Skip Navigation and Jump to Page Content    The Library of Congress >> American Folklife Center  
Veterans History Project (Library of Congress) ABOUT  
SEARCH/BROWSE  
HELP  
COPYRIGHT  
Home » Text Transcript

Interview with Willis Frazier [February 28, 2005]

Robert Patrick:

Willis Frazier?

Willis Frazier:

Yeah.

Robert Patrick:

Good morning. My name is Bob Patrick. I'm with the Veterans History Project. It is February the 28th, 2005. We are at the American Legion mid-winter convention in Washington, D.C. We have Retired Sergeant Major Willis Frazier who is with us today to give his interview for the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project. Willis, good to have you.

Willis Frazier:

Thank you.

Robert Patrick:

To start off this interview, could you kind of give me a little bit of your background? Where you grew up, where you were born, those basic details.

Willis Frazier:

I was born in Darlington, South Carolina. I stayed there until I was drafted in the United States Army in 1968. My high school and growing up, I was a basketball player in high school and I was selected by my coach as the captain of the team my senior year. My father was a veteran of World War II, and I know some things about him that I didn't realize until along in life that he suffered from his service in that war, because he would never talk about it. And he never could watch the big pictures on television.

He would leave and I didn't realize the reasons for that, until I became grown and associated with the military myself. I was drafted. Went to Fort Gordon, Georgia, for basic training. Left Fort Gordon, Georgia, and went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. And left there and went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for tanker training. Back to Fort Benning, Georgia, for airborne training. And this is where the luck or quirks of life come in.

We all graduated from jump school and there were five of us from Fort Knox that were tankers. And everybody had orders except for us. And we were looking around wondering what's going on? And give me a copy of the orders and let me see something. And we snatched a copy of somebody's orders at the bottom were our five names with red lines drawn through them. And everybody that had orders was going to 173rd airborne division in Vietnam.

And on old typewriters Es and Bs look alike if you don't watch it close. And we were 11-Echoes, which was tanker, and the others were 11-Bravo, which was infantry and somebody caught it and we were all shipped off to Germany.

Robert Patrick:

Let me back up just a little bit. I want to get into what you talked about later on. Your dad was in World War II?

Willis Frazier:

Right.

Robert Patrick:

You said he never talked much about it?

Willis Frazier:

No.

Robert Patrick:

Did he never talk about it to you?

Willis Frazier:

Never.

Robert Patrick:

Did his service inspire you, perhaps, when you went into the military?

Willis Frazier:

Not really. I -- we come from a very patriotic part of the country. Southerners are known for their patriotism and you look at the guys ahead of you and you figure if he can do it, I can do it. This is what inspired me to go to airborne school. All the guys in my neighborhood who were two or 3 years older than me were airborne and I looked at them and said if they can do it, I can do it.

Robert Patrick:

You wanted a set of wings on your chest?

Willis Frazier:

To prove to everybody else that anything you can do, I can do. That inspired me to sign up for jump school.

Robert Patrick:

So you were -- you were drafted into the military?

Willis Frazier:

Right.

Robert Patrick:

Out of high school?

Willis Frazier:

I just graduated. I graduated in May of '67, and I was drafted in March of '68.

Robert Patrick:

Where did process in?

Willis Frazier:

Fort Jackson. We processed in at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

Robert Patrick:

Do you remember that well?

Willis Frazier:

Yeah, I remember we had some Vietnam veterans who were transitioning out of service that controlled us at that time and those were some pretty wild guys. And we kind of opened our ears up and, you know -- a lot of guys, our draft boards -- nobody wants to say it, but certain people get drafted. No choice. Certain people are going to National Guard. Everybody knows that. If you didn't know anybody that had any money, you had no hopes of going into the National Guard. So when we went to Fort Jackson, two or three of us knew that we were not coming back.

That was it. We were going in the service. And you know you stand in line and there is a guy saying, "One, two, three, four, Marine Corps." And you said, "Oh, lord, where am I standing in this number?" You began to count. "One, two, three, four, Marine Corps." And every fourth man would go in the Marine Corps. And you hoped you were not that fourth guy. And we had our drill sergeants came up from Fort Gordon to pick us up.

