An Encounter with my Former SDI
Acting SSgt William H. Lewis was our Senior Drill Instructor in Platoon 264 at MCRD San Diego. I was Platoon Guide (sometimes Right Guide but usually Left Guide) from shortly after we left Receiving Barracks in late August 1959 to graduation just before Thanksgiving 1959. As a result, I spent more time in the duty hut than other recruits. I should add that most of that time was spent in the “thinking position” doing penance for our platoon’s transgressions on any given day. Ten years later, in 1969, when I was a Captain and the S-3 for 1st Recruit Training Battalion (1stRTBn), I got a call from the Regimental Adjutant, Capt Frank Waters (an LDO, later as a LtCol to become Admin Officer to CMCs Wilson and Barrow). He asked me if I had anything to keep some former 8511s (DIs) busy for a while. There were some SNCOs in his office that had been sent down from Balboa Naval Hospital where they were recuperating from wounds or other injuries/maladies, were bored to death, and needed something to do to occupy their time. Since they were 8511s they came to the Recruit Training Regiment (RTR). I asked my Ops Chief if he had any special projects that he needed to have done. He said he had one but he would only need one man. I told Frank we could use one, to have him report to me, and I hung up the phone.
Several minutes later I heard foot steps on the deck of the old wooden WWII-era building that was the 1stRTBn’s headquarters (our building, the other two battalion’s headquarters and DI School were situated on the four corners of that block with the Centralized Recruit Administrative Center and the RTR armory filling in the east and west flanks). The foot steps became louder as they got closer to my office. In an instant I heard the sound of heels snapping together and a deep husky voice announcing, “Sir, Gunnery Sergeant @#%&$ reporting to the Captain as ordered, Sir.” I didn’t catch the name due to the sound of a jet airliner taking off from Lindbergh Field next door but there are a couple of things a Marine never forgets: his service number and the voice of his senior drill instructor. I looked up to see Gunnery Sergeant Lewis standing at rigid attention, head and eyes fixed straight ahead at the bulkhead above and behind me. I asked, “Gunny, do the numbers 2, 6 and 4 mean anything to you?” He paused for a few seconds with a quizzical look on his face and then responded, “Sir, no Sir”. I then asked, “How about Platoon 264”? After a second or two the Gunny glanced down at me and then at the name plate on the front edge of my desk. His head and eyes snapped abruptly up and straight ahead again. I then heard him softly exclaim, “Oh s_ _ t, Sir”. In His wisdom, God had seen to it that our roles were reversed. I was now the senior and there was justice in this world after all.
I didn’t have time to talk with him just then as the Battalion Commander and I had a meeting to attend at Regiment. I turned the Gunny over to my Ops Chief, MSgt Schlecht, and joined LtCol Dallas R. Walker for our walk across the street. When I returned an hour or so later, the Gunny was gone. He’d completed whatever task my Ops Chief had given him and that was the last time I ever saw Gunnery Sergeant Lewis.
Several years after my retirement I got a call from a MGySgt acquaintance who had access to the newly computerized personnel system. He asked for my Senior Drill Instructor’s name and after a brief search he gave me GySgt Lewis’ mailing address. Now maybe it’s just a coincidence but every holiday season after that phone call Gunny Lewis got an anonymous Christmas card just to let him know that someone was thinking about him. About the time the card sender (whoever that person might have been) was ready to “fess up”, he learned that the Gunny had died a few months earlier. His family told me he looked forward to the cards and suspected, correctly, that they came from one of his former recruits. The family would later invite me to his grandson’s commissioning ceremony and post-ceremony celebration cocktail/dinner party. The young man had just graduated from San Diego State University (unfortunately it was the Air Force that got him). He’s now a senior Captain at Nellis AFB, an experienced F-16 instructor pilot and combat veteran.
We only get to San Diego about once a year now but every time my wife and I go we stop by Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery out on Point Loma to visit some friends. Among the graves we visit is that of Gunny Lewis (Section A-F, Site C-27D). It’s fitting that his grave is located where it is, high toward the southwest end of the cemetery overlooking San Diego Bay. On a clear day you can see MCRD from there and I’m sure he’s keeping an eye on things making sure we’re still making Marines like he used to.