The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966

The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966

by Rick Atkinson

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Overview

The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966 by Rick Atkinson

The first trade paperback edition of the New York Times best-seller about West Point's Class of 1966, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Atkinson.

This is the story of the twenty-five-year adventure of the generation of officers who fought in Vietnam. With novelistic detail, Atkinson tells the story of West Point's Class of 1966 primarily through the experiences of three classmates and the women they loved--from the boisterous cadet years and youthful romances to the fires of Vietnam, where dozens of their classmates died and hundreds more grew disillusioned, to the hard peace and family adjustments that followed. The rich cast of characters includes Douglas MacArthur, William Westmoreland, and a score of other memorable figures. The West Point Class of 1966 straddled a fault line in American history, and Rick Atkinson's masterly book speaks for a generation of American men and women about innocence, patriotism, and the price we pay for our dreams.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429979047
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 258,107
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Rick Atkinson, recipient of the 2010 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing, is the bestselling author of The Day Of Battle, An Army at Dawn, and In the Company of Soldiers. He was a staff writer and senior editor at The Washington Post for twenty years, and his many awards include Pulitzer Prizes for journalism and history. He lives in Washington, D.C.


Rick Atkinson is the bestselling author of An Army at Dawn (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history), The Day of Battle, The Long Gray Line, In the Company of Soldiers, and Crusade. His many other awards include two Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, the George Polk Award, and the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award. A former staff writer and senior editor at The Washington Post, he lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Beast

Even on the Sabbath dawn Penn Station was a busy place. Redcaps hurried across the concourse on crepe soles, pushing carts piled high with luggage. Vendors began to unshutter their kiosks, and the garble of arrivals and departures droned from the public address system. Although it was a gray beginning to what would be a gray day, the huge waiting room was awash with a hazy luminance. Light seeped through the windows high overhead and filtered down through the intricate ironwork. Chandeliers, each with eight yellow globes, dangled from the girders. This was the year before the station — which had been modeled on the Baths of Caracalla — would be razed for a new Madison Square Garden and a monstrously ugly depot. Now, though, the building was magnificent, with its arches and trusses and vaulting space as vast as the nave of St. Peter's.

Beneath the large sign proclaiming INCOMING TRAINS, five young men climbed the stairs from the grimy warren of tracks below. Each carried a small bag containing a shaving kit, a change of clothes, and, as instructed, "one pair of black low-quarter, plain-toe shoes." They had boarded the train in Newport News and traveled north, through the pine forests of southern Virginia, through darkened Washington and Baltimore. Without much success, they had tried to nap as the train rocked through Maryland and the slumbering villages of southern New Jersey, silent except for the hysterical dinging of crossing gates. Now, a bit rumpled but excited by their arrival in Manhattan, the five chattered like schoolboys set loose on a great adventure.

They walked quickly across the waiting room toward Eighth Avenue. In front of a newsstand, the day's edition of The New York Times had just arrived in a thick bundle. Under the paper's name and the date — July 1, 1962 — the front page offered a remarkable snapshot of an America that was about to vanish and the America that was about to replace it.

LEADERS OF U.S. AND MEXICO HAIL NEW ERA OF AMITY, the lead story proclaimed. A large photo showed the president ignoring his Secret Service agents to grasp the hand of a boy on his father's shoulders in Mexico City as a huge crowd — more than a million — roared, "Viva Kennedy!"

On the opposite side of the page, the Times reported that the federal deficit topped $7 billion as fiscal 1962 ended, with "the virtual certainty of another deficit" in the new fiscal year. Other articles reported that former President Eisenhower, speaking from his Gettysburg farm, had declared that Republicans represented the party of business and were "proud of the label" Dodger southpaw Sandy Koufax had notched thirteen strikeouts in pitching a no-hitter against the Mets; and an article from Detroit —'63 AUTOS TO ACCENT STYLING OVER THRIFT — noted that car makers were about to offer more chrome, automobiles two to seven inches longer than the previous year's models, and ninety varieties of bucket seats. The Times also documented developments in Algerian politics, Saskatchewan health care, and a call by Nikita Khrushchev for the Soviet people to diversify their diets by eating more corn flakes. "Americans and Englishmen," Khrushchev observed, "are masters of preparing corn in the form of flakes." The missile gap had been succeeded by the cereal gap.

