PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. (AP) -- The college graduates who are soon to complete training at the nation's oldest naval air station will be the final class to graduate from the base's officer candidate school, ending a military tradition that lasted about seven decades. After graduation ceremonies on Friday, the school will close and consolidate with a training center in Newport, R.I.
"Hundreds of classes have suffered out there" on the exercise field and parade deck at Pensacola Naval Air Station, said Allen Hamby, a 21-year-old admiral's son and University of Central Florida graduate who plans to be a supply officer. "And we are going to be the last class doing it."
Richard Gere portrayed an officer candidate in the 1982 mega-hit "An Officer and A Gentleman." The movie was based on the Pensacola school, although it was set at a fictional naval air station and filmed elsewhere.
Just minutes after reporting for duty last July, a few of the candidates lost their composure, their voices cracking as instructors barked commands over the ocean breeze. It was a first taste of military discipline for some. When one candidate was slow answering a question, an instructor scrawled "Goldfish" on masking tape and stuck it on his back. "Goldfish die after a week, you know that? We might have to change your name to 'Gnat,' though, because gnats only live for day," he said.
For Pensacola residents accustomed to seeing officer candidates out on the town in their dress white uniforms, an era is ending. "It is one of those things you don't appreciate until they tell you it's going," said Jack Williams, whose family owns Seville Quarter, a popular block of clubs and restaurants frequented by officer candidates. "We will miss seeing them walking around downtown and coming in here and checking their hats in our gift shop," he said.
Over the years, he's taken some early morning calls from candidates who forgot to retrieve their hats before leaving his bar. And he's headed off a few fights. "It's rare that you have to make a call out to the school, but it does happen. They train them to be confident and that comes out some times. Usually it's about a girl or someone looking at a girl," he said.
The closing after about 70 years is also the end of an era at the base, where officer candidates run along the streets in their navy blue shorts and white T-shirts, and the sound of drill instructors often drifts into offices.
"Every time we come across people out on the base, they let us know how long they have been supporting the officer candidate program and how sad they are to see it go," said William Brinkmeyer, an officer candidate from the final class.
Flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station dates to 1914, but those original aviators came as officers from the U.S. Naval Academy. The base began officer training for aviators in 1936. In 1994, the Aviation Officer School was combined to include candidates in other career fields. "It's been such a visible aspect of the base for such a long time," base historian Hill Goodspeed said. And Marine drill instructors have always overseen the training. "Every candidate I've ever talked to always remembers their drill instructor because they are such a dominating presence, a larger-than-life presence," Goodspeed said.
The drill instructor for the school's final class is Gunnery Sgt. Jason Jones, a veteran of two combat tours in Iraq. His gravely voice comes from years of yelling commands. "You'd be surprised how many people say I have a problem with my voice or something is wrong with the way I speak, but the candidates learn real quick to understand what I'm talking about," said Jones, who stands with perfect posture and gazes with a classic Marine thousand-yard stare. He was quick to remind students of their place in history as the last of thousands of classes to march on the parade field of Pensacola Naval Air Station. "Go out with a bang," he told candidates.
William Gum, 25, was teaching high school math and science when he enlisted to become a Navy pilot. He asked to attend officer training in Pensacola before the school closed. "Pensacola is the place to go if you are a Naval aviator. When I am out there doing drills and the Blue Angels are flying around . It sounds cheesy, but it makes the hairs on your arms stick up," he said. He will attend flight school in Pensacola after completing officer training.
The final class will be the 20th to graduate this year. Twenty five of its original 56 candidates dropped out, including the one labeled Goldfish. As graduation approached, students became more confident in their futures as Navy officers. "The entire experience is worth too much to give up. We are starting to come together as a class, and it is starting to be fun," said candidate Julie Wonder, 22, a University of Oregon architecture graduate.
Lt. Scott Kykendall, an instructor and Naval aviator, will return to Iraq instead of moving to Rhode Island. He said Pensacola will always be a unique place, especially for aviators starting their Navy careers. "It's just so motivating in the mornings to run students around these streets and see the history. When you think about the people who have gone through flight training here - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, John McCain. Need I say more?"
Created on ... March 10, 2008