Robert Patrick:

Do you remember your first drill sergeant?

Willis Frazier:

Yes.

Robert Patrick:

What was his name? Or what was he like?

Willis Frazier:

Well, what I considered -- and I tried and patterned myself when I was leading troops -- hard, but fair. He expected things out of you and held you to a standard and expected you to succeed at that. And he treated you right, but he was hard. It wasn't a "buddy-buddy", he was hard. But he didn't do anything that was illegal. He didn't hit you. Didn't berate you. But he let you know that he meant business.

Robert Patrick:

Basic training was an eye-opening experience for you?

Willis Frazier:

Not --

Robert Patrick:

You knew what to expect?

Willis Frazier:

Well, got guys we were used to walking and running, coming from the south. So it was all a mind game. I got my mind and figured out I am going to do -- what I am supposed to do. We went to -- I went to basic training with one of the Cowsill twins. The singing group the Cowsills. He was one of the twins and he was a little crazy. We had -- his family came down to perform.

Robert Patrick:

Really?

Willis Frazier:

On that big Army show. And that weekend before he went downtown and got in a fight and had two shiners.

Robert Patrick:

Goodness. So you had a whole spectrum of people. Draftees and enlistees and that kind of thing?

Willis Frazier:

I think one of the most valuable things that was in our basic training outfit, we had older guys. We had guys who were 26, 27 years old who were lawyers, were professionals, and had experience in life. And they kind of kept the younger guys -- I was 19, and you had guys 17, 18 -- and they kind of opened our eyes on to the realities of life that we would not have known.

Robert Patrick:

Right.

Willis Frazier:

What can one 17- or 18-year-old tell another?

Robert Patrick:

Right.

Willis Frazier:

The dumb leading the dumb. But these guys had experienced things in life and when we were getting out of hand, they would cool us off and say, "Look, you're going to get in trouble if you do this. So just take it easy." And we learned a lot from those guys. They were like big brother figures to us and they kept us out of a lot of mischief.

Robert Patrick:

Did you know you were going off to armor school? When did you find out you were going to be a tanker?

Willis Frazier:

I went out to Oklahoma to be an artillery surveyor and didn't like it. So the next thing I knew they said you are going to Fort Knox. And Fort Knox in the summer.

Robert Patrick:

Been there.

Willis Frazier:

130 degrees inside a tank is hard, hard on you. And that's what we went through. We were scorching and the tanks are so hot you can't touch them. And you got inside and you got off your fatigue jacket and you only got on your tee-shirt on and the guys are falling out. You're trying to learn what you're supposed to learn.

Robert Patrick:

What kind of tanks was it?

Willis Frazier:

M-48. That is the first tank we learned how to operate. The M-48. Good instructors. People see things in you that you really don't see in yourself. As I was saying, my high school coach selected me to captain the team and I never thought that I was be the captain. And so you try to live up to that position that he has put you in. You straighten your act up. Things you used to do, you stop doing to show your leadership. And I was a guy in the AIT -- I was a leadership position in basic training. In AIT, I was one of the guys and I was kind of hardheaded. But when we graduated, my platoon sergeant promoted me to PFC. And I looked around -- and when he called my name, I was looking to see who they were talking about.

Robert Patrick:

Which Frazier they were talking about?

Willis Frazier:

Because I threatened to whip the platoon guy a couple of times. And I said, "Wow, this is something else." He looked at me and shook his head and said, "You deserve it." And I said, "Thank you." And people see things in you that you don't see in yourself.

Robert Patrick:

Sure. So you went through AIT. You're a brand-new spanking PFC. And you came down on orders and were not going to jump school. You were -- go ahead.

Willis Frazier:

Forgotten about signing up for jump school. Had flat forgotten I signed up, because that was 4 months prior. And there were three or four of us again, no orders. We were sitting there. So the cadre had a party and we were talking to the waiters and things to their families and having a good time. And the platoon sergeant said, "Your orders should be in here sometime about 11 o'clock or 12 o'clock.

