David Lauderdale

Marine Corps hero you never heard of sets history straight on Hilton Head

The late U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Willie Lee Whittaker.
The late U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Willie Lee Whittaker. Submitted

U.S. Marine Corps retired Staff Sgt. Willie Lee Whittaker has long left this earth.

But the powerful message of his life has not.

He was a Montford Point Marine.

By now, you’ve heard of them. They were the first African-Americans to join a Corps that clearly didn’t want them. From 1942 to 1949, some 20,000 of them were sent to a scruffy training camp at Montford Point, separate and clearly not equal to nearby Camp Lejuene, N.C., where the whites trained.

Willie Lee Whittaker had every right to resent the Marine Corps, and the one nation for which it stood. But he didn’t. And that’s where his powerful message starts.

Willie Lee Whittaker was born in the South Carolina Lowcountry, in the Hampton County town of Brunson, population 500-some.

His family migrated to Jacksonville, Fla., where he joined the Marine Corps in 1945, all 5-foot-6 and 185 pounds of him.

He served 20 years, in the Pacific islands, Korea and Vietnam. He was a weapons expert. He lived out his life in California, where he died in 1998 with little notice.

But last weekend, in a small ceremony in a Gullah church on Hilton Head Island, Willie Lee Whittaker finally earned his due from the United States of America.

The Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded to all Montford Point Marines in 2012 was accepted on Willie Lee Whitaker’s behalf by his brother, Nathaniel.

The ceremony was organized by Nathaniel’s son, Greg Whittaker of Bluffton. He’s best known as that alto sax player in the popular Deas Guyz band.

But he should be better known as a Marine. The Corps shaped his very productive life. And he owes it to the man he always knew as “Uncle Buster.”

Gold Medal

Greg Whittaker served his country for 20 years as a musician.

He landed at the Armed Forces School of Music, a kid right out of high school with no private lessons. But he had years of support from public school band directors and music teachers, God bless them. He finished top in his class.

His last assignment with the Corps was his best. For six years, he was the enlisted band leader of the Parris Island Marine Band.

Music is as crucial to the Corps as the weapons his Uncle Buster mastered.

The Parris Island band and its various ensembles has about 450 musical commitments per year, Greg Whittaker said.

But history is also crucial to the Corps.

And Greg Whittaker said the Montford Point experience was written out of history for a long time.

That’s why Uncle Buster’s Gold Medal is so important.

“It meant the world to me,” Greg said. “To me, it solidified the fact that we had a bona fide American hero in our family. We always knew he served, but we did not know that the period he served was such a groundbreaking time for blacks in the Marine Corps.

“This was the ‘greatest generation,’ but when you hear talk about the ‘greatest generation,’ you rarely hear what blacks did to make it so.”

Greg Whittaker said the Montford Point Marines made it in the toughest branch of the service.

“But not only that, you are putting up with racism and Uncle Buster still made it through 20 years; and not only did he stick with it, he encouraged me to stick with it and get all I could get out of it. It goes to show what an amazing American he was.”

‘I’ll Take the Marines’

The ceremony at St. James Baptist Church on Saturday, Feb. 2, was filled with patriotic music.

Greg Whittaker played the saxophone, and his wife, Monicha, played piano as their daughter, Brianna, sang.

Tyrone Jackson of Beaufort, president of the local Montford Point Marines Association chapter, told the history of the Montford Point Marines.

Members of the Arthur E. Wiley American Legion Post 49 on Hilton Head participated, and the Rev. Charles E. Hamilton Sr. spoke.

Greg Whittaker rose to the rank of gunnery sergeant, and today his day job is regional supervisor with the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardons Services.

But one special duty while he was serving in the Corps still rings in his ears.

He said he got to lead the band at a Montford Point Marines Association convention for the first performance of the Montford Point Hymn. The words were written by the late Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. LaSalle Vaughan, who retired to Port Royal. Parris Island drum major Staff Sgt. Vernon Harris composed the music to the song, “I’ll Take the Marines.”

Greg Whittaker said he served 20 years without the obstacles his uncle faced. “He was fighting two wars,” he said.

And that’s the power in his Uncle Buster’s lesson.

“You’d think he would be bitter,” Greg Whittaker said. “But he never said a mumbling bad word about the Marine Corps. He was proud of his service. He loved the Marine Corps, and I’m not sure he had any idea he was treated as badly as he was.

“One generation later, I was the only obstacle. It was all on me. I could achieve anything I wanted to achieve, unlike my uncle. He was not awarded like he should have been.”

But now, almost 75 years after Willie Lee Whittaker joined the Marine Corps, you can say that he earned the highest civilian award in the United States.

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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