Several hundred young warriors stormed a 21-foot-high obelisk at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis on Monday, slipping and sliding as they formed a human pyramid around a monument covered in 50 pounds of vegetable shortening.
The annual tradition marks the end of their hellacious “plebe” year at the academy, the country’s premier training ground for Navy and Marine Corps officers. But that year is only over once the freshmen, known as plebes, manage to replace a “dixie cup” cap perched at the monument’s tip with an upperclassman’s hat.
With hundreds of spectators watching in person and hundreds of thousands following the action online, there were wild cheers when the plebes completed the mission after two hours, nine minutes and 35 seconds. The “capper” was Peter Rossi from Phoenix.
Dozens of attempts were cut short as the plebes tried and failed to toss the hat onto the monument’s peak, often hoisting the tallest students through to the upper layers of the human pyramid. But until the final, fateful toss, those efforts ended with the plebes slipping down the monument and into the heap of midshipmen below.
The Herndon Climb is the ultimate test of the teamwork and perseverance taught during the plebes’ first year. And it was a challenge they had to complete like the thousands of shirtless men and bathing-suited women who came before them.
So what’s the history here?
The plebes’ connection to the Herndon Monument can be traced to the late 1800s, after the Naval Academy returned to Annapolis from its Civil War refuge in Newport, R.I. Freshmen, all white men back then, weren’t allowed to socialize with women, according to James Cheevers, the retired senior curator of the Naval Academy Museum. Older students were allowed to date, and often did so on Sundays by taking young ladies for a walk down the campus’s “Love Lane.”
The Herndon Monument — named for Cmdr. William Lewis Herndon, who went down with the SS Central America during a hurricane in 1857 — had been erected along the path in June 1860.
In 1907, the plebes swooped around the monument at the start of summer to celebrate surviving their freshmen year. Cheevers, who researched the Herndon Climb, wrote that the “swoop out” became an annual ritual snake dance called “tain’t no mo’ plebes,” which marked their coveted access to “Love Lane.”
Then, in 1940, the plebes suddenly decided to climb the monument, creating the kooky ritual that unfolds during the academy’s commencement week every spring. (A sober footnote: The 1940 plebes graduated in 1942 instead of 1943 because of the start of World War II. Seventy-nine of those class members are honored in the academy’s Memorial Hall, most of whom died in World War II.)
The original goal of the climb was to have a member of the class perch on top of the monument, Cheevers wrote. An officer’s white hat appeared at the obelisk’s peak beginning in 1947. Upperclassmen apparently thought that challenge was too easy. They began greasing the monument in 1949, and placed a plebe dixie cup on top of the monument starting in 1962, Cheevers wrote.
The academy began keeping track of how long it takes the plebes to finish the climb. The class of 1962 shimmied up the obelisk in 12 minutes — the first recorded time. The class of 1972 boasts the fastest time at 1 minute 30 seconds — but no grease was used that year. The class of 1998 met an especially sticky fate: Upperclassmen glued and taped the dixie cup hat to the top. It would take the plebes 4 hours 5 minutes 17 seconds to finish, giving them the record for the slowest time.
A Naval Academy spokesperson said the climb has never led to major injuries, despite some body-twisting tumbles. Plebes rip off their shirts to try to mop the lard away since no props are allowed. Still, Cheevers wrote that the class of 1965 somehow got away with throwing a cargo net over the monument to deal with an especially heavy coat of grease.
But some one-time plebes dispute that account. Ed Linz, the class of 1965 freshman who completed the mission in three minutes flat, told The Post that his classmates didn’t use a cargo net. Linz said that older students put chicken wire on top of the monument to make the plebes lose balance whenever someone grabbed on. With a photograph to show for it, Linz said that he and a classmate, Jim Savard, used each other as counterbalances, gripping onto the wire on opposite sides of the monument. And that’s how Linz managed to snake to the peak.
Legend has it that the plebe who sets the upperclassman’s hat at the monument’s peak is destined to become the first admiral in the class.
As of today, that had never happened.