You have got to get dressed. We have to get you to the airport." We were due at airport to catch a flight by 1 or 2 o'clock. So we have to jump in our stuff and get on the airplane and fly to Fort Benning, Georgia, and that is what happened. We arrived there on a Saturday. And Sunday morning, a bunch of folks got up and went to church. Me and a guy from Worcester, Massachusetts -- Sanders -- me and him were there laying up, there and a couple of more, and Monday morning that is when it starts. And it starts.

Robert Patrick:

Pounding the ground at Fort Benning, Georgia?

Willis Frazier:

Ground week is rough. Small track, but up and down and it wears you out. And every two steps, if you take two steps, you're running. And we did that all week. And it seemed like it never ends.

Robert Patrick:

How many weeks were you in jump training?

Willis Frazier:

Three weeks. But you get your inspiration from other people. And that's what you have to do to -- we had a Special Forces sergeant who was about 42 years old. Overweight. Trying to get through jump school. And he would run until he literally fell out. When I would get tired and things would cross my mind, why are you doing this and I would look at him and say if that old guy can do it, I know at 19 years old I better run until I die. And it kept you going. You look to things through rough times to get you to give all that you can give. And those are the kind of things I looked to and it was able to inspire me to do my best.

Robert Patrick:

Tell me about the first time you jumped out of a perfectly good airplane. What was it like?

Willis Frazier:

Oh, you go to tower week and they get you on a 250-foot tower and they tell you to take a look. You have the best view of Georgia and Alabama of anybody. They drop you from the tower and you float down hoping they don't scream, "Don't you go into that tower, because if I have to climb up there and cut you loose --" so you make sure you pull away. And you come out and your first time to jump, you come out -- and I told everybody all of my jumps were at night, because I closed my eyes. When you feel that little tug, you look up and you make sure you don't have any holes.

And we came out of that airplane, we were nervous. We hooked up, did everything. And there were five of us from Knox, we were tight, in the same company, and we kept a watch on each other. And somebody watched the strap of one of our guys and it got caught and when it jumped out, it almost took his arm. He had rope burn and his arm really was no use to him.

And we had a Special Force doctor that jumped with us and he took a look at him and said, "You have some ligament damage. But if you are going to the black caps you are going to have to start over. So you cannot do any more damage." So we kept him between us and when we jumped, we took his stuff off and carried it for him and made sure that nobody noticed his injury and he made all five jumps without being able to use that right arm. Because he said, "There is no way I'm going back through this."

Robert Patrick:

You were a proud paratrooper when you completed your five jumps?

Willis Frazier:

Completed my five jumps and we were very proud. An we went home on leave.

Robert Patrick:

You weren't too far from home?

Willis Frazier:

No. By bus, it took you 8 hours to go from Fort Benning -- from Fort Gordon it was an 8-hour ride, and that was only about 100-and-something miles from where I stayed and it took 8 hours to get home. You did that one weekend and said, "Never again."

Robert Patrick:

Oh, my.

Willis Frazier:

From Benning, we came home and met some of my classmates that were in the Marine Corps. And went to basic training with about four or five guys out of my high school class and one that was ahead of us. And behind us, was three or four of my buddies. We got decimated in the draft. We're talking about from about '65 all the way, I know, until '67. It began to cool off about '68, because I came into the last huge draft of 40,000 people. By March of '68 was the last big draft of 40,000 people.

Robert Patrick:

So I think you said that your initial orders were to Germany?

Willis Frazier:

Right.

Robert Patrick:

Where did you go to Germany -- where were you assigned initially?

