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 He’s an upright man with a sense of honor that, these days, seems rare and outdated.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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