A collection of columns surveys the history of the U.S. armed forces, particularly as it touches on the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Olejniczak’s debut collection gathers several years’ worth of short biographies and historical notes that he wrote under the name “J Phoenix” for a West Point alumni newsletter. It groups its entries more or less sequentially from the Revolutionary War to the present. Each scrupulously researched entry tells a different story of tradition, heroism, or, from time to time, folly, most often involving cadets, graduates, faculty, or staff members at West Point in New York state. Moving sequentially through these pages, readers will learn the origins of many traditions at the Academy, from what one superintendent called its “venerable vice of hazing” to the welcomes that cadets once received at Mama Leone’s restaurant in New York City. They’ll learn of Henry Ossian Flipper, the Academy’s first African-American cadet, who was drummed out in a racist court-martial and posthumously made the namesake of an annual award for “the highest qualities of leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties while a cadet.” They’ll also chuckle over painter James McNeil Whistler’s poor performance in West Point’s art program; after superiors told him to remove three boys with fishing rods from a sketch of a bridge, he replaced them with a drawing of three tombstones. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who knows as much about the West Point of yesteryear as Olejniczak, a retired U.S. Army colonel, does, and the book ably represents his passion for detail and enviable patience for research. The essays’ thematic and chronological arrangement lends them coherence, although sometimes the account seems to have odd gaps: a section on World War II is 26 pages long, for instance, but the entry on the second Gulf War is only one sentence. Olejniczak does warn readers in his subtitle that this is a selective history, however, and the facts and stories that he does select are often engaging.
A straightforward account of the careers of famous and little-known West Point characters.