Willis Frazier:

Well, we went to 8th Infantry Division and Bad Kreuznach. And from there we were shipped down to Mannheim. And one of my buddies from Philly that went through jump school with me, when we had gone to catch the plane out of Maguire Air Force base, stopped in up there and saw him. And he had orders to the 38th Cav, who happened to be airborne at the time, along with the 501st and the 2nd Bat. The 501st in Mainz. So when we got to the barracks where the Cav was, those guys got off and somebody mentioned, there are three or four more airborne guys on the truck. And they said you can stay here. But when we saw guys jumping off the buildings, we decided to go to where we were assigned. So we went across town to Sullivan Barracks in Benjamin Franklin Village in Mannheim to the 368th armor.

Robert Patrick:

The 8th Infantry Division?

Willis Frazier:

8th Infantry Division. We had M-60 A1 tanks and M-60s.

Robert Patrick:

Had you seen one of those before?

Willis Frazier:

We had trained on the 48s and basically it was a larger version of the 48. Basically everything was the same.

Robert Patrick:

What were your duties? You were 11-Echo. What, were you a loader?

Willis Frazier:

I was a loader and it depends on the aptitude and the skills you show your platoon sergeant, your tank commander, and you move up from loader. And if you figure out you can be a gunner, they move you into that slot. I became a gunner. I was in a platoon -- we had a platoon sergeant from South Dakota and he was -- he taught us, we did all of our own maintenance. We pulled the engine out of the tanks and he was a mechanic and he would show us how to do this.

And we were doing all sorts of things. And he tore a 50-caliber machine gone down to nothing but the hull and said, "Now, put it back together." And all of us trying to get out of the door because we had no idea. And he taught us how you do things. You take it apart just like you want to put it back together. When you go to put it back together, you start in reverse order. And we learned a great deal from him. And he was a strict guy, but he took care of us.

Robert Patrick:

What kind of training did you go out on?

Willis Frazier:

We did tank maneuvers. We fired and learned how to shoot the tanks. We did weapons training. We did demolition training. How to set up a bosh and all of that. How to handle C4 and blow down trees and all kinds of things that we would be expected to do in wartime.

Robert Patrick:

Did you go to Graffenvier?

Willis Frazier:

That was our home. If you met a tanker you were going to meet him in Graffenvier.

Robert Patrick:

Tell me a little bit about Graffenvier. What it was.

Willis Frazier:

In the summer, it is hot and dusty. Long hours. Three and four days out on the range, sometimes a week. And you are shooting -- if you are a person that can't sleep with noise, you will learn how to. We slept in place, fired all night long. Constant noises going on. You learned to sleep through it like it was nothing. Handling ammunition. Eating out of those greasy mess kits. It was rough, but we enjoyed it. We worked hard and had a lot of fun.

Robert Patrick:

I bet you will never forget it.

Willis Frazier:

You always remember good times. The bad times just fade into the wild blue yonder. And we had great times and learned a lot.

Robert Patrick:

You were in Germany about the time the Cold War was pretty hot. Did you have a sense of that? Did you -- that's what you were kind of training for.

Willis Frazier:

We had our missions -- when you are a young soldier, you don't -- what you are doing is very simple. You know, your noncommissioned officers and officers get all the complicated stuff. But when it comes down to you, we are here, we're going here. You put steel on steel to the enemy if he comes in your sites. And that is all you need to know at my level.

But at that level it is more complicated, so we knew basically what we would be doing if the balloon went up and the Russians came through the Fulda Gap. Only a fool -- anybody who would attempt to come through that would almost be decimated. And the first three years I got out and I stayed over in Germany. Met a young lady and stayed there and decided to get married and all the sudden I'm looking for jobs and said this is not what I want to be doing.

And I made E-5, and so I said I'm going back in. Came back in and went to Third 8th Cav, the initial unit I came through across town, and became a scout -- tanker still, but was in a cavalry outfit. And there we got a lot more understanding of what we were to do in wartime because we would go up and relieve the 2nd and the 11th ACR on border duty. And we would operate their border stations when they went to Graf or when they went to Hohenfeldt. We would do what they were doing and we got an up-close view of our enemy and, really, it dawns on you that you have a real-life mission if something happens.

