Bill Paxton knew he wanted to be a marine the day his family buried his dad, a marine who had been killed while fighting the Japanese during the Pacific campaign of World War II. His drill instructor in boot camp had a significant impact on him and would later be the focus of the movie The DI.
His early years in the marines formed the basis for his successful career; he twice served as a drill instructor and had two tours of duty in Vietnam as a grunt. His impact on all who he came in contact with was evident in the drive that pushed Ken Norton, his former recruit, to become the Boxing Heavyweight Champion of the World. Paxton received the Bronze Star for heroic actions in Vietnam and was also awarded several Purple Heart Medals for wounds he received in battle.
Having achieved the rank of sergeant major, he retired from active duty after thirty years; still, he proudly says, "Retired, but still active!" He has become an icon in the marines and is one of the most well-known marines in the San Diego area.
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OOORAH!Biography of a Marine Icon: Sergeant Major Bill "Ooorah" Paxton
By GREGG STONER
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Gregg Stoner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Beginning
The Great Depression was still going strong when I was born on July 11, 1935. My parents, like most parents, were struggling to make ends meet. The world was in economic crisis and there was a major political shift occurring around the world. Japan and Germany were increasing their military strengths that would change the world.
Times were really tough for families during the depression-we had very little money and could not afford to heat our home in Brightwood, a community on the east side of Indianapolis, Indiana. Winters there were bitter cold. We used to scavenge along the railroad tracks to find pieces of coal that fell off the trains. We scrounged around to find old newspapers and pieces of wood to burn in the fireplace just to keep warm. Still, there many nights when we had to just huddle under layers of blankets just to stay warm.
My dad and uncle joined the Marine Corps when I was about five years old, and he was away most of the time. When he got home on leave he would take my sister and I to the amusement park and let us ride on the rides-those were special memories to me because we were all together and we were having fun. My dad meant a lot to me, ooorah!
I was only seven years old when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor. I remember the horror that my family and everyone felt over the attack. We listened to the newscasts on the radio, and I remember it was hard to imagine such a thing could have happened. My dad was home on leave at the time. That night civil defense workers went door-to-door telling everyone to turn off their lights and close their blinds and curtains. It was a very scary time for everyone. My dad knew he was going to war with most other young men in America and he soon received his orders to depart. Before Dad left he pulled me and my older sister Joyce Anne aside and told us that while he was gone we were to do our very best at whatever we were doing-advice I would always remember my whole life, ooorah! He gave us a hug and a kiss and then left to fight in the war-that was the last time I would see my dad alive.
My mother took over as head of the family at that point and our struggling continued. She was a real dedicated mom and she sacrificed enormously for us by working as a waitress at the Fegi Well restaurant, and later at Woolworth's department store. She had to walk a quite ways to get to the trolley and then rode the trolley to work. She rented an old double-house at 2329 Wheeler Street from our neighbors, the Bostic's, and the rent was fifteen dollars per month. The neighborhood was very rough, and at night it was dangerous to walk on the sidewalk-I used to walk down to the trolley station at night to meet both my sister, who also worked after school at Woolworth's, and my mother, and together we would all walk home, always walking down the middle of the street to avoid being mugged or attacked. We had no phone, radio, or television. Every dime we earned had to go toward just surviving. If we wanted to listen to the radio, or later to watch TV, we had to go to the Bostic's house next door. The Bostic's were the only family in the neighborhood that had a radio-it was one of those huge radios in a large wooden cabinet. The sound from that radio was magical to us kids and we were mesmerized by the programs we listened to. As kids growing up during those hard times we had to use our imaginations to have fun-unlike kids of today who rely on computer games and TV programming, ooorah! Before TV came along we listened to the radio and the many shows and plays that were put on. Our imaginations painted the pictures in our minds. We had no playgrounds to play in so we played in the streets outside, and as little boys do, we played cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, soldiers playing war games, hide-and-seek, and a lot of baseball in those streets. We had a lot of fun growing up then despite the hardships around us.
