Many of the intriguing artifacts that dress the Yard have significant meaning, and several of them still play an integral role in daily life at the Naval Academy. The historic bells that flank Bancroft Hall are two such living relics. Known as the Enterprise Bell and the Japanese Bell, they come to life towards the end of each semester to be rung for each sport that Navy has dominated over Army. When they’re not being rung, they are heavy with the histories that they bring to this special place.
A Bit of Naval Bell History
Around the year 1485, the shipboard bell likely made its first appearance on the British ship Grace Dieu. About a decade later, the English Ship Regent had among its inventory two “wache bells.” Since that time, bells have become a fixture on ships across the world. They serve many purposes, from keeping time aboard ships before the advent of the chronograph, to alerting the crew to a fire, to signaling other ships when enveloped in low visibility fog, to marking the decommissioning of a ship. One of the more important functions is to notify others when important people come on board. If the captain, a flag officer, or another noteworthy person enters or leaves a ship, the watch standers announce this movement to the rest of the ship and ring the bell as notification. Over time, this tradition has evolved to include important Navy ceremonies and events, both on-ship and off.
Ringing the Two Naval Academy Victory Bells
At the U.S. Naval Academy, the two “Victory Bells” that continue this tradition are the Enterprise Bell to the right as you face Bancroft Hall and the Perry Bell to the left.
Enterprise Bell: A Decoration from a Highly Decorated Aircraft Carrier
The Enterprise Bell was brought to the Yard by the late Admiral Harry W. Hill who was serving as the superintendent of the school at the time in 1950. Originally serving as an important bell on the bridge of the famous World War II aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CV-6). Now it is an active part of Naval Academy life too. Wrought in the classical style, the “E” bell is made of bronze. It features the following inscription on its granite base:
SHIP'S BELL U.S.S. ENTERPRISE
A GALLANT FIGHTING SHIP
OF WORLD WAR II
THE CLASS OF 1921
Perry Bell: A Treasured Gift
Also known as the Gokokuji Bell, this beautifully made Japanese bell replaces the original, which was a 1456 casting that was presented to the U.S. by Regent of the Liu Chu Islands (now known as the Ryukyus, which include Okinawa), and received by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry when he returned from his world-changing travels which opened ports to commerce in Japan in 1854.
Commodore Perry’s widow donated the original bronze bell without a clapper to the Naval Academy in 1858, and in 1987 the Navy returned it to the people of Okinawa. The inscription loosely translates to a warning that barbarians will invade if Japanese leaders do not act justly. Originally situated by the Zimmerman Bandstand, the bell became part of USNA history when midshipmen beat it with bowling pins from the old Bancroft Hall bowling alley to celebrate America on V-J Day. It is now beat loudly to celebrate varsity football wins over Army, concurrent with the Enterprise Bell.
Celebrating Victories Over Army
The Enterprise Bell famously rings out after Navy prevails in a majority of victories over Army in any one of the three sports seasons. The midshipmen handbook Reef Points describes the sports recognition ceremony this way: “Once a victory over Army in football is known, the midshipmen left behind, under the direction of the Officer of the Watch (OOW), will be tasked to ring the Enterprise Bell once every hour on the hour until 2000 on the Sunday following the game. The bell will be rung the number of times equal to the number of points by which Navy wins. Bell ringing will be secured during religious services from 0900 to 1200 on Sunday.”
Ringing Both Bells
For any varsity wins in the fall,, both bells will be rung the Monday following the Army-Navy game in lieu of Noon Meal Formation. If the football team wins, the Perry Bell is also rung on this date for the number of times equal to the point spread by a series of people. Reef Points notes “Football Team Captain(s), Head Coach, Superintendent, Commandant, Athletic Director, and each football team member will ring the Japanese Bell once.” A similar order is followed for other sports during the fall, winter, and spring varsity seasons. “Each of the following will ring the Enterprise Bell the number of varsity season victories over Army in the following order: All Victorious Team Captains, All Victorious Coaches, Superintendent, Commandant, Athletic Director, Victorious Team Members and Members of the Brigade. The Enterprise Bell will remain open until evening colors that day for all members of the Naval Academy Family to ring.” That is a lot of ringing!
Hear the Bells
Come see these bells in person on the Yard. As a deep-seated tradition at the Academy, they are truly a part of the cadence of life on the Yard. When you visit, be sure to check out our shops, restaurants, and tours, where all profits go to the Brigade. These are just a sampling of the many intriguing artifacts and stories across the Yard. It’s not just history, it’s history in the making. Come be a part of it!