Robert Patrick:

So what you just told me is you enlisted in the military about '68, '69, or were drafted. The initial assignment was in Germany. Got out after your first enlistment. Stayed around Germany for a little while. Then you re-enlisted and you were in Germany and you remained in Germany. How long were you there all told?

Willis Frazier:

I spent that next tour in the Cav in Germany and that gave me about 50-something months. Close to 5-1/2 years. And I spent a total of about 12 years out of my career in Germany. I had one tour with the third ID up in Kitzingen, Germany. And the last time I went back to Germany was in '85, right back to Sullivan barracks. Instead of 368, I went down the road a little bit to 568.

Robert Patrick:

So you were a tanker the whole time?

Willis Frazier:

I was a tanker my whole career, except for two times. I was a drill sergeant once in basic training and the other time I was in OSU training, taught the kids on the M-1/A-1 tank. I was a drill sergeant slash first sergeant.

Robert Patrick:

That was at Fort Knox?

Willis Frazier:

Fort Knox in 1982 to '85. Me and Past Sergeant Major Jack Tilley. He was acting first sergeant and I was the senior drill sergeant in the same company. And we both came out on the E-8 list and I went next door and took the company and he had B company and I took over C company. And we made E-9s on the same list.

Robert Patrick:

So you got to be a first sergeant?

Willis Frazier:

First sergeant. Greatest job in the United States Army.

Robert Patrick:

Absolutely. Talk about that. Why is that the greatest job?

Willis Frazier:

That and a drill sergeant. Can't beat those two positions. As a drill sergeant you have the trust of the country and parents that you will take their youngsters and you will instill in their confidence, patriotism, and you will transformate them from kids to young men. And that is a trust that you cannot abuse. A drill sergeant has more power than the President of the United States, because kids will do anything that he tells them. So you have to be always cognizant that you tell them what is right.

And I enjoyed it, because you can see the transformation quickly. You can take a kid today that can't march, can't do anything, and three weeks later you can tell him anything and he can do it. And that just opens your eyes to what's going on. You work hard. You demand excellence from them and they give it to you. And you grow from a civilian to a young man who knows what he is supposed to do in the military -- or young lady. I always was hard on them for about three or four weeks, and then I began to slack off and give them more responsibilities.

Because they are leaving and they are going to have to learn how to do things on their own, because I am not going to be there when they say, "What do I need to do, drill sergeant?" Because you have to let them get from under your control and begin to use their noggin to think on their own. So you wind them down and give them more room, let them make mistakes and figure out how to straighten it out. That is the way we did and I had great drill sergeants that I worked with. We had great young men and the CO used to look at us sometimes and he would send kids that couldn't make it in other platoons to our platoon.

And he said, "I do this because I know you are going to give them a straight shot." He said, "I know you are going to give them a straight shot," because our standards were Army standards. We didn't create artificial standards. If the Army said you need to make 180 to pass the PT test, I want you to do as good as you can, but if you can only give me 180, that is satisfactory. And we graduated a lot of kids who would not have made it in other platoons.

Robert Patrick:

You saw the Army go through a transformation, from the 1960s to the 1980s to the early 1990s. Can you talk about that a little bit? The soldier of 1960s and the soldier of the 1970s, 80s and 90s?

Willis Frazier:

Well, there are two or three transformations that I went through in the military. When I came in, we had a lot of patriotic young men. They were very concerned about Vietnam and wanted to serve their country and do what was necessary. A lot of us was drafted. They came in and did what they were supposed to do. I am going to come in I'm going to do my two years and I'm getting out of here. Whatever. And then about '70 -- let's see, '71, I got out, I came back in, stayed out about two months.

The late 70s, I was a drill sergeant from '75 to '77, and I was an instructor a year before that at Knox. Kids began to -- how would you say? They didn't seem as hard as we were. Because I can remember my first sergeant chewing me out, I would just be holding back the anger. And then all the sudden you begin -- I considered it not really raising my voice, but I guess some people and kids would begin to cry.

