March 1977. Sampson Hall, USNA.
I was attending the annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, where upperclass students from many universities gathered to discuss current world issues. As a Plebe, I had had to run a special request chit through numerous layers of the chain of command to get permission to miss my regular classes in order to observe the conference. Most of them clearly thought I was nuts to be skipping key calculus and engineering classes to attend a big “B.S. session,” but they signed off anyway.
I was the only observer in several sessions, except for a kindly elderly gentleman who sat next to me and struck up a conversation. Life as a Plebe was sheer hell, and talking to him was a great momentary escape. He seemed to understand completely and thought it great that I was observing the conference with him.
As we continued to talk, he related some sea stories about his time as a Destroyer Squadron Commodore, and it dawned on me that he was talking about World War II! I wondered how old he would have had to be, well into his 70’s I figured. Since I was well versed in naval history, I thought I recognized an action he was describing as the Battle of Cape St. George in late 1943. I thought to myself, “Nah, it can’t be.”
As the session resumed, I tried to discreetly get a look at the simple embossed nametag affixed to his ratty old brown brief case setting between us. “A. Burke” it said.
I nearly fell out of my chair. He was retired four-star Admiral Arleigh Burke, the only three-time Chief of Naval Operations (at that time), the “31-Knot Burke” of WW II fame, Commander of the much-decorated “Little Beavers” Destroyer Squadron. This true legend of naval history had been talking to a lowly Plebe as if I was a real person. He treated me with respect, actually listened, and cared what I had to say. His example helped me endure many dark days, because I wanted to be like him. Skipping calculus that day was one of the best decisions of my naval career. My respect for him grew even more, when three years later he sat in the row in front of me at some Academy theatrical presentation. He recognized me. He remembered my name, and remembered the details of our conversation. He introduced his wife to my fiancé, and we had a delightful discussion during intermission.
When Arleigh Burke died in 1996, he was mourned by the entire Navy, and especially by me. For he was a true leader.
RADM (ret) Sam Cox
Director of Naval History
Curator for the Navy
Director Naval History and Heritage Command