Memorial Day 2015

Posted by Dale Cramer on May 27, 2015

Jim Willsey is a friend of mine. I’ve known him for years, worked with him from time to time, and can personally attest to the fact that in his mid-seventies he can still outwork men half his age. He’s an upright man with a sense of honor that, these days, seems rare and outdated. If you ask him where his strength of character comes from (and probably even if you don’t ask him) he’ll tell you it’s because he was a Marine fifty years ago. He’s proud of that. He’s proud of the Marines.

Jim was a drill instructor in his twenties— a hard-nosed, hard-fisted, uncompromising soldier. As a young man, the Marines shaped him, and he in turn shaped other young Marines. He’ll tell you he was a tough master, and he’ll tell you why. Always in the front of his mind was the fact that many of the recruits in his charge would end up in Vietnam, where the strength of their training would literally mean the difference between life and death.

Our photographer friend, Larry, put together a road trip to Washington over Memorial Day weekend so we could talk to veterans, get their stories and take their pictures. Jim Willsey and I went along to help. For some reason, Jim was dying to find the Marine barracks he remembered from so long ago, so he and I walked all over Washington on Sunday afternoon searching for the place. We finally stumbled upon the gate to the Washington Navy Yard, bristling with barbed wire and barriers, and guarded by three very serious Marines in brown camo utility uniforms. Jim went right up to the gate and started talking to them.

The guards seemed leery at first because, well, that’s their job, but within thirty seconds the barriers went down, the gate opened, and they came out to meet him. When he told them he’d been a drill instructor in the ’60s a palpable change came over their faces, as if they’d just discovered a long-lost family member. They called him Sir, and they meant it. You could see it in their eyes. They didn’t even ask for ID because he spoke their language; they would have known if he was a fraud. They gave us directions to the barracks we’d been hunting all day, shook his hand and thanked him for his service.

The guards at the gate of the Washington Marine Barracks wore modified dress blues, short-sleeved khaki shirts over blue trousers and highly polished shoes. The Barracks is the home of the Commandant, the show-piece of the Corps, and they run a very tight ship. I held back, taking pictures, because I didn’t want to intrude. Frankly, I didn’t think Jim would get past the gate, but within seconds the gate swung open and he motioned me over. As it turned out, the Navy Yard had called ahead. The guards at the Barracks gate asked Jim, “Are you the one who used to be a drill instructor?” Then they ushered us in and assigned a corporal to give us a tour.

The corporal— six-foot-two and chiseled from granite— would have been at home on a Marine Corps poster. He pointed out the Commandant’s quarters, the parade ground, and gave us a brief history of the place; it had once been the sole training ground for Marines back in the day when their numbers were small. These guys loved their jobs. They liked where they were, and who they were, and what they were doing. The few, the proud.

Not being military myself, I stayed out of the way and kept quiet while soldiers swapped stories. But I saw that same genuine respect in this corporal’s eyes.

“I can talk about this place all day,” he said, “— and I will, Sir, if you want me to.”

We only stayed a half-hour or so, but it was an eye-opener. I already knew my friend was a Marine fifty years ago— we’ve talked about it often enough— but these impressive young men taught me something I had not understood:

He still is.

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13 Comment(s)

  1. Very Cool Story! Working at West Point although a civilian I am proud. Proud of where I work & proud to be able to care for those who have, who will & who are giving selflessly to our great country! God Bless your friend & say Thank You for me.


    Susan Conceicao

    May 27, 2015 | Reply
  2. Dale and I have seen this sense of honor first hand in our friend Jim for years. He shows it in the way he treats people with respect and is a true gentleman . You’re right, he will give the credit to the Corp, but I suspect he brought a lot with him.


    Larry McDonald

    May 27, 2015 | Reply
  3. What a great story!! Thank you for sharing it!!


    Judy Springer

    May 28, 2015 | Reply
  4. Dale Thanks for sharing the store. I really enjoyed it. You are such a good storyteller.


    Mary V. Crowe

    May 28, 2015 | Reply
  5. That is just an awesome adventure. My hubby was a Marine during the Korean war. I have the utmost respect for all service men! So glad you got to tag along. Perhaps a book in the making?


    Marge

    May 28, 2015 | Reply
  6. Not having the stuff being ‘military’ demands…I am in awe of those who chose this path. Dale you speak volumes in honor of these brave men! Thank you for sharing your experiences. You, by the way, are amazing story teller.


    Dusty mcdaniel

    May 28, 2015 | Reply
  7. Thanks for sharing your story.


    Carolyn Boyce

    May 28, 2015 | Reply
  8. What a fantastic story! And perfect for Memorial Day week! Yes, I think it is fair to say that for the most part: Once a marine, always a marine. I have great respect for our military and I’m so thankful for them. Thanks for sharing.


    Andy Daugherty

    May 28, 2015 | Reply
  9. Excellent tribute (and very well deserved) to a good man. I’m proud to call Jim Willsey a friend of mine.


    Dan Johnson

    May 29, 2015 | Reply
  10. That’s my Uncle Jim. I’m very proud to be his nephew. He has taught me so much through the course of my life. That was a great piece Dale. Thank you! Though I am not at all surprised that that my Uncle Jim should command such respect. To know him,is to respect him…


    Patrick McLehose

    Jun 21, 2015 | Reply
  11. Hey Dale,a great story.We have all of your books and never would have thought you would be such a good story teller,inherited from your Mom I suppose.
    On this day a great tribute to your dad and all veterans.


    Doris Shadden

    Jul 4, 2015 | Reply
  12. @Patrick McLehose: I couldn’t agree more, Patrick. He speaks highly of you, too.

    Dale Cramer
    Dale Cramer

    Aug 3, 2015 | Reply
  13. @Doris Shadden: Hey, Doris. Great to hear from you.

    Dale Cramer
    Dale Cramer

    Aug 3, 2015 | Reply

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