I'd run them out of my office. They became a lot -- to me -- soft. But you realized that kids were brought up different. We had kids -- I saw kids come into basic training had never walked to the store. And you got a guy weighing 250 pounds and he's never walked in his life and all the sudden and his knees and legs won't take it. And you are, oh, my God.

Then you have one that comes in, warrant officer, kid came in and was overweight. And we got there and we put him through basic, put him on a diet and worked him and did everything we could. All the sudden his parents come up on Parents Day and walked right past him and asked about their son, and he is standing right there. And he his dropped 50 or 60 pounds and we have to get him a new uniforms. You meet a variety of different people and people serve for different reasons.

I met a young man who couldn't read. Didn't know it. And one day I was walking through and he was sitting with his kids and I said, "What is going on here?" "We're going back over what we had in class, Drill Sergeant." And I said, "What do you mean? You was in there." "Well, sir, he cannot read. And I said, "Oh, my goodness." That is what happened to you in basic training. Ten percent of the people occupy your time. The bad guys, you're always on them, and other people kind of slip through. And you look at some kid and say, "You have been here how long?"

He was an average kid doing what he supposed to. One thing about this kid, he couldn't read but he had a photographic memory. If we show him one time, that is it. He has got it. And I looked at him and I said, "You keep on doing what you are doing. And we are going to see can we get him some help in reading."

And this kid graduated, but we got him into a reading program where they could teach him to read. Because he was an outstanding young man. So we did what we had to do to help him and that was key to my success and everything I wanted to do. Help those young men to help themselves or be whatever they wanted to be.

Robert Patrick:

Did you see a different grade of soldier when you got out of the Army in the late 80s and early 90s?

Willis Frazier:

We had a lot of transitions in the military. And one of the things were -- especially with officers corps -- a lot of great officers got out. And a lot of guys that were "yes, sir" and "no, sir" men and wanted to impress the boss stayed in because of a lot of things. One of the biggest ones I saw when I went to work for the National Guard in Dallas, Texas, I was the enlisted advisor to the 14th Army division 3rd brigade in Dallas, Texas, and we were on an operation at Fort Leonardwood -- no, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and one of my officers from Germany was the lieutenant at that time in Germany, I bumped into him.

And he was the S-2 officer in a battalion from Fort Hood that we were working with. And I was talking to him and commended him and he had been in the Navy about 10 years, got out, went to school, and came back in the Army as an officer. And we were talking about I said, "What is going on, sir?" And we got to talking and he said, "Sergeant Major, if I didn't have 18 years, I would tell them where to go." He said, "It has become cutthroat." And I said, "What do you mean?"

He said, "I am an S-2 officer. I put information out to my commanders and a lot of times I hand it to them in the hand. We go to a battalion meeting with the CO" and he says, "the CO will bring something up that I know that I have given to other officers. And they will throw their hands up and say, 'Sir, we have never seen that.'" And he said, "The Colonel looks over at me."

He said, "You know what I do now? Every time I give an officer something, you sign on the dotted line. I got to protect myself." He said, "It's not about doing your duty; it's about self. And that's what turns a lot of good officers off." And we ended up with a lot of people that not making decisions that benefit soldiers, but benefit themselves. And that's one of the reasons that I retired also.

I could not have gone from Dallas, Texas, being my own boss -- because I was the highest ranking individual there and liked the duty that I had. An E-8 in the signal battalion, he was in charge of his and I was in charge of mine. And then I got orders to go to Fort Hood, and I thought and I said, "No, these things are going on and people want you to start jumping through hoops and you have got 24 years in."

And I said, "You know, you're not going to do that. You are going to end up saying something or doing something that could cause you problems." And at that time, my wife had health problems. She had gotten out in '91. She retired in December of '91 from Redstone Arsenal in Alabama and so I decided and I went home and told her I'm retiring and put my paperwork in and six months later I retired.

Robert Patrick:

In 1992?

Willis Frazier:

'92.

