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07-05-2007, 05:13 PM
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Last AOCS candidates arrive at NAS Pensacola

Michael Stewartmstewart@pnj.com (mstewart@pnj.com)

The last candidates for Aviation Officer Candidate School, (AOCS), at Pensacola Naval Air Station arrive today. After they graduate Sept. 21, the training program moves to Rhode Island. Roughly 50 civilians and formerly enlisted personnel are expected to enter the last class.

July Fourth will be 18 years to the day that U.S. Navy Cmdr. Don Simmons went through the class.

"I remember walking through the doors, what I was wearing and getting screamed at," he said. "It made me more confident, and now I know I can do anything."

Filmed in Bremerton, Wash., "An Officer and a Gentleman" was based on Pensacola NAS's Aviation Officer Candidate School which has transformed thousands of raw recruits into Naval officers since its inception in 1955.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the 1982 movie that starred Richard Gere, Debra Winger and Louis Gossett Jr. It cemented an image of AOCS into the popular culture that remains to this day.

"The film company originally approached the Navy about shooting the movie here in Pensacola, but the Navy would not approve the script" said retired Capt. Bob Rasmussen, 77.

Rasmussen, director of the National Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola NAS, commanded from 1980 to 1983 the Naval Aviation Schools Command, under which AOCS was operated. He had gone through AOCS himself 30 years earlier.

Buck Welcher, one of Rasmussen's drill instructors, served as a technical adviser for the movie and was Gossett's coach for the role that earned him an Academy Award for best supporting actor.

"I thought the movie was good," Rasmussen said. "It wasn't totally accurate, but it was close enough for Hollywood."

In August 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted to merge the Officer Training Command at Pensacola NAS with the Officer Training Command at Newport Naval Air Station in Rhode Island.

Although the nine-member BRAC commission projects a

$1 million annual savings because of the merger, retired Vice Adm. Jack Fetterman, who died last year, argued otherwise.

Fetterman told the commission it would be more cost effective to transfer the 434 students at Newport's command to Pensacola, where living costs are lower, than to send the base's 1,200 students trained each year here to Rhode Island.

"I thought we had a strong case against it, and it didn't hold up," Fetterman said at the time.

The financial impact of losing AOCS is expected to be negligible. In fact, Pensacola NAS gained ground with the BRAC commission's decision to relocate undergraduate and pilot navigator training from Randolf Air Force Base in Texas to Pensacola.

"I don't think there will be a tremendous economic impact since the candidates don't get much liberty and don't spend a lot of money in town," said Lt. David Duke, assistant director for the Officer Candidate School. "It's really more of a loss of tradition."

Lt. Kirk Sowers, AOCS class officer, said for graduates the school will always conjure images of Pensacola.

He said, "It's the ambience of candidates marching from place to place in poopy suits, chrome domes and web belts. It's the echo of the Marine Corps class drill instructors giving orders to their classes as they make their way to chow hall. Part of Pensacola NAS history is seeing the new graduating class lined up on the parade field on an early Friday morning, in their full dress whites, getting ready for their final dismissal by their class drill instructor."

The origin of the program dates back to 1935 when Congress enacted the Aviation Cadet Act. In 1955, the Aviation Cadet program at Pensacola NAS became the Aviation Officer Candidate School and was reserved for officer candidates entering an aviation field, such as pilots, aviation mechanics or navigators.

In 1994, the aviation component was dropped and the name changed to the Officer Candidate School. The scope was broadened to include officer candidates in a wide variety of fields, including submarine warfare, intelligence and cryptology, to name a few. Candidates must have a four-year degree and those who make it through the officer candidate program go on for additional training in their chosen field.

The cadets have been a fixture in Pensacola. Sometimes granted a weekend liberty after about six weeks, they can be seen at times in their "dress whites" while out on the town.

Their favorite haunt before it closed in 2003 was Trader Jon's, a legendary Pensacola nightclub that was an off-base home to generations of Navy pilots and sailors.

"TJ's," the bar depicted in "An Officer and a Gentleman," was loosely based on Trader Jon's.

Like the character played by Gere, Zack Mayo, the program is renowned for transforming candidates into men of character and resolve.

"They became essentially very different people," Rasmussen said of those who successfully completed the program. "They had a strong mind set that is hard to describe. When their parents saw them at graduation, they could not believe the transition. It was a very positive program."

Most agree, the loss will be felt.

"I think we are losing a big part of Navy history," said Ed Barker, media operations manager at Naval Education and Training Command.

The program's roots will not be forgotten, however.

"I think the memories and aura of AOCS as being a part of Naval aviation will exist long after we are gone," Sowers said. "Another impact the move will make is to our Naval aviators and Naval flight officers. Their first taste of Naval aviation will no longer be the Aviation Museum or seeing the F-18 in front of Building 633 as they check into AOCS."


Rich Vandiver
12-05-2007, 08:58 PM
Brook and all--I was just in Pensacola the first of November. I could find no trace of Trader's! The Mustin Beach "O" Club has been repaired but it is open for "lunch only" five days a week--no dinner is served. The bar is really kind of sad and depressing. Grim--Rich Vandiver