“I Love West Point And Everything It Stands For”: From The Army Air Corps To The Air Force And Beyond

Samuel K. Lessey, Jr.


Samuel K. Lessey was born in 1923 in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up an only child in Chappaqua, New York. His father had graduated from Yale with an electrical engineering degree, and his mother, at various points in her life, ran an antique business, was a real estate agent, supported the Republican party, and was the first woman in New York to have a chauffeur’s license. During World War I, his father served in the 102nd Engineer Battalion in the 27th Infantry Division (he says 29th Division in the interview). As a boy, he enjoyed riding bikes with his friends and spending summers in the Adirondack Mountains with his grandfather and his uncle (who was one of Samuel’s heroes). Throughout his childhood, Samuel made several trips to West Point for football games and parades, and attending the academy was always in the back of his mind. After graduating high school early, he attended Millard’s Preparatory School (in operation from 1925 to 1948) in Washington, D.C., on the recommendation of his congressman. Samuel was at Millard’s when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, and remembers the day. That summer, he reported to West Point to start Cadet Basic Training. He recalls that R-Day was an “utter horror,” and the noise was incredible. He struggled to get through Beast, but after that he enjoyed his time at the Academy. Having a cousin in the Class of 44 helped, and his mother made frequent visits to West Point. The Class of 45 was a large class (roughly double the size of previous classes) and after the initial R-Day, a “second echelon” of fully qualified students entered the academy (434 reported on July 1, 1942, and 410 signed in later in July, August, and September). A severe allergic reaction during his first horseback riding class almost ended his Cadet career, but due to the shortened schedule during wartime, joining a Corps Squad athletic team excused him from horseback riding because it was being taught during the intramural sports time. During the academic year, he enjoyed his classes and found math to be easy. He was on the soccer team as a keeper, and recalls being on the first team to upset Penn State on their home field. Later, when he was stationed in Europe, he had the opportunity to play on the 1948 US Olympic Soccer Team, but a broken hand (another player had stepped on it) prevented him from traveling with the team. While at the academy, he was also a badminton champion and was on the ski team. He describes being on the West Point Color Guard with Robin Olds. Victory In Europe (VE) Day (May 8, 1945) was not as memorable to Lessey as was the death of President Roosevelt (April 12, 1945), especially because a company of Cadets participated in Roosevelt’s funeral. During his cow (junior) year, he entered the Air Cadet program. He attended primary aviation school in Oklahoma, and completed subsequent training (basic and advanced school) at Stewart Field, earning his wings three days before graduation. After commissioning into the Army Air Corps, he learned to fly the B-25 in Arizona and the B-24 in Tennessee. Throughout his career, he flew a wide variety of aircraft, even qualifying on numerous Navy aircraft while he was teaching at Annapolis. Over the course of his career, the Cessna Super Skymaster was his favorite airplane to fly, based on visibility for the pilot and its handling. His first assignment was in Germany, and he enjoyed the mission there, but the highlight was joining the Army of Occupation Soccer Team and being selected for the US Olympic Team. In 1951, he entered Harvard Law School, and after graduating he was assigned to teach military law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice at the Naval Academy. While there, his mission, as far as he was concerned, was to convince midshipmen to branch into the Air Force. The Air Force Academy was not established until 1954, and in the early years, 25% of each class at West Point and Annapolis could choose to branch into the Air Force. His next assignment was in Japan, where he flew for the 99th Air Transport Squadron in the 1503rd Air Transport Wing conducting missions all throughout Asia and the Pacific. His favorite assignment was the weekly Embassy Flight that routinely visited numerous countries. After returning from Japan, he transitioned to the Air Force Reserve and earned an MBA at Harvard, entering the business world in New York City. In 1975, he was the Distinguished Graduate of the Air War College, and in 1976 he was assigned to the Headquarters, US Air Force to review the management structure of the Air Force Reserve. He calls his review and the subsequent restructuring of the organization his “biggest contribution to national security as a USMA grad.” His second greatest contribution was as the Mobilization Assistant to the Director of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). In 1982, he accepted a position as the Inspector General of the US Synthetic Fuels Corporation, and in 1987 he became the Director of the Selective Service System. For both positions, he had to be confirmed by the Senate. Throughout his life, he has supported a variety of other organizations as well. He has served as a CASA (Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army) and the President of the Association of the US Army, both for New Hampshire. He has been the Chairman of the National Stroke Association, served on the West Point Board of Visitors and the selection committee for the Army Sports Hall of Fame, and worked with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Society. Throughout his life, he has been interested in the military, business, and charity, and is always ready to serve, noting that his “mind is good” but his body is “not keeping up.” He finishes the interview by reflecting on his love for West Point and everything it stands for.


name Samuel K. Lessey, Jr.
institution USMA
graduation year 1945
service Army Air Corps / Air Force
service dates 1945 1983