The first time Billy Locklear remembers leaving Chattooga County, Georgia, was as a teenager on a train headed west for boot camp during World War II. He was 17 years old, but as far as the U.S. Marine Corps knew Locklear was 18.
Locklear, now 94, had seen the Marines on newsreels and in movies and was inspired by their strength, he said. He set his mind to joining the military after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
"I just always wanted to be in the toughest outfit and I figured the Marines was it," he said.
In June 1944, Locklear's unit arrived on the shore of Saipan in the Mariana Islands, whose control would be a strategic win for the Allied forces trying to control the main Japanese islands. The fighting in the Pacific was unlike anything Locklear expected after seeing Marines in movies as a child, he said.
"Nothing like it," Locklear said. "Those were bad days. You never knew when you stuck your head up whether you was going to come back with it."
His unit fought for weeks on the western side of the island. They had to battle for every gain they made, Lockler said.
"We were very shaky. We did our jobs. We knew what we had to do and we did it. It was either kill or be killed. That's all we heard from the day we went in there until the day we came out," he said.
Name: Billy Locklear
Branch of military: U.S. Marine Corps
Years of service: 1943-1945
During the fighting, Locklear was shot in the right shoulder, a wound that just missed his throat. He spent several months recovering in a hospital in Hawaii before being honorably discharged in September 1945. He lay in his hospital bed celebrating when he heard the news the war was over. The training, the fighting and the recovery were lonely times, Locklear said. Everyone was homesick, so the occasional deliveries of mail were a kind of godsend.
Returning to life in Chattooga County as a 19-year-old was easy, Locklear said. He met his wife Ruth and the couple was married several weeks later. He worked at the local mill and built the house he still lives in.
However, Locklear remained haunted by what he had seen in Japan. During the battle at Saipan, thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped off cliffs to their deaths, or killed themselves by other means, rather than be captured by American soldiers.
For decades after his return, Locklear would wake up in the night yelling at people not to jump.
Every Veterans Day, Locklear said he thinks about the other Marines he served alongside. Almost all of the soldiers who survived the war have died since, he said. He is one of the few who remain. He was doing his job as a Marine, he said, and the Marines are still the toughest force.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.