For 35 years, members of the Air Force ROTC’s Marching Cadets stood guard at the Bell Tower to honor veterans on Pearl Harbor Day. At noon Saturday, members of the now-dissolved fraternity are again meeting at the tower to pay their respects.
Founded in 1960, the Marching Cadets (MCs) served as the Air Force ROTC drill team, presenting the colors at football and basketball games and marching in local parades while spinning, throwing and catching M1 rifles. As its annual service project, the organization would guard the Bell Tower for 24 hours every Dec. 6-7 and hold a wreath laying ceremony.
“Even though it was usually right in the middle of exams, we would go out and take turns for an hour at a time at the Bell Tower in groups of four or five,” says Marching Cadet Will Compton, a 1988 graduate. “It was modeled after the tomb of the unknown solider.”
Though they won’t be in uniform or guarding the tower this year, a group of Marching Cadets plans to honor World War II veteran Millie Beasey with an informal ceremony and wreath laying. Beasey served in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, an all-female, all-black postal battalion that helped deliver mail to the front lines in Europe.
T.C. Moore, a Marching Cadet and 1988 graduate, says the group plans to talk to Beasey about her experiences, explain the significance of the tower and share some stories from past ceremonies. Moore and Compton say that while Dec. 6 always used to feel like the coldest night of the year, it was a special one for the cadets.
“It was just a unique feeling to be standing there,” Moore says. “It just gave you a time to reflect on what sacrifices people in the military have made and what they gave up, and you knew you were doing your own little part in helping honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Compton delivered a speech at his first ceremony in 1986. He says having the chance to speak about the events of Dec. 7, 1941, in front of a Pearl Harbor survivor is something he’ll never forget.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” he says. “To actually have the Pearl Harbor survivor present certainly evoked images of what they went through.”
As a freshman, Moore noticed those wearing the Marching Cadets’ red-and-white cords always seemed to have it together and asked how he could join. Both Moore and Compton pledged in spring of 1986 and were inducted the weekend of the North Carolina Azalea Festival parade in Wilmington, N.C., one of the biggest events the group participated in.
Both Compton and Moore served in the Air Force after graduation. Moore now works for the Air Force as a civilian contractor and Compton is a Delta Airlines pilot.
Over the years, the Marching Cadets became an incredibly tight-knit group of men and women. And once members were initiated, they were in for life, even if they graduated or dropped out — Moore says it isn’t uncommon to see graduates come back to meetings or help out at events.
The group fell on hard times in the ’90s when Air Force ROTC’s national headquarters withdrew its sponsorship and membership declined from about 30 ROTC members to less than 20. Though the Marching Cadets fraternity dissolved in 1996, its legacy hasn’t — the Air Force ROTC guards the Bell Tower overnight for Veterans Day and the cadets held a reunion in 2011.
After the reunion, Compton, Moore and other Raleigh-area members decided to bring back “team eats,” a dining-out tradition from their college days. They try to get together for dinner once a month.