The Bostic's were the first family in our neighborhood to get a TV, and we used to go to their house on Friday nights and watch the Friday Night Fights that were sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Televisions in those days were very small and the screen was somewhat rounded and only had a black and white picture. They had to have rabbit-ear antennae on top of it in order to get the picture. There were only a couple of channels available back then. The Bostic's would invite us over to watch other favorite shows such as I Love Lucy, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Jackie Gleason Show and other programs. Their living room was packed with neighborhood kids and families, ooorah!
We often made our own toys-we would take an old pair of metal skates, the kind that used to get clamped on the bottom of our shoes, and we would take the wheels off and nail them to the bottom of a long two-by-four board and it became our skateboard. Sometimes we would add an up-right stick that we would use to help us steer. We always took those skateboards to a hill nearby and would race down the streets. We did not realize the danger of the skateboards and just had fun riding down the hills. I am amazed to this day that we did not kill ourselves on those contraptions, ooorah!
My cousin and I both used to hang around outside the ballpark where the Indianapolis Indians used to play, and we scrounged around for the baseballs that would be knocked over the fence-when we turned a ball in they would let us come in and watch the game. We would also go to the Riverside Golf Coarse and look for golf balls. They gave us five cents for each ball we turned in, and we used that money to buy candy. On some occasions we would caddy for the golfers and they would tip us a couple of bucks. The bags we toted often seemed much bigger than we were, ooorah!
Sometimes on Saturday we were given a quarter and allowed to go to the local matinee. We really got our quarter's worth too as they would show two movies, a newsreel, coming attractions, a couple of cartoons, and they always had a short serial such as Superman or Buck Rogers. Those serials were always designed to have an ending where you just knew the good guys were going to die, but you had to come back the next week to find out how they got out of their predicament.
During the week we would take an old red wagon and walk along the roadways and scour the neighborhoods to collect discarded soda and beer bottles. We would then turn them in at the market and get a few pennies for each one. We used that money to buy goodies at the movie-for about a quarter we could get a soda and bag of buttered popcorn, or maybe a couple of candy bars or boxes of chewy candy such as Dots, Jujubees or other types that were available. A candy bar like an Abazaba could last through at least one of the movies.
I attended grammar school at Public School number 51 and attended that school from kindergarten through the eighth grade. I was a school safety and was responsible for traffic control when the kids had to cross the street when coming to school or going home. I got to wear a badge and we wore white cross-belts. They had different ranks ranging from patrol boy to lieutenant-I became a lieutenant and that allowed me to wear a special red badge. I felt very proud of that badge and I had thoughts that some day I wanted to be a cop, ooorah! I was also involved in school sports and I played on the track and basketball teams. In addition I was a member of the school choir. One day we put on a Christmas program. The boy next to me in the choir had not eaten all that day and right in the middle of the ceremonies he passed out and fell over on me-that resulted in me toppling onto the boy next to me, and it continued down the choir line in a ripple-effect. Everyone thought I had passed out too and it created quite a stir in the audience.
We had a local neighborhood market called Coopers Market where everyone in the neighborhood bought their groceries and staple items. As kids we used to go there and buy candy with the money we got from collecting pop and beer bottles. My favorite candy was a Three Musketeers candy bar chased down with a root beer soda. Sometimes I would change it up and get an Almond Joy, ooorah!
One day my mom was visited by some somber Marines who told her that my dad and uncle had been killed just a few days apart during heavy fighting in a fierce battle on the island of Iwo Jima. It was a terrible blow to us all. The funeral for them was held in Noblesville at my Aunt Esther's house. A sharp Marine corporal had escorted my dad's and uncle's remains home. They were both were in sealed caskets draped with American flags. After the services we left for the burial ceremony at the cemetery.
As the caskets were being lowered I looked up at my mom and said, "I want to be a Marine!"
She looked down at me and said "Are you crazy? After what has happened to your dad and uncle-and you want to be a Marine?"
"Mom, that's why I want to become a Marine!"
I knew then that I was going to be a Marine some day, ooorah!
