Earlier this month, the USNA’s oldest living alumnus, Retired Rear Admiral Edgar Keats, passed away. He was 104 and an accomplished World War II veteran who served in the Pacific. He and almost 100,000 others have passed through the gates to this hallowed Yard as Midshipmen. They include such luminaries as Jimmy Carter, Major General Charles Bolden, Wendy Lawrence, John McCain, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and more. All of these men and women had their USNA experiences captured in the annual USNA yearbook, The Lucky Bag, a tradition that started more than a century ago.
As we celebrate all things lucky with St. Paddy’s Day this week, we’ll take a closer look at the colorful history of the Lucky Bag, which chronicled so many great stories. Started in 1894, the yearbook’s birth itself is the stuff of legends. Just five midshipmen produced the first edition, and the inaugural issue starts with this colorful apology:
“One day during last summer's cruise, while becalmed in the very middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a group of first-class middies were whiling away the tedious hours by reciting impromptu poetry on the forecastle of the good ship "Constellation;" some unusually brilliant effort elicited the remark that talent like that should not be doomed to bloom unseen. A resolution to publish a little volume into which such bursts of genius might be gathered, was the result of the conversation which followed, and a committee was chosen to bring the volume into being….
In desperation they at last decided to convert the book into an Academy Annual, similar to the annuals published at all other large colleges, and the "Lucky Bag" is the result. That we have not done our work well we do not need to be told - not even after considering the many obstacles which have had to be surmounted. But, if the senior classes which succeed us will take up the work where we have left it, profiting by our errors and improving each subsequent volume until the "Lucky Bag" becomes an annual of which the Naval Academy may feel proud, then - and not until then - we shall feel repaid for the efforts which it has cost us to "set the ball rolling."
The Lucky Bag Takes Off
Thus set in motion a yearbook, published unfailingly each year since by the First Class. Thankfully, through a partnership with the Naval Postgraduate School, the Naval War College and the Internet Archive, the issues from 1894 up through 1970 have been digitized. After 1970, Special Collections & Archives, Nimitz Library has uploaded digital copies as well.
The collective total of these yearbooks has featured an impressive number of exceptional naval officers, many of whom have gone on to accomplish other amazing feats, both within the military and beyond, including:1 President of the United States
3 Cabinet Members
26 Members of Congress
5 State Governors
5 Secretaries of the Navy
1 Secretary of the Air Force
5 Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
4 Vice Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
29 Chiefs of Naval Operations
9 Commandants of the Marine Corps
2 Nobel Prize Winners
73 Medal of Honor Recipients
52 Rhodes Scholars
28 Marshall Scholars
122 Olmsted Scholars
39 Fitzgerald Scholars
Each Midshipman and graduating officer receives a Lucky Bag each year to commemorate his or her time at the Academy. The name “lucky bag” is thought to have originated from a bag containing the contents lost at sea by sailors.
What’s Inside the Bag?
Lucky Bag yearbooks always contain a vast collection of Naval Academy photos from the Midshipmen’s experience, as well as photographs of each graduation officer accompanied by a paragraph about him or her, authored by a friend. This unique approach has netted many memorable descriptions, like this one from the 1940 issue, describing John Arthur Whitacre: “After two years at Iowa State College, Jay suddenly found himself in the Naval Academy, and proceeded to take it in his usual easy stride. Never bothered very much by studies, he could usually be found relaxing on his bunk with the latest copy of “Cosmo.” Although Spanish was nearly his Waterloo for two years, he could always explain a “juice” prob better than the profs….”
The books are endlessly fascinating. The 1908 edition has a page called “Bones” with a hand-drawn skull that introduces the Surgeon F. C. Cook, “in charge of Special Instruction in Physiology, Hygiene, and Physical Training.” The 1972 issue features Midshipmen involved in various shenanigans, and includes the caption, “The United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md.: Home of over 4000 morning haters” with these pictures:
You can easily get lost for days flipping through their virtual pages. They are quite valuable too. A 1902 edition in excellent condition will fetch as much as $220 on eBay, and the 1958 edition featuring John McCain III is up for $200.
You never know what you’ll find in a Lucky Bag! Have fun exploring them here. You can also find other great USNA commemorative items that give 100% of proceeds back to the Midshipmen at our online store, to keep these incredible stories going.