Tucked into the lower right-hand corner of page 1 were two nettlesome articles with an exotic dateline: Saigon. The first reported that the South Vietnamese government "charged today that new weapons from Communist China had been given to Communist guerrillas. It demanded action against these 'flagrant violations' of the Geneva agreement." The second article said that "a massive combined operation against 'hardcore' Communist guerrillas along the Cambodian border has resulted in the discovery of two training camps for insurgents and the capture of enemy documents." A related story on page 22 reported that "the most avidly read book in Saigon is Bend With the Wind, a breezy tract put out by the United States Embassy for the big American colony here." The book contained advice on riots, invasions, coups, typhoons, and earthquakes; it also explained a sequence of alerts known as Conditions White, Gray, and Yellow. In the event of Condition Red — the most serious gradation — Americans were to "remain calm and prepare for evacuation."

The five young men stepped onto Eighth Avenue. The overcast sky threatened drizzle; New York City looked hard and scruffy, as though it too had been shortchanged on sleep. They turned north and walked six blocks to the West Side bus terminal. A ticket agent directed them to the proper bus, whose sign above the windshield advised in block capitals WEST POINT. They climbed aboard.

All five were the sons of Army officers stationed at Fort Monroe, a picturesque antebellum fortress on the Chesapeake Bay where Jefferson Davis had been imprisoned after the Civil War. All five were also good students, model citizens, and active in extracurricular activities. One was an outstanding marksman, another a champion middleweight boxer.

The youngest of the group was still six months shy of his eighteenth birthday. Just under five feet ten inches tall, he had his mother's blue eyes, high forehead, and fair hair. He laughed often, with an abrupt, high-pitched giggle that was easy to pick out in a crowded room. Although never a gifted athlete, he kept himself in good shape. His name was John Parsons Wheeler III, and he was nervous.

As the bus worked its way north through Manhattan, Jack Wheeler couldn't help wondering whether he was making a mistake. He had agonized over where to go to college. The decision seemed so momentous that he had avoided making it for weeks after the arrival of the academy's acceptance letter — Admission Form 5.413, dated 24 April 1962, which had declared him "fully qualified and entitled to admission." At Hampton High School, he had been editor of the yearbook and president of the Spanish Club. His classmates considered him warm, erudite, and serious. The word among the girls at Hampton High was that if you planned to go out with Jack Wheeler, you had better be smart. He'd even lectured one of them on the constellations, pointing out the Dippers and the North Star. During his senior year, his classmates had voted him "most likely to succeed."

Much of Jack's ambivalence was caused by another letter he had received, this one dated April 16, 1962, and embossed with the Latin phrase Lux et Veritas: "Yale University takes pleasure in advising John Parsons Wheeler III that he has been approved for admission to the freshman class entering in September 1962." Unlike West Point's free education, four years at Yale were very expensive, but Jack had won a National Merit Scholarship to cover the cost. The idea of going to New Haven to study literature and live like a normal college student had enormous appeal. There was no doubt about where his mother, Janet, wanted him to go; she nudged him persistently toward Yale, convinced that her elder son needed a place that would give his mind free rein.

Just as persistently, his father nudged him toward West Point, his own alma mater. He very much wanted his son to be a military man: the Wheelers hailed from a long line of soldiers, traceable to at least the seventeenth century. But when young Jack took the physical examination for the academy, Army doctors disqualified him because of a punctured eardrum. Not to be denied, his father had taken him to an Air Force doctor who was accustomed to seeing shattered ears in his pilots. "Mighty fine ears your boy has, Colonel," the doctor said cheerfully before certifying the young man as physically sound for the academy. As Colonel Wheeler pressed his campaign, Jack had to admit that West Point felt comfortable, like the succession of Army posts he was used to — Fort Riley, Fort Knox, Fort Hood, Fort Monroe. The academy would almost be like home.

When he had finally made up his mind, Jack came down to dinner one evening, pulled up to the table, and announced, "I've decided where I'm going to go." He paused dramatically before adding, "West Point."

Janet finished her meal and excused herself. She got into the car and drove aimlessly around the post, trying to calm down. Without even bothering to check the marquee, she parked next to the theater, bought a ticket, and walked inside. "The most desirable woman in town and the easiest to find," the poster next to the box office proclaimed; "just call BUtterfield 8." By the time the heroine — played by Elizabeth Taylor — perished in an automobile wreck, Janet had recaptured her composure. She drove home and congratulated her son.

