Marine Corps Base Quantico -- One African American Marine’s 21-year-enlistment will live on due to the recently published 52 page biography titled: Top, A Proud Marine: The story of Master Sgt. Willie L. Collins.
The heroic biography of the St. Louis, Missouri, native was written by his daughter Retanya Collins. Retanya began writing her father’s biography in 2010 after visiting Martha’s Vineyard and meeting a Tuskegee Airman’s cousin. They shared many stories about the military and life. The Airman’s cousin planted the seed of creation when he suggested that Retanya write her father’s story.
In nine months — over the span of two years — Retanya worked to complete her father’s detailed memoir. Through the years, she wrote mostly in the morning while her children were at school and after dinner late into the night.
Retanya later learned that her father had early signs of dementia, which developed into Alzheimer’s. The progressive brain disorder was slowly turning the mind of the decorated Marine into a vault, and so she worked quickly to document his story.
Working with her father, Retanya completed the book and it was bound at a Kinko’s store. She did not publish it immediately. Her personal life and two children kept her very busy. Adding on to the weight of parenting, her father grew very ill and needed constant care. Retanya took an early retirement and dedicated herself to supporting her family.
To her surprise, the following year a publishing company reached out to her.
“The timing was perfect. I had more time to do the re-writes on the book and provide updates on dad’s condition,” she said.
While interviewing her father, Retanya saw another side of Willie’s life. Her father had created a biography in 1970. The information recorded gave her an abundance of facts and details about her father’s contributions and decorations while serving on active duty.
Willie, born in 1931, was inspired to be a Marine at a young age after watching the 1949 film, Sands of Iwo Jima. He enlisted in the Corps without the knowledge of his parents, and finally decided to tell his parents as he was being shipped off to initial training at Quantico Marine Corps Air Station, Quantico, Virginia.
The book begins with a heroic account of Willie’s attempt to rescue his comrades on the Anseong-cheon River in Korea in 1953 while under fire. The 22-year-old corporal thought about his parents as he watched, waited and fought in the Korean War.
Collins received a citation for heroism in the Korean War, given to him by Gen. V.E. Megee of the Marine Corps. He was also authorized to wear the combat "V" which denotes combat heroism or recognition of exposure to personal hazard.
Retanya was affable while sharing her most fond memories of father, whom she admires.
“I remember dad going overseas a lot and it was just my mother and grandmother raising us. However, when dad would return he always had gifts for us. Christmas was always huge with lots of dolls, easy bake ovens, bicycles, skates, action figures for my brothers and board games,” she recalled.
“One year my father took my siblings and myself to where he worked on El Toro Air Base, in Tustin, California. He changed into his gear and introduced us to some of his fire rescue crew. He put on this big helmet and went over to put out a mock fire they built for this special event,” said Retanya, as she recalled how brave her father appeared to her as a young girl. Willie worked as an assistant crash crew section leader. “I thought then, ‘Wow, what a hero he was!’ I never knew until then what he did in the military.”
During his enlistment Willie’s vast travels didn’t affect the stability of family who lived primarily in Virginia while he deployed to Japan on three tours. The family later purchased a home in Orange County, California where Willie still lives today.
“My father is a man who knows no strangers. He has the biggest heart, which I did not get to know until we lost our mother in a car accident,” said Retanya as she described the veteran’s character. “I used to think he was so mean and strict. When we lost my mother I was terrified as to what was going to happen to us, to me? And the most beautiful thing happened; I got to know my father, the Marine.”
Today, the 85-year-old Marine and faithful family man is cared for in his family home in California. He has trouble dressing, eating and does not always remember his own family, who care for him daily. Fortunately, his love for country and family will continue to be shared through the well-timed release of his biography. Collins' biography can be read online by googling "Master Sergeant Willie Collins."
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