(Updated May 2021)
The Plebes at the United States Naval Academy overcome obstacles all throughout their first year, and that year is always capped off with one last great challenge. This particular year has been even more difficult than most due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From the moment they arrived on the Yard, and were welcomed with a haircut and white works, to the grueling physical and mental demands of Plebe Summer, to the rigors of academic and military professional development throughout the year, these Plebes have been put through the paces in more ways than can be remembered. By the end of May, they’ve made it through one of the hardest first years anyone can weather.
During Commissioning Week, they’re handed one last assignment as a class - to muscle their way straight up the granite obelisk known as the Herndon Monument - and replace a Plebe “dixie cup” cover with an upperclassman’s cover, as a way to symbolize their transformation from Plebes to Midshipmen, Fourth Class (MIDN 4/C).
Did we mention that the monument has been slathered with fifty pounds of vegetable shortening? They must show grit and teamwork as they link arms and stand on shoulders to create a human pyramid, working together tirelessly to switch the hats. This struggle has been as long as four hours (when the dixie cup was glued and taped), and as short as the standing record of twenty minutes (for a greased obelisk) from 1972.
This event is one of the most exciting parts of Commissioning Week, not only for the Plebes, but also for the upperclassmen who are leaving the Academy as graduates ready to begin their Naval and Marine Corps careers. Truly, this is an event that can't be missed. This year, the Herndon Climb will happen on Saturday, May 22nd. Due to restrictions around COVID-19, visitors cannot be on the Yard, but the event will be livestreamed for those who want to see the Plebes come together and rise to the challenge! The livestream will be viewable through the USNA Facebook page and USNA PAO YouTube page, and the event starts at 1:30 PM EST (1330 hours).
The Storied History of the Herndon Monument
The monument itself has an interesting story as well. It was erected to memorialize Commander William Lewis Herndon and his remarkable act of heroism. On September 12, 1857, Commander Herndon's ship, the SS Central America, was caught in a three-day hurricane near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. He went down with his ship in a herculean effort to save it, all the while ushering all women and children, and many other sailors, to safety on another ship.
The monument was erected on the Yard shortly after the incident and was dedicated to the U.S. Naval Academy by the Class of 1860. Although it is traditionally cited as reaching 21 feet, actual measurements put it at 33.33 feet. The sculptor is unknown. There is a plaque facing the Naval Academy Chapel that details Commander Herndon’s brave act, and includes the following statement by his brother-in-law and cousin (as well as co-worker), Matthew Fontaine Maury: "Forgetful of self, in his death he added a new glory to the annals of the sea.”
How the Climb Began
This famous “Plebes-No-More” event started because, in the early years of the Naval Academy, Plebes were not allowed to date or fraternize with women until they were Midshipmen, Third Class (MIDN 3/C). “Lovers' Lane,” with benches and landscaped features, snaked near the Herndon Monument, and Midshipmen could meet women there. In 1907, the Plebe Class of 1910 decided after graduation to celebrate the fact that they could now go on Lover’s Lane by whooping around the monument.
In 1940, they began to climb the Herndon Monument after graduation. Greasing started intermittently in 1949, and they started recording climbing times as early as 1959. Since many of the first climbs did not include vegetable shortening, they were much quicker. In 1969, Midshipman Larry Fanning reached the top in a minute and a half. Earlier climbers could employ tools, like the cargo net used in 1962 by Midshipman 4th Class Ed Linz. This is no longer the case. Once the greasing started, Midshipman 4th Class Michael J Maynard, of the Class of 1975, scaled the monument in 20 minutes in 1972. This is the current standing record.
Navy lore says that the Midshipman that actually replaces the dixie cup with the upperclassman’s cover will reach Flag Rank first. Although this has not yet happened, this person does receive a pair of shoulder boards to commemorate the achievement.
Getting to the Top and Giving Back
One other great tradition that has grown out of the Herndon Climb is the donation of the Plebes’ athletic shoes to a number of charities. This is facilitated by the Midshipman Action Group, and it started because Plebes are required to remove their shoes prior to attempting the climb. With roughly 1,000 Plebes vying for the prize, this leaves a lot of unclaimed shoes that could go to those in need!But the biggest question remains as we draw closer to the climb - will they break the record this year? Tune in on May 22nd, using Facebook or YouTube, to find out! And in the meantime, get some more information on Commissioning Week with our 2021 Commissioning Week Booklet!