Robert Patrick:

Okay. And as you look back on your time in the military, those 24 years, what are your thoughts? What are your --

Willis Frazier:

I could not have chosen a better profession. As one of my colonels said who used to be a speech writer for General Vessey, "If I had to do it all over again, I'd just smoke another cigar." And I quoted that from him because, he wrote that to us. I have a lot of great respect for officers and especially him. We were doing in AIT getting the kids through training and one of my drill sergeants, a young man would go in and he would tapping him on the head, you know better. Just tapping him, not anything to hurt him.

And the colonel saw it from the distance. And I was standing there and when he came up, I saluted -- I was senior drill sergeant. When he got through with us -- you know, you have got to be thick-skinned in the Army. And when he got through with us I looked at my drill sergeant, he said, "I didn't do anything." And I said, "Don't worry about it."

And so when I got back to the unit, the colonel had called and said, "Tell those two drill sergeants forget about it. I may have taken it the wrong way." And that tells me that -- gave me all the respect in the world for him. Because he finally when he settled down he said, "I may have seen something that I may have not seen.

And I took it out of proportion. And tell those drill sergeants to do their job." One of my greatest commanders is general -- who was it -- general -- he was the Army historian under General Vuono. And I think he is the Deputy Director for the Association of United States Army Magazine under General Sullivan, and I served under him also. He was our battalion commander in basic training.

We had one of the fellows that was a politically connected. Every big-wig that came into town played golf with him and his wife. But we got this other battalion commander in and he talked to you and you are straining and he never raised his voice. Never took a smile off of his face. But when you got through, you did whatever it was that he told you. And he told our company commanders, "I want you to find a way for your drill sergeants and all of these people working for you, if they want to go to college, that they can go."

And the company commander came back and told us, and we said, "We can't do that. We've got to train these troops." The battalion commander said, "We are going to find a way and I expect you to." And we happened at the time to have three drill sergeants per platoon. So since I was in the platoon the longest, they said you can go if you want to go in the morning.

So I would go from 8:00 to 12:00, and I would come in at 12:00 and handle the troops from then on. Because one of them would stay with me a while and at 5 o'clock, he would go home and I would handle them to 9 o'clock. But we found a way to do everything that he wanted us to do. And he never raised his voice.

Robert Patrick:

Inspired to you do it?

Willis Frazier:

Inspired us to do it. And all of his officers that were under him -- we had one that was company commander didn't have a college degree. Was a former drill sergeant. And the colonel said, "I am going to send you to Western Kentucky ROTC. And if you don't get your degree, it's on you when they put you out of the Army." And our chaplain went to Massachusetts and all of the officers he knew where they were. And Chaplain Morrow, I was working for the armor school and all the sudden this jeep comes to a screeching halt and I looked and this little chaplain jumped out and said, "How are you are doing, Sergeant Major?"

And I said, "Okay." And we got to talking and he said, "You know I was up in Massachusetts. The colonel just kept calling me. Said Ben, do you want to do?" And he said "I would really like to go to seminary down in Louisville to get my doctorate." And he said, "Okay." He said, "But they got so many chaplains down there, but you can't get it. That is the hardest slot to get in the world." And he said the colonel called the chaplain code so much that they said, "You call that colonel and tell him don't he call anymore, because you are going to Louisville."

And he went to Louisville and was working there on post. Real people. And me and him, we were talking one day and he said he was working with the chaplain on post and going doing his seminary stuff and said we got a young man in, the chaplain was a lieutenant colonel, he was a major, and the kid's wife had gotten some illness and put her flat on her back and had two youngsters. And said the chaplain said, "I have done everything and I can't get any help for this kid."

And the chaplain said -- you have got to be diplomatic. And he said, "Sir, could I maybe help with you that?" And he said, "I don't know what you can do, Chaplain Morrow, I have done everything." And he said, "Just give me a chance." And he grabbed the young man by the hand and took him over to AER and the lady that run AER when I was there at one time, one of my first sergeants came to work for me as a civilian. First Sergeant Russell and his wife used to run AER.

