I have always thought it was an interesting story how my father first brought himself to the notice of his superiors in the United State Marine Corps. Dad had dropped out of school at Duke to join the Marines. His parents thought dropping out of school was a terrible idea and weren’t really sure what the Marine Corps was. They suspected that it might have something to do with the merchant marines and cargo ships.
Shortly after being commissioned as a second lieutenant, Dad’s battalion, along with two others, went by ship from Norfolk to the newly created Camp Lejeune for training exercises. The exercise involved all three units landing at different places on the North Carolina coast, marching inland for a distance, and then returning to a common rally point on the beach to be picked up by the Navy in a night withdrawal. All went splendidly until the Marines marched inland. Once out of sight of the Atlantic Ocean, they all promptly became hopelessly lost.
By good fortune for Dad, before the Marines took possession, the land for Camp Lejeune had been the Onslow Rod and Gun Club. This club was just about the best hunting and fishing area in Eastern North Carolina. Dad and his best friend Bill Wilkins were avid deer hunters and fishermen. With Bill, Dad had probably walked and knew every square foot of ground at Camp Lejeune. Marching back in the pack, Dad couldn’t figure out what his unit was doing because he knew where they had started, knew where they were, and knew where they wanted to go. He also knew the way they were going was never going to get them to the rally point. Dad realized that recent heavy rains had submerged many of the trails at Camp Lejeune beneath up to four feet of water. The battalion’s intelligence officer, born and raised on the plains of West Texas, was utterly out of his element in the forests and swamps of North Carolina. During the night withdrawal to the beach, he led the battalion down a road that had been so throughly flooded that it seemed they had walked out onto a peninsula. About this time, Major Amore LeRoy Simms, the battalion commander, became frustrated and feared that he was not going to get to the rally point in time to be picked up by the Navy.
Then one of Major Simms’ aides informed him that back in the pack was a second lieutenant who had grown-up in the area and he might know how to get back to the beach. This prompted Major Simms to remember hearing about a green lieutenant in his battalion who had gained a reputation as a water witch who could locate small hidden springs deep in the forest where canteens could be refilled.
Dad was ordered to the head of the column. He left his platoon in the capable hands of his platoon sergeant, Anthony P. “Ski” Malanowski, Jr. and marched forward.
Upon arriving, the Major Simms barked, “Do you know where we are?” Dad replied, “Yes sir!” Major Simms smiled and said, “Do you know how to get to where we are going?” Dad replied, “Yes sir!” While elaborating on his answer, Dad revealed that there were two ways to get to their destination: a long way which involved going back and starting over or a short way which involved marching directly off the finger of dry land through some shallow water. Dad introduced this short way with the question, “Do you mind if you get your feet wet sir?” Major Simms roared, “Hell no!” Dad then uttered those immortal words that are the hallmark of every officer in every army in the world, “Follow me!”
As they were leaving, one of Major Simms’ aides asked about the intelligence officer, who was still trying to figure out why the road seemingly led into a lake. The commanding officer said, “Forget him, we’re following Cox.” Dad led his unit down the road through waist deep water and out onto dry land. They alternatively marched and ran directly to the rally point. They arrived just a few minutes late, but no Navy boats were present. The battalion signaled with a blinker out to the U.S.S. Fuller, which dispatched the landing craft to pick them up. When the Navy coxswains arrived in their boats, Major Simms asked as discreetly as he could, how long had it been since the other units been picked up? The sailors responded that they were the first ones to be picked up. Dad’s battalion loaded up and went out to the ship. Dawn came and went and the other two units still didn’t arrive at the rally point. It was two more days before the other two Marine units were able to extract themselves from those Eastern North Carolina swamps. The intelligence officer didn’t catch up with the battalion until they got back to Norfolk.
Major Simms, normally the grimmest of men, probably had a lot of fun with the officers of the other two Marine units over the next couple of nights at the Officer’s Club. He undoubtedly made many heartfelt offers to teach them the rudiments of land navigation and the basic principles of infantry command. But each time he made a joke, he must have felt a little pang inside. Because he knew that if not for Lieutenant Cox, he might still be out in that swamp.
After checking with his subordinates and learning what we all know about Dad’s qualities, other than that he knew Camp Lejeune like the back of his hand, Major Simms filed Dad’s name away in his memory as an officer who could be relied upon.
Major Simms knew that Dad understood the most important lesson in being an officer, you must be willing to say, “Follow me!”