with several training cruises on a destroyer to his credit.   As well, and for the first time, there were recently enlisted Army Reserve privates who had been awarded the Army’s first four year Army ROTC scholarships, their duty assignment being as an MS I cadet and student at the university.

The cadets of Hurley Hall and other dormitories in the huge freshman dorm complex of North Campus discovered early that survival as a freshman was very much a sink or swim adjustment experience.   Some of the young men were compromised from the beginning finding it difficult to manage the freedom of living away from home, negotiating the process of signing up for courses that tracked with degree requirements, even understanding degree requirements, managing their course schedules and showing up at class, exercising self-discipline to study and do their course work, keeping social life restricted to weekends. Even keeping rooms and personal areas clean and sanitary was a challenge for some…some simply could not make the adjustment left to their own devices.  Consequently, large numbers, perhaps a quarter of the entering freshman class, failed to achieve readmission as sophomores which by 1966 made the academic failures susceptible to the increasing service draft.

The 20 Class of 1969 Freshman living on Hurley Hall’s 5th floor were heavily cadet and athletic team aligned.  Soon after the Academic year began they began forming study groups and self policed their floor to keep quiet hours quiet for study.  They supported each other where possible to work through reading and prepared course assignments. A mature focus on achieving academic viability became the orientation.  There were a few on the floor that kept separate council and for the most part these few succumbed academically.

The young men on the floor did engage in the social life the campus offered but focused their engagement on Friday Nights and Saturdays attending mixers, concerts at the Auditorium and athletic games as well as the occasional party.  Sunday after church was back to work.  The athletes did have grueling practice schedules during the week, coming back to their rooms to study late in the afternoon after supper in the commons.  And when their sport was in season, they participated in  inter college team competition on Saturdays which included travel to other campuses on alternating weeks.

The Hurley Hall 5th Floor cadet/athlete group comprised 10 of the men on the floor.  They maintained their momentum through the fall and spring semesters and all were academically solvent at the end of the freshman year.  Unfortunately, a good quarter of the floor was not so fortunate and did flunk out.

One of the number in the Hurley Hall cadet/athlete group that finished the year academically solvent was an Army ROTC Scholarship cadet and member of three of the freshman intercollegiate athletic teams and the full spring football season.  He would not return to the University in Fall 1966.  He had been offered an appointment to the United States Military Academy and accepted the offer.  Four weeks after leaving the university and being discharged from the Army of the United States as a Private 2nd Class he would be sworn back into the Army as a U. S. Cadet on 1 July 1966.

But the ex-UConn ROTC cadet would never forget his UConn Class of 1969 classmates from Hurley Hall who exhibited a form of collective leadership in a system with so little structure, leadership that would successfully bring its members, starting students, through the experience of the university’s first year.  To anyone who has experienced the culture shock of getting a handle on the system or lack there of that operates on a large civilian university campus, there is a keen sense of the initial feeling of being overwhelmed. The experience can be fatal to college careers.  The shock in some engenders a sense of hopelessness.  What the ex cadet remembered through the years was the individual and collective sense of leadership demonstrated by these young men to come together, set an example of commitment to their student mission, supporting each other, forming study groups and maintaining quiet hours for study.  The two man rooms were cleaned and maintained.   The members of the group dressed well to the circumstances.

The ex-cadet experienced the Military Academy but often reflected on how a group of young men came together and in a different system in their own way paralleled the work of the academy in engendering a sense of the leader.  It will be noted that not all floors in the North Campus complex exhibited this same high level of leadership and focus.  Drop out rates reflected the failure.  As well, they demonstrated this high level of leadership in an environment that was beginning to attack and disparage the programs they supported and participated in.

Many of these young men would later apply this special brand of leadership in the expanded U.S. military establishment of the Viet Nam Conflict and in their later careers for those who came through the experience.  In the estimation of the ex-cadet, they were some of the finest leaders he had witnessed in his leadership journey.  They spoke well of the society and families they came from.

A testament to the MS Is of 1965’s collective leadership, in the large parking lot east of “The Hanger” a newly commissioned Army 2nd lieutenant 30 years later, son of one of the MSI cadets.