Thoughts during a few moments spent standing, staring at a vertical slate of black marble; only vaguely aware of the rain drenched figure standing, staring back; unable to move any closer; unwilling to turn away. All the names in chronological order, left to right, as need dictated. All needed on a given day clustered together. He was there, but it was so much easier not to look or find. Surrounded by the others, he remained silent. When identified, he would cry out. Raindrops fell and a gentle, cold wind chilled my finger as it traced a path down the dripping slate.
Until I was fifteen, he was nothing more than a name, someone older, who lived in Arizona, and mentioned when family gathered. The name Billy had no significance for me until reaching that stage of adolescence where a boy just begins to realize that high school football games are just memories, Friday night parties are less pleasurable than in bygone years, and cruising the drive thru restaurant looking for excitement just isn’t cool anymore. Very soon serious decisions must be made.
If he had not been stationed at Camp Pendleton or come to visit, who can know the direction of those decisions. During the visits, we didn’t talk much, usually only over meals. I was caught up in adolescent turmoil and he preferred to spend Saturday afternoon’s watching old movies on television and going out alone at night. One evening there was a brief description of training exercises in Taiwan and a possible promotion to 2nd Lt. preceding a trip “Down South.” Immediately followed by a low-key statement that he did not want to be an officer or go anywhere. Only half interested and somewhat confused, I mumbled, “Why not?” The response was curt, “Being an officer has responsibilities I don’t want and many Marines are not properly trained for the jungle”. End of discussion. I returned to weighty preparations for an evening at the movies and Billy prepared for his nightly ritual.
That was the extent of our military conversations until a day in October, 1966. I was three years older and in Marine Bootcamp. Staff Sgt. Billy was the instructor for one of the training classes. Somehow, he knew I was in the class. When the instruction was over, he spoke quietly to our Drill Instructor and this scene played out.
The platoon stood in formation awaiting the Drill Instructor’s command. Bootcamp was seven weeks old and we were getting comfortable with the routine. Then the words that always sent icy chills down the spine of any Boot, “Private Hill, front and center.”
Private Hill thought to himself, “Oh shit, what have I done now? First, I couldn’t do a TO THE REAR MARCH and got called out of formation for “private lessons” with Sgt Chernowski and now this. Maybe it has something to do with my DI cousin teaching the class.”
As we had been trained to do, I double-timed to the front of the formation and stood as a 2×4 in front of Staff Sgt Divork. “Private Hill, reporting as ordered, SIR!”
Staff Sgt Divork, with a smile and an unusually friendly tone, “Private Hill, do you know Staff Sgt Martin?”
“Yes, SIR!” Thinking to himself, “Oh shit, I’m in trouble now. He’ll probably want to give some “private lessons” too.
With a gleam in his eye and a voice that roared loud enough for everyone within two hundred yards to clearly hear, Sgt Divork stated emphatically: :”Private Hill, we in the Marine Corps are all brothers, but you hav’nt reached that plateau yet and you won’t until you graduate from bootcamp, if you do. That means that Sgt Martin and I are brothers but you’re not even part of the family yet, isn’t that right, Private Hill?”
With the eyes still gleaming and a voice only slightly lower than the sound of a phantom jet on takeoff, “Private Hill, I am sure you know what kind of Marine Sgt Martin is, don’t you?”
“Well Private Hill, why don’t you tell your platoon what kind of Marine Sgt Martin is!”
Then, with all bravado that an eighteen-year old adolescent can muster, remember I was only four months out of high school and, in spite of a 6’4″ frame, weighed only 170 pounds, with rifle and full pack: “SIR, Sgt Martin is a RECON MARINE, SIR!”
To be a Recon Marine, one must excel physically and undergo special training; learning to parachute jump, scuba dive, rock and mountain climb. They receive prolonged hot and cold weather training. They learn how to survive in the jungle and desert with only a knife and their wits. A typical training exercise consists of a night parachute jump into an area designated as enemy territory, then carry out a specific task, while an opposing army is out trying to capture you. They are trained to work alone and in small groups. The Marines think of themselves as an elite group. Recon Marines are the elite of the elite.
“Yes, Private Hill, Sgt Martin is a Recon Marine and if just one of you, out of this whole worthless platoon, can one day become half the Marine Sgt Martin is, my job as a drill instructor will have been successful. Now, Private Hill, Sgt Martin wants a word with you and when he has finished you will double time back to the platoon area, understood?”
As Sgt Divork called Platoon 3319 to attention and marched it away, I was left standing before the man who, without knowing it and certainly not wanting it, had led me to that very moment. I was more apprehensive standing before Cousin Billy, than if he had been a total stranger. I had been in Bootcamp long enough to know how to react to Staff Sgt Strangers; I know what they wanted and expected from me. But how should I respond to a blood relative, who was also a Marine, and not only a Marine but one of the very elite Marines. Would he expect me to respond as if he was just another Staff Sgt? As if he was someone who just happened to be at the Recruit Depot trying to make me and my fellow “Boots” into more than we ever wanted to be, or dreamed we would have to be. The decision was made in an instant.
I stood looking at him; I had to look down for he was not 5′ 10″, stocky, solid and built like the NFL running back of which it was said, “Tackling him is like tackling a bowling ball”. In spite of his credentials, Cousin Billy had a poet’s face, a look of tenderness in his eyes and a grin that spoke of lost joys. While he did not say it out loud, the eyes asked the real question. “What are you doing here? You come from another world. Yours is a world for visiting when I leave this place. Yours is a world I never knew and never will know. And, besides, you’re much too tall to be a Marine; much too easy a target.”
His eyes made the decision for me, they were correct, I did come from a different world and I would make an easy target, but that day I would make him proud. When the mouth opened and barked out the question, I answered as I had been trained.
“Have you been to the rifle range yet?”
“Yes,SIR!” That experience was still very fresh in my mind and it would vividly remain there for a long time. In spite of several unpleasant events the experience had turned out positively.
“Did you qualify?”
“What is you rating?”
With a return of the grin and twinkle his eye, this time in a softer voice: “Just barely made it, heh?”
Even softer now and this time with almost a hint of brotherly affection, he asked, “Is there anything you need or anything you want me to tell your mother?”
“No, SIR! I have everything I need SIR!”
“OK, good luck, dismissed!”
“Thank you Sir!” And I did an about face and double-timed away. That was the last time I ever saw Staff Sgt. William E. Martin, USMC.
If I had a son, his name would be William Martin Hill. But that didn’t happen, so today, the only place that the name lives is on a flat, bronze tombstone in Prescott Arizona, on a vertical black slate of marble in Washington DC and in the memory of those who knew and loved him. While knowledge of his short life and tragic death is sketchy at best, there is no doubt of the impact he had on my life. What eighteen year old, in 1966, from a middleclass background, with all the financial and intellectual tools necessary for a successful college stint, went out on a pretty day in May to enlist in the United States Marine Corps? Semper Fi, Lt, Martin!