Newspapers have a tradition of smearing Norwich cadets that dates back to the smallpox scare of 1912. After a single case of the highly contagious disease was confirmed, cadets briefly lived under a loose quarantine and slept in tents on the U.P. while the barracks were fumigated. That was it. But by the time news of the “catastrophic outbreak” hit central Vermont newspapers, the details changed dramatically and tales of infected cadets roaming the hills of Northfield like zombies in search of food were printed as truth. It happened again in 1922 when newspapers reported rampant Ku Klux Klan affiliation in the corps (see the Appendix for a more thorough account), and it continues to happen every time the press gets even the faintest whiff of a controversy on the Hill. But perhaps no other story in the history of the Norwich University Corps of Cadets was more misrepresented by the press and, over the years, distorted by Norwich men themselves as the Panty Raid of 1963.
Were riot police called out and subsequently unable to contain the lawless cadets? Was this a leaderless mob or an organized effort? Was there damage? Did Norwich cadets actually descend on the capital city of Montpelier, force their way into the bedrooms of Vermont College coeds, and steal their underpants? Is it true that cadets arrived in tanks? The answers to those questions are no, yes, yes, yes, and no. Now let’s get the details.
Quiet rumors of a Panty Raid had been circulating on the campus of Vermont College, an all-girls school in Montpelier, for several days when a small group of cadets quietly met in the Norwich parking lot. It was the early evening of May 23, 1963, and the sun was setting as they went over the mission one last time. They would make the 20-minute drive to Vermont College, initiate contact with some coeds, and ultimately take possession of the girls’ underpants through some combination of charm, diplomacy, and force. Conducting such an operation these days would likely result in mandatory registration as a sex offender, but in the early 1960s panty raids were a relatively frequent cultural phenomenon, playfully depicted in movies and shrugged off as “boys being boys.”
As they discussed their plan, a small crowd of onlookers started to gather and quickly swelled to several dozen. By the time the caravan set out for Montpelier, approximately 100 cadets had joined the mob, most of them just along for the ride. They caused quite a stir when their motorcade arrived at Vermont College. But while a small, dedicated contingent of cadets quickly went to work acquiring panties, most ended up just standing around or exchanging barbs with the coeds who goaded them from their second-story windows. The authorities arrived shortly thereafter and the crowd was dispersed in relatively short order.
A Burlington Free Press headline the next day read, “At Vermont College Fire Hoses Quell Cadets.” Not to be outdone, the Cleveland Press declared, “Mad Dog Panty Raiders Dispersed by Gunfire, Hoses.” Harmon was furious. These were not the actions of a violent mob and the police had used no such measures. Yes, there was some damage to the Vermont College campus (approximately $1,500 worth) and the Montpelier Police Department had incurred some emergency response cost as well, but Harmon had already reached out, accepted responsibility for his cadets’ actions, and agreed to reimburse both.
The libelous newspaper articles made Harmon’s efforts to control the damage and salvage relationships more difficult, but it was the Montpelier City Council’s response that irked Harmon the most. City Manager Ralph Irving sent Harmon a letter on May 28, officially declaring Montpelier off limits to Norwich cadets. The letter stated that the incident was:
not a matter to be taken lightly and brushed off as a mere boyish prank and … the potential threat to personal injury and property damage was of great magnitude. The utter disrespect for and cowardly mob attack on elderly women and uniformed police officers is viewed with grave concern, not only by City, County, and State officials but by most citizens in the community.
Days later he sent another letter informing President Harmon of his own investigation’s preliminary results, stating that “police officers were, in fact, actually attacked with stones and clubs by the students and because of the great number of them, they were actually fighting for their own lives and to defend the girls and women at Vermont College from attack by the students.”
In spite of the obvious inaccuracies, gross exaggerations, and outlandish claims in the City Council’s version of events, Harmon knew all too well the potential damage that negative press (regardless of its veracity) can bring to a military organization. He expedited an official investigation, arranged for financial restitution, and immediately implemented measures to discourage any future panty raiding by the corps.
Soon the ban on entering Montpelier was lifted and a relieved Ernie Harmon was passing time with some cadets on the U.P. when he decided to share a story about his late dog. They listened attentively as he recounted how, during one of his nightly walks along the railroad tracks, the dog had just barely managed to clear the tracks when an oncoming train whipped by and clipped off the end of his tail. The dog followed its instincts and quickly spun around, just in time to be decapitated by the passing train. The moral of the story, according to Harmon: “Don’t lose your head over a little piece of tail.”