Chapter TwoGrowing Up
The neighborhood we lived in began to go through a major demographic change after the war. It had started out as a typical white neighborhood, but slowly became a predominantly black neighborhood. My family was the only white family that did not move away. I made friends with the Wilson and Proctor families that moved in across the street. Mr. Wilson grew a garden with many vegetables and we would often swap some of the fruit we grew on our fruit trees for some of his vegetables.
The Proctor's had twenty-one kids. Mrs. Proctor was a very large lady and was called "Big Mama" by everyone. Mr. Proctor, by contrast, had a very small stature. Sometimes Mr. Proctor would take me fishing with several of his kids. The kids that would come with us were named Harry, Tommy, Esther and Steve Junior-the family was too large for everyone to come along. Nobody in our neighborhood had a car back then, so in order to get to the river we had to take a trolley across town to Broad Ripple, and then we had to walk from there to the river. We would often catch limits of bass and other local fish, and then bring them home for some fancy dinners that we thought were really out-of-the-ordinary, ooorah!
My grandparents would come to visit us from Noblesville, Indiana. They did not have a car and would ride the bus the twenty-nine miles to our house. Sometimes I would ride my sister's bike to their house and my grandparents were always amazed that I could ride a bike such a long distance. Grandpa worked at the Firestone factory and he had typical blue-collar mentality. He would take me fishing and hunting, and he was the one that really taught me how to shoot a rifle. He would have me place a small coin on the tip of the rifle and make me balance it while aiming-that taught me how to hold the rifle steady, as the drill was to not drop the coin. He also taught me how to look through the sights of the rifle and properly sight-in the target-that, I would later learn in the Marine Corps, was called "sight alignment" and "sight picture". The rifle we used was an old Remington bolt-action .22 caliber. It had a tube magazine under the barrel that would hold about fifteen or twenty .22 caliber bullets at a time. I learned how to squeeze the trigger and not jerk it. All of that would be very helpful when I would join the Marines in future years, ooorah!
Squirrel hunting was very involved as I learned from Grandpa. They are crafty animals and hunting them required out-thinking them. He taught me to look on the ground for fallen shavings from the squirrels high up in the trees as they gnawed on the branches and nuts. Grandpa told me to take a switch from the tree, or a piece of wood, and tap it on the tree or toss it on the ground, always on the opposite side of the tree from where he was standing-the squirrels would go to the other side to get away from the sound resulting in them being in our line of fire. We had to be ready for them when they came around to the side we were on, and Grandpa was always ready-he was a great shot, ooorah!
Sometimes we would go rabbit hunting. After we bagged our limits Grandpa would show me how to field dress and skin them so we could take them home and cook them for supper. We always did target practice before we hunted so we could hone our shooting skills. My grandfather was very adamant about one thing: always eat what you kill-never kill just for the sport of it. I always would live by that rule, ooorah!
My grandfather basically took the place of my father in showing me how to be an outdoorsman. He also taught me the finer techniques of fishing. During those trips he would tell me about my dad and what a fine man he was. I never really got to know my dad as I was still pretty young when he left with the Marines at the start of the war, and he never came home.
We were always struggling to make ends meet. I sold newspapers, and also shined shoes in a barber shop. I would cut grass, and do other odd jobs I could find to make any money I could to help out at home. My sister also worked part-time at Woolworth's. We pulled together as a family and it made us very tight, ooorah.
During the summers I would work at my Uncle Paul's farm-work that I found to be extremely hard and very labor-intensive. The farm was located twenty-six miles east of Indianapolis, so it was not too far from home. Life on a farm was different than life in the city-on the farm they basically lived off the land. Their water supply was a well, and I remember the water would come out very cold and had a really good taste to it. My Aunt Ruth would spend hours canning vegetables and fruits in preparation for the long winter months when vegetables and fruits were not available. They had a lot of different types of berries on their farm-blackberries grew along their driveway and we used to take a bucket and pick the berries. We ate as many as we put in the bucket-there was really nothing quite like a fresh berry picked off the vine, ooorah! A tree arbor on the farm supported grape vines and my uncle grew both red and white grapes. They had a meat-smoker that my uncle used to smoke meats in order to preserve them. We made homemade root-beer and stored the bottles in the cellar with the canned goods-the cellar was always cool and everything kept well there. Aunt Ruth also made root-beer cough drops, but we ate them like they were candy, ooorah! Meals were special too-farmers need lots of energy for the work they do and breakfast was the start of their day, so there was ample food offered during the meals. Sometimes Aunt Ruth would slaughter some chickens for dinner. That was always something special for a city-kid to witness-she would catch the chickens and then pull or cut the heads off. Even though the chickens died when their heads came off they still jumped around like they were still alive. The first time I saw that it really freaked me out, ooorah! Once the chicken would stop its reflex jumping it was time to take the feathers off which required putting the chicken in a bucket of boiling water so that the feathers would come loose at the quill allowing them to come out easily. The smell of a wet chicken was not very pleasant as I remember. Aunt Ruth would also cook up some fried squirrel when they were in season and we had a successful hunt.
