On Hogan’s Heroes

One of my non-Norwich Facebook friends recently asked me a question I’ve heard many times over the years. “Why do Norwich people go nuts when they hear the theme from Hogan’s Heroes?” This one is tough to explain to people outside of the tribe but I’ll give it a shot.

In the past, the corps of cadets had several daily formations ending with  march downs to the mess hall for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (i.e. First, Second, and Third mess). As you can imagine, things got tedious so the band (i.e. “The Zoo”) always looked for ways to spice things up. Their solution, beginning in the early 1970s, was to play the theme from Hogan’s Heroes during the last full corps formation of the week – Friday, Second Mess. This happy tradition lasted until the 1991-1992 school year when the commandant at the time decided it was somehow disrespectful to POWs and pulled the plug (Note: this was a full year before President Schneider entered the picture). The backlash was immediate and people were pissed. Parents and friends coming to visit for the weekend would previously make sure to arrive by 1200 noon on Friday just so they could see the corps march around the Upper Parade and down to the mess hall in all of its glory – an extra bounce in everyone’s step thanks to the soundtrack. The beat of the drums and blare of the horns were infectious. Morale would spike and all was well on the Hill for those few fleeting moments. But there’s a bit more to it than that.

While our obsession with the music has nothing to do with the show and everything to do with Norwich, a parallel can be drawn between the Corps of Cadets and Colonel Hogan’s men locked up in Stalag 13. Namely, they were jovial misfits whose loyalty to each other was surpassed only by their collective effort to creatively “buck the system.” This tendency is in our blood and goes all the way back to our founder, Captain Alden Partridge, whose attempt to completely overhaul the way the U.S. trained its officers got him court-martialed and fired as Superintendent of West Point. So he threw up his hands, returned home to Vermont, and started his own school where he drilled into his new Corps of Cadets a restlessness that has lasted for nearly two centuries.

There’s a misconception about graduates of military institutions that they march lockstep, always follow orders, and never question authority. This is true to a certain extent, at least at the beginning of your training. But some of the biggest lessons we learn are when to bend the rules, when to break the rules, and when to throw the rules out the window. Innovation and creativity are stifled when men and women simply wait for instructions and do exactly what they’re told. Norwich grads do not “think outside of the box.” We pick the box up, hold it high over our heads, then smash it into a thousand pieces. The problem with thinking outside the box is that the box is still in the picture and sometimes it’s better to start from a clean canvas like Partridge did.

One of the highlights of my recent 20th reunion was marching across Sabine Field with my classmates from 1993 as “the Zoo” belted out the Hogan’s Heroes theme. Smiles lit up on our faces, the collective bounce in our step returned, and for those brief moments all was well in the universe. Norwich Forever!

If you liked this post, you might like my book – Norwich Matters.