The freshmen plebes did not talk to each other. It was 6 a.m., after all, and a strange new life awaited them inside the U.S. Naval Academy gymnasium.
Across the street, they couldn't help but notice a banner hanging from a building: "Attrition is our mission." They stood, and stared.
Then the line started moving. The plebes were issued numbers, stripped of civilian clothes, shorn of their hair, ordered to stand in a courtyard and then told how to march. At 11 a.m. they were marched to lunch, told to sit upright on the edge of their seats and look straight ahead. They ate sandwiches and did not talk.
"There will be times when they make errors, and they will be corrected," said Eric Martinuzzi, a 21-year-old midshipman in his fourth year at the academy, who sat at the head of one lunch table supervising a squad of 12 plebes.
More than 14,000 people applied for places at the academy this year, for four years of training that will earn them commissions in the Marine Corps or the Navy. The 1,375-member class includes 139 women, 72 Hispanics and 76 blacks. Academy officials project that 5 percent of them will decide to leave by the end of summer. Five made that decision and left today.
As the plebes signed in at the gymnasium, they brought their bags, their tennis rackets and lacrosse sticks. "Welcome to Camp Canoe U.," said one squad leader. It is an old joke, Martinuzzi said: Tennis rackets are the last thing the plebes will need for their isolated summer of indoctrination and drilling. They cannot go home until Christmas.
Martinuzzi described his approach as "authoritarian paternalism." He is willing to answer questions and offer counseling, he said, but for now, he agreed, his men were dead silent.
"A lot of this is intimidation," said Ensign Paul Jenkins, who graduated from the academy in May and now works as a public affairs officer there.
The plebes are silent now, he said; that is demanded of them. But their seniors will soon have them standing on chairs in the dining hall yelling Navy chants. "It brings them out of their shells," he said, "and it makes them all equal."
By 7 a.m., Martinuzzi had Alfa One squad members on the way to equality. They had donned academy T-shirts and "plebe" caps, and were called into single file. As another squad marched off, one squad leader yelled, "Get that hair cut and blow-dried. Bye-bye now. You don't want to miss your haircut appointment."
The plebes filed into the barbershop to face five gum-chewing barbers. Some plebes grinned nervously but most showed no expression. The razors hummed, revealing pale white scalps and minor scalp irritations.
The new plebes lined up again outside the barbershop. They seemed dazed, rubbing their bristly scalps.
After a lecture on accountability "with a capital A," they were marched to the medical officer for shots and a weigh-in.
It was not yet 11 a.m. and Martinuzzi's requests were becoming orders. "Do not talk when you go through here," he said. "Do not lean on the bulkheads." The plebes were starting to talk. "Yes, sir," they answered.
"There will be questions necessary between you and your upper class," Martinuzzi announced, as his men lined up in a courtyard. "There are basic responses that you need to know. If he asks you what is your name, your basic response is Midshipman Bird or whatever your name is. Your other responses are 'Yes, sir', 'No, sir', 'Aye-aye, sir,' 'I'll find out, sir,' or 'No excuse, sir.' You never say 'I don't know.'