My aunt kept a very large vegetable garden. Her garden had corn, carrots, lettuce, sweet potatoes, and many other types of vegetables. She was very proud of that garden and made sure it was properly kept up-that meant that we kids used to have to hoe the weeds that would grow in the fertile soil. The first time I hoed weeds in the garden I mistook the sweet potatoes for weeds and I hoed them up. Aunt Ruth was very upset with me. I learned quickly after that exactly what a weed was and what a vegetable wasn't, ooorah! Everybody had a job to do and the kids got the dirty end of most of those jobs.
It wasn't all work though-we had a small pond on the farm and when it was hot and muggy we would go to the pond and go skinny-dipping. The water was muddy and had a sweet taste to it, but as hot as it was outside, the water was cool and refreshing. We would sometimes make home-made ice cream. That required getting a block of ice to chip into pieces after putting the ice cream ingredients into the ice cream churn. The ice went in the wooden bucket that housed the metal ice cream churn and it was necessary to put rock salt over the ice to aid in melting it so that the ice cream mixture inside could freeze into ice cream. We then cranked it until it turned into ice cream. If we cranked it too quickly it could turn the contents into butter and spoil the ice cream. All the kids got to take turns cranking the churn. On Saturdays we would sometimes go into town. Going into town was a big event for us folks living on a farm-it meant getting dressed up in our best clothes. When we got to town we would sometimes go to a movie. We always went to the soda fountain to get a special treat. My favorite soda fountain treat was a root beer float.
Excerpted from OOORAH! by GREGG STONER Copyright © 2010 by Gregg Stoner. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: The Beginning....................3
Chapter Two: Growing Up....................8
Chapter Three: The Hell of Boot Camp....................19
Chapter Four: Sea Duty....................32
Chapter Five: Military Police....................42
Chapter Six: Recon: First Time Grunt....................49
Chapter Seven: Becoming a Drill Instructor....................69
Chapter Eight: The Horrors of Vietnam....................90
Chapter Nine: Back To the Drill Field-Close Combat Instructor....................113
Chapter Ten: The Anchor....................132
Chapter Eleven: The Quest to Honor the Known Marine....................138
Chapter Twelve: Vietnam, My Second Tour....................144
Chapter Thirteen: Twentynine Palms....................162
Chapter Fourteen: Recruiting Marines....................170
Chapter Fifteen: Okinawa: First Sergeant, Ooorah!....................185
Chapter Sixteen: Back To MCRD Support Battalion....................194
Chapter Seventeen: Camp Pendleton-Making Sergeant Major....................200
Chapter Eighteen: The Lingering Affects of War....................214
Chapter Nineteen: A Chip-Off-The-Old-Block....................221
Chapter Twenty: Civilian Duty at MCRD....................230
Chapter Twenty-One: Retired, But Still Active....................248
Chapter Twenty-Two: An Interview of SgtMaj Bill "Ooorah" Paxton by Gregg Stoner....................255
Chapter Twenty-Three: Reflections by Marines and Friends....................276
Chapter Twenty-Four: Poems, Writings, and Hymns....................287
Chapter Twenty-Five: Afterward Sergeant Major Bill "Ooorah" Paxton Day....................300
Chapter Twenty-Six: SgtMaj Bill Paxton's Photo Album....................306
Glossary of Marine Corps Terms....................408