“ATTENTION”… (“TENNN -HUT “ !)... DRESS RIGHT DRESS… RIGHT SHOULDER ARMS... RIGHT FACE... FORWARD MARCH”
Where would you expect to hear these military commands? Where would you not expect to hear them?... at BLS?? For over a hundred years Boston Latin School (BLS) students in Classes VI through I (7TH To 12TH grades) had the experience of mandatory military drill, complete with uniforms, weekly drill, competitions, manual of arms, and parades. Seniors even had one period a month of military science! Joe (BLS ’55), my classmate, still has his notebook from that class. It was all about ranks and rates in the different services and how the services were organized, i.e. brigades/ regiments/ battalions/ armies or fleets for the navy.
Everything you might expect at a military prep school, just somewhat less rigid.
The program began during the Civil War. There was a great fear in the North that masses of Confederate youth would attack major northern cities, and, therefore, to protect these cities, it was decided that secondary school boys would receive basic military training. After the war ended, because of the rise of labor unions, mob violence, etc., the program was maintained. In fact, most of the armories built in the major eastern cities were built in the period from the Civil War through the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, the armory in Park Square is known as the schoolboy cadet armory.
At BLS, students were required to drill one class period per week. This marching would occur in the old gymnasium in poor weather and outside in good weather. We would draw the old Springfield ’05 vintage plugged rifles from down in the basement - same place we ran track practice. Literally, hundreds of rifles were stored in large wooden cabinets. These rifles were single shot bolt action rifles left over from World War I.
Students in Class Vl-III generally held the rank of Private. In Class III, they were promoted to Corporal; in Class II Sergeant, and in Class I, to an Officer. Each company consisted of approximately the 36 students who made up a homeroom. On drill day, the student was required to wear his uniform shirt, and hat (an overseas cap which was folded over the belt when not worn) and creased or pressed trousers.
The uniforms were regular army khaki with purple oval shoulder patches on which were a white L and, under the L, the date 1635.The patches were sewn or attached with snaps.
Drill would take place all year long and culminate in “Prize Drill”, which was held in May in the yard in back of the School when all cadet companies would compete against one another; prizes were awarded, officers were promoted, and all involved got ready for the “Street Parade”.
Former Boston Latin Headmaster Michael Contompasis, who was also a student at the school in the late 1950s, recalls that , "whoever the company commander of the school's winning regiment was, made brigadier for the entire school. And, that was a pretty big deal, especially when it came time for the parade."
The Boston School Boy Cadets parade was an annual event that took the boys through the heart of the city, past thousands of cheering and flag waving citizens, as well as the Governor, mayor, and other city officials, who would review the troops and hand out awards to the best regiments. The parade became the most visible example of how military drill had become not only an important part of the school year, but an integral part of life in the city. For many years, it rivaled Opening Day at Fenway Park, the Fourth of July, and the Marathon for the city’s attention.
This parade pitted the cadets from all of the city’s secondary schools against one another. The parade wound through the Fens, down Commonwealth Avenue, and ended up in Copley Square at the Boston Public Library where we loaded our rifles onto trucks.
The fact that, ultimately, it was just "high school stuff" was clear to anyone who was there when the parade ended. Joe LaPicollo, a 1959 graduate of Boston Trade, remembers that "all along the parade route there would be girls who knew you from your parish or your neighborhood. One of the things they used to do is collect the patches from different schools. At the end of the parade, all the girls would rush the cadets and tear the patches off their arms. But, when they grabbed the patches, sometimes the whole sleeve would come off! So, instead of sewing the patches, we had to bring our uniforms home and have our mothers attach snaps to our uniforms and the patches. So, when a girl went to pull it off the sleeve,” it wouldn't rip." Charlie, in my class, remembers the bruises on his arm.
Then, we would go our separate ways; some would go home, others to a movie, and the wilder boys to Scolley Sq. and the burlesque shows (at the Old Howard or Casino theatres) to see “Cupcakes Cassidy” or “Tempest Storm”.