The bus rumbled across the George Washington Bridge and north onto Highway 9W, following the western Palisades. Past Upper Nyack, the land seemed to muscle up, inclining slightly as the engine whined through a shift of gears. Yes, West Point was a known quantity, more predictable than the alien civilian world of New Haven. The academy also offered an engineering education, which seemed more pragmatic to Jack than the humanities. In the aftermath of Sputnik, he thought, his generation had an obligation to keep America pre-eminent in the sciences and technology. That polished steel beachball, beeping its eerie A-flat taunt as it orbited the earth, had triggered a bout of American self-reproach several years earlier. The Soviets had humiliated the United States, and the implication was that the rising generation would have to set things right. Jack took that mission seriously, and West Point seemed a good place to accept the challenge.

Colonel Wheeler had not been around to see his firstborn off to West Point. Once again duty had taken him from home, this time to prepare for command of a tank battalion at Fort Riley, Kansas. Big Jack's frequent absences stretched the emotional distance that Jack felt; the more his father was away, the more Jack craved his admiration and respect. He understood, perhaps intuitively rather than intellectually, that attending West Point was the surest way to please Big Jack.

With a few hours to kill before the train left for New York, Jack had paced restlessly through the house at Fort Monroe.

"Come on," his mother said, sensing that he needed to get out, "let's go have dinner at the Officers Club." While they were eating, a general stopped by the table to chat for a moment. When he learned that Jack was leaving that night for the academy, the general put a hand on his shoulder and said gently, "He's too young. Boys shouldn't leave for soldiering so young."

Finally the moment came and Janet drove her son to the Newport News station. It was a beautiful evening, the sky jammed with stars. At home in Laredo, Texas, during World War II, she had fallen into the habit of staring at the heavens, wondering whether her husband was alive or dead on some European battlefield. Now, hugging her son on the platform, she looked up again and silently prayed to her ancestors, Please, please attend him. His eyes flooded with tears; dry-eyed herself, she fought an impulse to hop on the train with him. With a last hug she whispered, "Go find your star, Jack." And then he was gone.

Now, ninety minutes after leaving New York, the bus rolled into the village of Highland Falls, drowsy with summer and Sunday. Diners and pubs lined the main street, where five-and-dime stores peddled "Go Army!" pennants and ceramic figurines of cadets with little bow mouths and ruddy cheeks. Ahead lay the academy's main entrance, Thayer Gate.

The sheaf of official documents Jack had received included a form letter with a veiled warning from the adjutant general: "You are to be congratulated on this opportunity for admission to the military academy, for it comes only to a select few of America's youth ... Now is the time for you to reconsider your decision to become a member of the Corps of Cadets. You should reassess your ambitions most conscientiously in the light of the mission of the academy, which is the training of young men for careers as officers in the regular Army of the United States. Without strong determination to achieve such a career, many of the demands of cadet life will be irksome and difficult."

With a squeal of brakes, the bus pulled up to the Hotel Thayer. The young men stood up, yawning and stretching as they shuffled toward the door. Jack grabbed his bag and stepped onto the pavement, his full sense of high purpose tinged with a touch of dread.

The Thayer was an imposing brick hostel perched on a knoll above the Hudson. Its roof, like that of a castle, was ringed with battlements, and the lobby was often filled with old soldiers in various stages of fading away. The grand dining room featured octagonal pillars with gilded basrelief vines and tendrils that climbed toward the oakbeamed ceiling. Like all formal dining rooms on Army posts, this one smacked of the Old Army — big steaks and blue cheese and undertipping alcoholics. But little imagination was required in the soft lighting to see a MacArthurin the far corner, strands of hair combed vainly over his pate, or an Eisenhower with his eyebrow cocked, hanging fire with his cutlery as he listened to an old friend from '15, the famous "class that stars fell on."

Now, hundreds of young men, all as nervous as Jack, crowded the Thayer. Most had never seen the academy; a few had never been on a military post. Many — those with their hands still clamped over their wallets — had just come through New York for the first time. Nearly two-thirds were the sons of military fathers, and they came as close to constituting an American warrior caste as the nation would allow.

Two-thirds also were Protestants; only 1 percent were Jewish. Compared with other new college freshmen with whom they had been surveyed, the new cadets smoked less, prayed more, cribbed less, napped more. Few were from either very rich or very poor homes; half, in fact, came from families with annual incomes of $10,000 to $15,000. They inclined to achievement and overachievement: most had been varsity athletes, student government or class officers, and members of the National Honor Society. The Army brats, like Jack, had grown up as nomads, moving an average of eight or ten times in their young lives. The upbringing encouraged a strange concoction of traits that made them cosmopolitan and self-reliant, yet rootless and somewhat insulated from the larger civilian world.

