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Memorial Hall recognizes sacrifices of academy grads
By EARL KELLY, Staff Writer

Thousands of area residents will flock to cemeteries tomorrow to memorialize those who have died serving the country in uniform, but one place in Annapolis is a special spot for paying tribute to the nation's heroes who met their fate on the high seas.

On the walls of the majestic Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy are the names of 890 academy graduates who were killed in action. Another commemorative wall has the names of 2,500 academy graduates who have been lost during operations, some from as recently as the Class of 2004.

The hall also contains a Medal of Honor plaque which lists the names of all 72 Naval Academy grads who have won the nation's highest honor. Blank spaces exist to engrave another 28 names - a chilling reminder of the costs of wars past, but also a premonition of sacrifices in battles yet to be fought.

Midshipman 1st Class Matt Noble was visiting the Hall on Thursday, less than a day before he would be commissioned as a Navy ensign.

"It's hard to put in words: It is where we remember those who have gone before," said the young officer from South Dakota, who plans to become a pilot.

Whether in killed in combat or in the course of training or other operations, the young men memorialized here illustrate the inherent dangers of Naval duty whether in war or peace.

Nearby hung a plaque commemorating the life and death of Ensign Henry Clay Drexler, who died Oct. 20, 1924. Ensign Drexler, just 23, tried in vain to prevent the spread of flames after an explosion aboard his ship which was off the coast of Norfolk, Va. conducting gunnery drills, according to the Arlington National Cemetery Web site. Ensign Drexler "burned to death when he threw his body on burning powder bags. He fell on the spot where he was making a supreme effort to save his shipmates," another memorial for him at Arlington reads.

Not far away in the Academy's Memorial Hall, another plaque honored Ensign Joseph Cabell Breckinridge, who washed overboard on Feb. 11, 1898 as his torpedo boat, the USS Cushing, steamed towards Havana, Cuba to rendezvous with the USS Maine, according to family papers at the University of Virginia.

On deck with the boat commander during a storm, and already fatigued by near-constant duty, Ensign Breckinridge was slapped against safety line by a wave. The strong bronze cord snapped, and the ensign slipped into the sea. His crewmates recovered his body, but weren't able to resuscitate him. Four days later the Maine would be sunk after an explosion, spurring the United States into war with Spain by April.

If one needs more a more recent example to appreciate the chain of heroes who have died serving the country, the most recent Medal of Honor recipient listed was Marine 2nd Lt. James Patrick Blecksmith. A member of the Class of 2003, he died in Falluja, Iraq, on Veteran's Day, Nov. 11, 2004. He was deployed to Iraq in September. While leading his platoon through a clearing of buildings, he was hit in the left shoulder by a sniper's bullet, according to the Web site of a foundation started in his name. The round deflected into his heart. He died instantly.

The pull of Memorial Hall, located just off the rotunda of Bancroft Hall, is not limited to Naval Academy graduates.

"I was here briefly last year and had to come back, it impressed me so much," said retired Army Master Sergeant Jerry Caballero of Kileen, Texas.

Mr. Caballero, a Vietnam War veteran, is in Washington, D.C., this weekend as part of Rolling Thunder, an annual motorcycle ride and protest for greater government involvement in the recovery of prisoners of war and personnel missing in action. Mr. Caballero walks with a cane and a limp, as a result of "one helicopter crash too many," he said.

Douglas Klakulk of Annapolis, a guide with Three Century Tours, often leads tourists through the hall.

Recently he began one tour by reminding the group that it's a solemn place, and men should remove their hats.

"I live here and, you know what? Most people have no idea about this room," Mr. Klakulk said.

But, he noted, when visitors do come, they find it well worth their time.

"People are fascinated by this room - it is beautiful and has a lot of history," he said.

The hall is maintained as a joint project by the Naval Academy and the Naval Academy Alumni Association, according to Laura K. Kurz, a spokesman for the association.

"When we get word of a KIA or operational loss, the name is placed on a plaque in Memorial Hall usually within a week of notification," she said.

The centerpiece of the hall, which is about 100 feet long, is the inscription on one wall, "Don't Give Up the Ship."

These words were uttered by the mortally wounded Capt. James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake in 1813, who encouraged his men to keep fighting the enemy - in this case, the British - even though he was dying.

Midshipmen who die while at the academy are memorialized in the hall, if their death is determined to be an "operational loss." If they die from some other cause, such as an accident, their lives are not commemorated, Ms. Kurz said.

"Memorial Hall is considered sacred ground by midshipmen and alumni," said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, an academy spokesman.

A member of the Class of 1986, Cmdr. Gibbons has friends and classmates named in the hall.

"Plebes (freshmen) aren't allowed into Memorial Hall until one of the upper class tells them about the sacrifices of the names on the wall. It is at that time that midshipmen gain an understanding of not only the hall, but why they are here."


Located in Bancroft Hall, Memorial Hall is open to the public the same hours as the academy, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Bancroft Hall, the academy's dormitory is not open to the public beyond the rotunda. A kiosk in the rotunda provides brief biographical information about each person who is named in the hall.

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Published May 29, 2005, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright © 2005 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

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