Service, Self-Sacrifice, and Excellence
Remarks at Naval ROTC 75th Anniversary Celebration
It is a great honor to join you to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC, at Rensselaer--which since 1985 has included students from Union College, and since 1992, students from the Russell Sage College nursing program.
When the Secretary of the United States Navy Frank Knox wrote to William O. Hotchkiss, the 10th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in 1941, just a few months before Pearl Harbor, to inform him that Rensselaer had been selected as one of the new units of the Naval ROTC, he did so with great expectations. "Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute," he wrote, "is destined to produce an outstanding unit, highly creditable to the Institute and to the United States Navy."
Since Rensselaer already had produced a number of Naval leaders, his prediction of an outstanding unit was eminently reasonable. In fact, throughout our history, we have educated 78 Naval officers of flag rank.
The urgency of educating and training young officers through our Naval ROTC was demonstrated very quickly. By early 1944, with war raging in both Europe and the Pacific, our new Naval ROTC unit received orders to be commissioned, and to report to ships and naval stations, though some of the midshipmen had not completed their college course work. Many of them returned to Rensselaer a few years later, having fought bravely, and continued their education with the GI Bill.
Among the distinguished leaders educated in our Naval ROTC is Admiral R.J. "Zap" Zlatoper of the Class of 1963, the Vice Chairman of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees, and former Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, whose numerous decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
As a young Navy pilot, Admiral Zlatoper was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in 1967 off the coast of Vietnam, when a rocket accidentally fired from an F-4B Phantom II fighter on deck set off a series of cataclysmic explosions, igniting other planes loaded with fuel and bombs. Among the pilots on deck who managed to survive was future United States Senator John McCain. Admiral Zlatoper was the Squadron Duty Officer charged with logging the events of the day, noting the valor of those who died on the flight deck while attempting to rescue others, and the valor of those who fought the fire in confined spaces filled with steam, smoke, and poison fumes.
The casualties were truly terrible, with 134 crewmen dead and 161 wounded. Yet, in the midst of this horrific experience, the Forrestal log notes a plan for the day following that is utterly remarkable in its generosity, lack of bitterness, and deep sense of service. I quote: "We thank God that He has so much for us to do, and the opportunity to clean and repair our ship, learning from this experience to carry our responsibilities even more effectively."
The bravery and self-sacrifice of the Forrestal crew—as well as its unwavering focus on excellence—are qualities that the midshipmen and cadets at Rensselaer also demonstrate, and one reason that we are so proud to host our ROTC units. Frankly, we rely on your presence here at Rensselaer to inspire the rest of us.
We are proud, also, of U.S. Navy Commander Reid Wiseman of the Rensselaer Class of 1997, who was commissioned through our Naval ROTC program. Reid Wiseman served as Flight Engineer aboard the International Space Station for Expedition 41 from May through November of 2014. He also has served as a great ambassador for space exploration—attracting hundreds of thousands of followers on social media with the beautiful photographs and witty captions he sent back from space.
We are proud, also, of the women leaders we educate here, including Second Lieutenant Katherine Boy of the Rensselaer Class of 2015, who recently became one of the first two Marine Corps female artillery officers in history.
In truth, no one signs on to the ROTC at Rensselaer without a deep pool of motivation and commitment, since it means being challenged intellectually, spiritually, and physically beyond the ordinary challenges of a college experience.
So it is not surprising that the bonds between those who have trained for military service here are deeply special. I am certain our alumni and alumnae who have returned for Reunion and Homecoming are enjoying the warmth of those connections. I thank all of you for visiting—we are so pleased to welcome you back.
I congratulate all of our current and former midshipmen, once again, on the 75th anniversary of the Rensselaer Naval ROTC. And I thank you for your remarkable service, on behalf of myself, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a grateful nation.