Although the U.S. Naval Academy was founded in 1845, it did not have a consecutive four year academic program until 1850. The first formal graduation was held on June 10, 1854. During war time, 1st Class Midshipmen (seniors) sometimes had no formal graduation ceremony or were given their diplomas, and for the two world wars, they received their commissions early. Admiral David Dixon Porter, the Academy’s sixth Superintendent from 1865 to 1869, began adding parades, dances, and athletics to graduation week, originally called June Week. It was not until 1912 that graduates were commissioned on graduation day. The week of festivities was renamed Commissioning week in 1979 when changes in the Academic calendar moved the events to May.
Commissioning week features a variety of long standing traditions culminating in the conferral of diplomas and awarding of commissions to graduating Midshipmen. Since 1966, the graduation ceremonies have been held outside in the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Previously, the event has been held at locations across the Academy grounds and in the 19th century, it was held in the Academy chapel. Between 1903 and 1956, ceremonies were held in the armory, now named Dahlgren Hall. From 1957 through 1965, graduations were held in what was later known as Halsey Field House.
Commissioning Week dress parades at the U.S. Naval Academy began in 1846. The first parade, held on June 27, 1846, honored the Board of Examiners and consisted of exercises in the manual of arms and infantry tactics.
Color Parade/Color Competition
The oldest parade at the U.S. Naval Academy is the Color Parade, a tradition which began in 1867. Midshipmen anticipate this parade as their last full dress parade while at the Academy. The highlight of the Color Parade is the formal presentation of the color company pennant to the company that has excelled in academics, athletics and professional accomplishments by the “color honoree,” the brigade commander and the Superintendent.
Herndon Monument Climb
A symbolic Naval Academy tradition, the Herndon Monument Climb marks the end of Plebe Year. For their final assignment of the year, plebes scale the 21-foot obelisk covered with more than 200 pounds of lard. Through teamwork and perseverance, the group’s goal is to raise one of them to the top to switch a white plebe “Dixie Cup” cover (hat) with an upperclass-man’s cover. After the Herndon Climb is complete, the plebes earn their new title of Fourth Class Midship-men. According to Naval Academy lore, the first plebe to scale the monument and switch the covers will be the first member of the class to become an Admiral. The standing record to beat is 1 hour, 14 minutes, and 15 seconds set in 2006, but the climb can last as long as four hours. The Herndon Monument is located across the street from the Naval Academy Chapel steps.
Naval Academy Class Rings/Ring Dance
Since 1869, each Naval Academy class selects its own committee to design its class crest. The crest is then incorporated, along with the coat-of-arms of the Academy, into the design of the class ring. A complete collection of the rings can be found in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. Second class Midshipmen (juniors) do not wear their rings until they are “baptized” at the Ring Dance during Commissioning Week, a tradition since 1925. Traditionally, the water for dipping the rings is acquired from the Seven Seas of the world by USNA alumni members of the fleet. This ritual takes place at the Ring Dance, a ball traditionally held on the Saturday before Commissioning in Dahlgren Hall. It is not open to the public, but the fireworks display that is held on Farragut Field as part of the ball can be viewed from the neighborhoods surrounding the Yard and from downtown Annapolis.
The Blue Angels, known officially as the US Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, have per-formed their precision flying demonstrations for millions of spectators. Their appearance during Commissioning Week is a 50-year tradition.
The commencement address to the graduating class of midshipmen may be given by the United States President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Navy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chief of Naval Operations or another distinguished speaker. During the ceremony, the members of the graduating class are sworn into the Navy as Ensigns or into the Marine Corps as 2nd Lts. As the last group of diplomas is presented, the graduates sing “Navy Blue and Gold.” The new 1st Class Midshipmen lead three cheers for “those who are about to leave us,” and the graduates, led by the class president, respond with three cheers “for those we leave behind.” On the last “hooray” of this cheer, the graduates toss their midshipman caps into the air, to be recovered by spectators as mementos of the occasion.
After graduation, family members and friends pin on the new ensign’s shoulder boards or the second lieutenant’s gold bars.
Oath of Office
Having been appointed an Ensign/2nd Lt. in the United States Navy/Marine Corps to rank from [Graduation/Commissioning date], do you solemnly swear that you will support and defend the constitution of The United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that you will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that you take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which you are about to enter; so help you God?
Response by the graduates – “I DO!”
Graduation Hat Toss
The “hat toss,” the traditional ending to graduation and commissioning ceremonies at all the service academies, originated at the Naval Academy in 1912. Before then, Naval Academy graduates had to serve two years in the fleet as Naval Cadets or Midshipmen before being commissioned as officers in the Navy or Marine Corps, and they needed to retain their Midshipman’s hats for their sea tour. Beginning with the Class of 1912, graduates were commissioned ensigns or second lieutenants, following the reception of their diplomas and hence no longer needed their Midshipman’s hats. In a spontaneous gesture, the new officers tossed their old hats into the air. This “hat toss” became the symbolic and visual end to the four-year program at the Naval Academy.
Silver Dollar Salute
A long honored tradition in all the United States armed services is for a newly commissioned officer to give a silver dollar to the first enlisted person or Midshipman who salutes him or her. It is believed that the one dollar allotment given an officer for an aide in the early 19th century is the origin of this custom. The silver dollar signifies the deep sense of gratitude an officer has to the enlisted ranks for the knowledge they pass on and for the respect they give in providing a greeting by their salute.
The silver dollar is traditionally a full size dollar, and has a date with significance to the Midshipman. Sometimes, the coin is passed from one officer to another within a family. The first salute is normally orchestrated so the person rendering the salute is someone of importance to the Mid such as a close relative who serves/served or an enlisted person who has been helpful or important the Mid during his time at the Academy. Sometimes the first salute is rendered by a special Midshipman being left behind. Parents often buy two coins, one to be given for the first salute, the second to be kept as a memento for the Midshipman. Some Mids obtain coins of lesser value so they can present more than one coin upon salutes. The official first salute cannot be rendered until the new Officer has his/her new shoulder boards installed, so he/she should be sure the person he/she wishes to render that first salute is present before switching the boards.