So when I had a young man I would call up and he said, "You know what to do, First Sergeant." And he took the young man to AER and said he stood up there and explained the young man's problem and the chaplain and all of them had already called. And he said, "But it's very difficult to say no when you are looking somebody in the eye and they have tears streaming down their face."

And the AER did everything that they could for that young man. Got him somebody to help with his wife and his kids while he was working. And so when he came back home he could relieve and take care and handle the problem. And that taught me a lesson when I became first sergeant. When you want something done, it is easy to say no over the phone. But when you take somebody and look in somebody's face, it is difficult to say no.

Robert Patrick:

What you are saying is, I think, time in the Army is like a lot of the veterans have experienced is the people along the way and those people you experience and how they inspire you and how they direct you and how they teach you to conduct yourself as a soldier and a leader. Is that fair?

Willis Frazier:

It right hits the nail on the head. Working with people, you learn a great deal about people. You understand that people in the military are a different breed. They will give you the shirt off their back. They will do anything that you want to do. And we just had our ups and downs, but we put all of that aside for the mission. And my concern -- the mission always was the people. If I take care of my people, they are going to accomplish that mission. One of the greatest things I was a member of a Sergeant Morales Club.

And my people just worked outstanding. I moved to Fort Knox and became a first sergeant and one of my squad leaders, tank commander, came to Fort Knox and became my training NCO. And he came in and said, "Here. A letter. The platoon sent you a letter." I had been gone maybe a year. And I opened the letter and it, in no dressy language, said: We thought you were something. We hated your guts because you always made us do things that we thought we shouldn't have been doing.

If we had to clean the pads, you made us clean around the pads so the water would drain. And we did it on Thursdays and we stacked our ammunition crates and all of that. All of this. And said we thought that you were just brown-nosing the CO. Well, we learned when you left and we got a new platoon sergeant, we thought we were over.

We didn't do those things you used to make us do. And said instead of having our nights off, a lot of times we would get calls after 5:00 to go to the motor pool and do something that you used to make us do. Instead of having weekends off, sometimes we were called in on the weekend to do things we should have done on Thursday or Friday. And we finally realized what you were doing for us and we just wanted to let you know we thank you. And that was the greatest compliment that I had ever had in my military career, awards, it was the tops.

That those young men finally realized what it was all about. When you get over, you make your people do the right thing and they will get over because they don't have to come back and do the hours and put a tarp on a tank or clean something up. Or they are not called in when they are off on the weekend to do something that they should have done during the week.

My thing was to them, if there is something we know to do, we better do it. If we don't know to do it and somebody jumps on us, I will go to hell and back to protect you. But if we knew to do it and didn't do it, then you got a problem with me. And that's the way I used to lead and they respected that.

Robert Patrick:

You know, I think that is a good note to end this interview, because I think it encapsulates everything that can be said about you as a soldier and a leader and you as one of the great veterans of this United States. Sergeant Major, I appreciate the time that you have taken today. And hope you would be proud to know that this interview will now because a part of the Library of Congress archives for people from generations to come to have the opportunity to hear and read.

Willis Frazier:

Thank you. And we're still serving. Still doing the things in our community. We have a National Guard outfit from our hometown in Iraq. And we take their families under our wings and especially we old retired guys, because we know how to get through all the rigamarole and the paperwork that a lot of guardsman families are different from active duty families. Their families, a lot of times, don't know the first thing about the military.

And when you are retired and a sergeant major, you know the ropes. And we stay about 50 miles from Columbus Air Force Base and I will tell anybody that the Air Force will treat our Army people just as they would treat our airmen. We can get all kind of great help from them and they don't bat their eyes. And we appreciate them.

We have a lot of fun with them. And we have helped our unit out in Iraq and we are looking forward to them coming home. We just pray that all of them will be safe and that we will have our young men and young ladies out of there. Like my wife said when they left Iraq, said they told everybody: We will be back in 10 years. Took them three years longer, but they went back.

 
Home » Text Transcript
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
  Legal | External Link Disclaimer Need Help?   
Contact Us