A West Point Plebe, Circa 1930 – Part 1

The first letter in the series from John L. Schaefer at West Point


West Point, N.Y.
July 2, 1930

Dearest Dorothy:

We just have about two minutes till time for more work. I just want to let you know I love you and always will. The address is changed as follows:

Cadet John L. Schaefer
4th Company
New Cadets
West Point, N.Y.

Please write soon. They are just riding us to death and how I will tell you more about it as soon as I get time. I hope I’ll see you soon but they talk as though I won’t be able to see any one for a month or two. I sure miss you and a year and a half of this will make me or break me. I will see write more later.

Your sweetheart


This letter is part of a collection I picked up at an antique store in April 2019 in Savannah, Georgia. In July, it will be 80 years old.

The handwriting is definitely masculine, and the writing paper is heavy. A bit of research using census records shows that the author of the letter, John L. Schaefer, is 19 years old at the time of its writing. Dorothy is 20 or 21. They are from Buffalo, New York, a city of over 570,000 people, according to the 1930 Polk City Directory. The same directory shows Dorothy living at home with her parents and her occupation as a teacher. John does not live with his parents—he may be living with an aunt and uncle—and his occupation is listed as a student. 

John writes from United States Military Academy, better known as West Point. West Point is the United State’s oldest military academy. When John was a cadet, it was an exclusively male school. Now, West Point admits women. 

Census records show that Dorothy is part of a family of six. She’s the eldest of four children and was born in 1909 in Buffalo. She graduated from Masten Park High School (now known as Fosdick-Masten Park High School) in Buffalo in June 1926. Here’s her senior yearbook photograph and quote:

Yearbook entry of Dorothy Wilson in 1926 high school yearbook

John had a tough childhood. He was born in 1910 to a jeweler father, also called John, and his mother Anna. John and Anna were married in May 1909. By 1925, he and his brother Arthur were orphaned, losing their father in 1923 and mother in 1925. John also had a brother, Frank, who died very young. After their parents’ passing, John and Arthur moved in with their aunt Mary and uncle Adolf nearby.  Here’s a photo of a very young John from the Buffalo Courier, November 2, 1913:

John L Scahefer as a young boy holding an American flag for a parade.

What’s not clear to me is how John and Dorothy know each other. As we’ll find out later, John has been away for a few years at a different school. Were they in school earlier together? Did they attend church together? Grow up in the same neighborhood?

An appointment to West Point is a big deal. It’s extremely competitive, and a candidate must have a nomination from a federal lawmaker, or have specific ties to the Academy. These days, students who are appointed to any of the military academies are often announced in newspapers because it’s quite an accomplishment. Archival newspaper searches turned up no such announcements made, which could be attributed to an incomplete newspaper collection–one would definitely expect to see his name in print when accepted to a prestigious institution like West Point.

At the time that these letters were written, the United States was in dire straits. The stock market crash of October 1929 (Black Tuesday) led to the Great Depression, and nearly 25% of working people were unemployed. Banks closed, and because there was no FDIC insurance on deposits, people’s money just disappeared. President Herbert Hoover was criticized as being too slow to act, relying on states to voluntarily step up and develop assistance programs. An appointment to West Point, where he was guaranteed an education, room, board, and clothing–basically, anything he needed–must have seemed to be the best deal available to young John.

A note to readers: We only see John’s side of the story in this series. Keep that in mind as you read what comes next.