The plebe class works together to accomplish the goal of retrieving a white plebe "dixie cup" hat from atop the monument and replace it with an upperclassmen's hat. It is a tradition that has endured at the Naval Academy for many years. More than 200 pounds of lard applied to the monument by upperclass midshipmen complicate the task.
To understand the tradition and emotion of the climb, it is necessary to understand the qualities of the man for whom the monument is named.
Commander William Lewis Herndon, 1813-1857, possessed the qualities of discipline, teamwork and courage. In command of the Central America, home bound with California gold seekers, Herndon lost his life in a gallant effort to save ship and men during a hurricane off Cape Hatteras. These are the attributes necessary to fulfill the Herndon tradition.
The Naval Academy tradition of climbing Herndon never had a specific date documented as to its origin. The monument climb evidently originated from an enthusiastic charge of former plebes. After the graduation ceremony, held on the "Yard" (campus) once upon a time, the upperclassmen shook hands with the newly appointed "youngsters" (sophomores). The new third class proceeded to reverse their caps and coats. Next, youngsters did a snake dance through the "Yard," and romped through Lover's Lane, an area restricted to them while they were plebes. Throughout the celebration, they chanted, "Tain't no mo' plebes." All the youngsters eventually rallied around the monument due to its close proximity to Lover's Lane.
In 1967, the graduation ceremonies moved to Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. This meant youngsters could no longer run to Herndon after graduation. For this reason, the ceremony was moved after the first parade of Commissioning Week and later to the first day of Commissioning Week.
In 1973, then Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. William P. Mack gave his shoulder boards to Midshipman Fourth Class Lawrence J. O'Donnell, who climbed to the top of Herndon in 1 minute 50 seconds, thus beginning the shoulder board tradition. Today, the Herndon ceremony starts off with a blast at precisely 2 p.m. as plebes dash toward the monument. At first sight it looks much taller than it actually is, perhaps due to the hundreds of pounds of lard slathered on by upperclass. The fatty, white goo is removed by shoe throwing, hands, shirts and bodies.
The smell of the melting lard permeates thousands of cheering spectators. Bodies turn red with beads of sweat dripping down the tower of people. Agony shows on the faces of those at the bottom of the pyramid as they support upon their shoulders three or four tiers of muscular bodies. As the crowd yells in anticipation, the class gets excited and "They're gonna make it" is heard all around. Crash. The bodies collapse like dominoes. Their greasy skin, stained with dirt, lard and sun make it extremely difficult to sustain any balance for a long period of time.
At the start, their expectations soar. No plebes doubt that their climb will be the best of any class to date. After all, it seems each plebe has devised a plan that would get someone to the top quickly. As they climb, many bodies are sacrificed. Some become human supports, allowing their torsos to be pulled like taffy while some are ladders. Their shoes are off in fear that they might step on and injure a shipmate. In one hour, many courageous mids try in vain to reach the top.
They finally realize that this is not the easy task they envisioned in their dreams. They now realize, more than before, that to overcome their task it takes teamwork and determination. Within the next half hour, a classmate may be near the top. One falls, but is quickly replaced by another. Their hopes are slowly fading away. They wonder if they will be the first class to fail to get to the top of the monument.
The Class of 1998 gained quite a reputation around the Yard regarding Herndon. Their time, at the end of their first year in the spring of 1995 of four hours, five minutes and 17 seconds marks the longest on record, beating the Class of 1985 which previously held the record with three hours, 12 minutes and 23 seconds. The fastest times are three minutes for the Class of 1965 in the spring of 1962 (first recorded time) and one minute, 30 seconds (the fastest time officially recorded) for the Class of 1972 completed in the spring of 1969.
Tradition states that the plebe who reaches the top will rise to the rank of admiral first. As any observer can recognize, climbing to the top of Herndon takes a lot of teamwork and perseverance. Ascending Herndon serves as a review for young midshipmen, reminding them of the values of teamwork, courage and discipline that are instilled throughout the year.
Cmdr. Herndon possessed these attributes, and he passes them on to us through mids at this ceremony. Midshipmen take the values learned from Herndon with them through their journey at the Naval Academy and their career in the fleet. The Herndon Monument climb is the type of tradition that endures and has grown throughout the years. It is one that will stay for many years to come.
A sample of the previous times for making the Herndon climb by year completed (not Class) are:
1962 - 3 minutes (first recorded time)
1969 - 1 minute, 30 seconds (fastest time officially recorded)
1982 - 3 hours, 12 minutes, 23 seconds
1993 - 1 hour, 38 minutes, 20 seconds
1994 - 1 hour, 44 minutes, 20 seconds
1995 - 4 hours, 5 minutes, 17 seconds (longest to date)
1996 - 2 hours, 8 minutes, 46 seconds
1997 - 2 hours, 55 minutes, 17 seconds
1998 - 2 hours, 22 minutes, 55 seconds
1999 - 2 hours, 7 minutes, 41 seconds
2000 - 1 hour, 19 minutes, 44 seconds
2001 - 2 hours, 15 minutes, 52 seconds
2002 - 2 hours, 7 minutes, 41 seconds
2003 - 1 hour, 19 minutes
2004 - 2 hour, 19 minutes
2005 - 1 hour, 16 minutes, 13 seconds
2006 - 1 hour, 14 minutes, 15 seconds