All of them were also sons of the 1950s. Had they been asked, they collectively could have belted out the theme songs to the Mickey Mouse Club or the Davy Crockett show ("Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee ..."). They had been nurtured on Wagon Train and Wyatt Earp, and knew that DDT meant "drop dead twice." Most wore butch haircuts or flattops, and a few rebels had experimented by rolling their T-shirts above their biceps with cigarette packs secured in the sleeve. They universally admired John Glenn, another military man, whose three orbits earlier that year had earned him fame and glory; they agreed with Pablo Picasso, who had said of the smiling Marine from New Concord, Ohio, "I am as proud of him as if he were my brother." Finally, they were largely ignorant of many things, including women, failure, and evil.

Jack spied a familiar face in the crowd, a friendly, reassuring one. Jeff Rogers, whose father and uncle were both West Pointers, had graduated from Hampton High in 1961 and enlisted in the Army. He had spent the past year at the military academy prep school in Virginia, brushing up his math skills and memorizing thirty new words a week. As little boys at Fort Riley, Jack and Jeff had played in the same sandbox; their fathers had both been brown-boot cavalrymen who made the necessary transition to tanks during World War II.

"C'mon," Jeff said, after pumping Jack's hand, "let's go look around."

They strolled down to the river and past the old train station, a pretty little gingerbread building with gables and a steep slate roof. Jack saw sailboats tied up nearby — that also was reassuring. At Fort Monroe, the Wheelers lived in a three-bedroom house near the sea wall, where they were lulled by the slap of Chesapeake waves on the stones. The commanding general occasionally let the family borrow his boat and Jack had learned to sail on the bay. The Hudson, he thought, with its tides, current, and barge traffic, would provide a stiff challenge to his seamanship.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Long Gray Line"
by .
Copyright © 1989 Rick Atkinson.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword,
Prologue,
Part I,
1. Beast,
2. Year of the Tiger,
3. Year of the Rabbit,
4. Year of the Dragon,
5. Year of the Horse,
Part II,
6. Ranger,
7. Benning,
8. United Hearts and Minds,
9. Eight Seven Five,
10. Screaming Eagle,
11. Long Binh,
Part III,
12. Wounds,
13. Farewell to Arms,
14. A Hard Peace,
15. Dishonor,
16. The Poplar Tree,
Part IV,
17. Walls,
18. Urgent Fury,
19. Firebase,
20. A Dark Wood,
Photographic Insert,
Afterword,
Bibliography,
Author's Note,
Notes,
Interviews,
Index,

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Long Gray Line 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Every military officer should read this book about graduating into the Vietnam war. The book is the best one i have found on the academy life of cadets at any of the academies.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the truly most novelistic history books I have ever read. The flow of the writing is fluid and ever engaging. Rick Atckinson has given us a yet larger panorama of the the unforgotten acts of courage and valor that characterized the fighting men in Vietnam. Uncommon valor was as common a virtue for the patriotic civilian soldier as for the veteran. These soldiers should never be forgotten. Anti-war protesters have condemned these soldiers for cooperating with their government like good civilians, have spat on them, rejected them, and for some, sadly destroyed the patriotic feelings that ever existed in them by making these brave soldiers question who and what kind of culture they were fighting for.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a fantastic account of the West Point class of '66, from Beast to the battlefields. This ranks with Timberg's The Nightingale's Song in explaining the personal accounts of Vietnam from the perspective of the products of our nation's military academies.
Henrys8 More than 1 year ago
A very well written story about the class of 1966 at West Point. The book gives you a lot of details about their lives before, during, and after their time at West Point.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An exquisitely detailed journey down The Long Gray Line and particularly poignant look at the Class of 1966. It is so richly detailed that I can close my eyes and imagine myself (having also been there) walking the hallowed grounds of West Point! Rick Atkinson is one of our GREATEST historical writers!!!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought that it was a great book. Follows the class of '66 all the way through there lives!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The writing itself was brilliant, and I really grew close to the characters themselves. How could you not? They were real people! I actually had the opportunity to visit West Point and see their graves. A must read. I'm a GIRL and I couldn't put it down!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I give this book 2 stars for being well written. I found it quite boring, however. I also found it to be surprisingly negative. For example, I don't think it's the kind of book I would give to prospective students if I were in admissions at West Point.