Think of it! Half the students in the School marching in exceptionally good formation through the streets of Boston with rifles! English High was usually our only real competition, but it was always a distant second. By the time the Street Parade was cancelled in the mid-sixties, Latin School had won all three divisions of the competition for over twenty consecutive years. Though the participants did not know it at the time, the last School Boy Cadets Parade was held on May 24, 1960. It had originally been canceled after the school committee, facing a drop in appropriations for the entire system and a lack of interest from the cadets, cut the parade's funding. An abbreviated parade route was authorized only after Latin School graduate Ray Barron, the young recruit who had survived not only that first day of boot camp in 1943 in Texas, but three years of combat in World War II, donated the money required for traffic control. Despite his own enthusiasm for the event, turnout was light - so light that the Boston Globe's headline the next day read "Crowd Barely Outnumbers Cadets at Parade." Further evidence of the public's waning enthusiasm for military training came after the parade. Instead of thanks from his fellow citizens for maintaining a tradition, Barron says he was instead deluged with angry letters, many of them from teachers, "some whom called me a fascist for supporting military drill in the schools!" In 1965, as news of the Vietnam War reached the front pages on a daily basis, headmasters at both Latin and English High, the original two schools that began teaching military drill during the Civil War, recommended its elimination from the curriculum. The school committee vote was unanimous. Though the drill team continued as an extra-curricular activity until 1971, Captain (USAF Ret) Robert Fisher graduate of English High School in 1943, who watched its demise with resignation, says that "it became a four letter word after Kent State. You could see the resentment towards the regimentation in both the students and the teachers. It's my feeling that even the kids who did well felt that it was just a waste of time." The School Boy Cadets passed away that year without any fanfare. How ironic that in a city where guns and violence threaten the safety of children in schools, a program that trained youngsters how to handle weapons of war should have existed. Yet it not only existed, but flourished, and was for many years an integral part of the life of the city. The other divisions of the Street Parade were for marching band and drum and bugle corps. The drill program gave rise to these activities decades earlier. The marching band was excellent, and would play at not only School functions, but would also appear at the Latin/English football game. In the early 1950's, a trick drill team was created under the inspiration of Captain Kelly (US Army). It also performed at School functions and participated in drill team competitions regionally. By the early 1960's, their uniforms were quite snazzy: purple ascots, silver helmets, white rifles, etc.
Military drill and its progeny was a bore to some, an interruption to others, and a true extracurricular activity to many more. The Prize Drill competition was really something to be seen. It was judged by regular army officers, who were as hard on our students as they would have been on their own men. The drill program was supervised by serving officers. Over the years Lt. Colonel Penny, Lt. Commander Cannon, and Captain (US Army) Kelley (to name a few) were members of the BLS faculty and personally guided our boys through what must have seemed very foreign territory, but wound up being colorful, at times exciting, and, as one would expect of a Latin School activity, something in which success was regularly achieved.
After BLS, at Tufts Univ. in freshman ROTC, my drill background helped me excel leading toward an USAF commission.
I'm so grateful to Tufts for my engineering education and degree, but even more appreciative of my AFROTC courses that led me to a USAF 2nd Lt. commission at the same time. After graduation, the USAF sent me to MIT graduate school, where I got two master's degrees: one in meteorology and another in aeronautics and astronautics (1965). I also got another MS--multiple sclerosis--but wouldn't be diagnosed for ten years.
I went to Vietnam in '66 for a one-year tour as a special projects officer (captain), where I had two USAF officers and ten USAF enlisted non-commissioned officer technicians working with me with meteorological spacecraft-receiving equipment. We tracked and acquired imagery from the polar orbiting weather satellites of the DOD (highly classified Defense Meteorological Satellite Program), NASA and NOAA.
Then, we gridded, analyzed and disseminated the annotated and analyzed photos to the military decision makers. The interpretation of meteorological spacecraft photos was the only way the military could observe the "weather" that was, of course, vital for all phases of the air and ground war in and over Vietnam, including some secret missions such as cloud seeding and SOG (Studies and Operations Group). It was the best job I ever had and one I work at to this day in my wheelchair at home near the Kennedy Space Center, where I had my last official job as a satellite meteorologist. Looking back on my life, ironically, the key connection that I credit the most was my USAF commission at Tufts and my Vietnam tour of duty. Too bad the ROTC programs were dropped at Tufts years ago! And, it all started, in part, with military drill at BLS!! Recently, some of my classmates sent comments reflecting on drill in high school. Paul a priest, recalled on military drill,” That was all in all, an awesome experience and a great part of our overall formation leadership skills, competition, teamwork, obedience, work, pride, etc.” I recently got an E-mail from Bill who said,” I had a great start at West Point because I could keep in step and knew “about face”.
Dick, also had great memories of the school yard competition and the annual Schoolboy Day Parade. He said, “Like you, it gave me a leg up in ROTC at Bowdoin. Those poor guys from Andover, Exeter, Choate et al, knew how to hold their tea cups, but as Bill points out stumbled all over an "about face".” There is some talk now of reviving the marching band. If it was revived, it would follow in the footsteps of hundreds who represented the Purple and White proudly through the streets and in the stadia of Boston. I wish every High School boy/girl in America could experience the military drill I had at Boston Latin School, the oldest public High School in the United States founded in 1635.
Thanks to Joe, Lee, Don, Dick, Paul, Charlie, Bill, El, Wilk, Etc.