Local Military News

Parris Island in the 40s: A rude awakening for one New Yorker

A portrait of Francis Williamson in the Marine Corps.
A portrait of Francis Williamson in the Marine Corps. Submitted photo

Francis Williamson was a tall, muscular 18-year-old working in New York in 1942 when he decided to enlist.

The U.S. had entered World War II about nine months before and was in need of strong young men.

In preparation for the war, Parris Island was undergoing a drastic transformation, experiencing its largest expansion to date.

Williamson was sworn in one day, and the very next morning, put on a train to South Carolina to become a U.S. Marine.

He was one of the lucky ones, assigned to live in a Quonset hut by the sand pits. Others had to stay in tents.

The oppressive heat and the even more oppressive drill instructors were a rude awakening for Williamson, who now lives in Beaufort and is 91.

The drills stand out most in Williamson's mind, especially since the tall, wiry Tennessee recruit in front of him was unable to tell his left from his right.

"He'd be stepping on my heels, and I'd be stepping on his toes," he said.

So the drill instructor stepped in.

"You two don't seem to get along together," the D.I. said. "You don't seem to drill too well together. Now we're going to find out how you can fight together."

The fight was on as the two men punched each other and wrestled on the ground.

"That dang hillbilly was like a spider," Williamson recently recalled with a laugh. "I mean you couldn't turn him loose."

Eventually, they both decided they'd had enough, and it was back to drilling. They stabbed dummies with bayonets. They crawled on the ground through the fields.

They also learned you don't sneak off to the post exchange, like a recruit did one day.

The drill instructor got wind of it and was waiting for his return.

The clueless recruit came back with candy bars and two small packages of ice cream.

The D.I. called him upfront and snatched his pith helmet, ice cream and candy bars. The unwrapped candy and ice cream went in the helmet. And the helmet went on the recruit's head.

"And you know it was August in South Carolina," Williamson said. "And that stuff was dripping."

He had to wear the helmet all day.

"He was miserable," Williamson said. "All the gnats and stuff on him."

At the end of boot camp, the men were being sorted to various units and were expected to head to Europe for the war.

Some went infantry or aviation. Williamson went to tank training first but was later shipped to Londonderry in Northern Ireland in November 1942. He was a guard at the U.S. Naval command station during the war.

Twenty years later, he ended his service where he began -- at Parris Island.

But his return in 1960 was nothing like his boot camp experience back in 1942.

"You were so happy to get off that island (after boot camp)," he recalled. "You wanted to go see the Japanese or the Germans or the Chinese or somebody to take it out on."