Retired Maj. William F. Lee speaks during the 8th and I Marines reunion, that featured 26 Marines and 20 guests.

8th and I Marines gather to honor leader

On the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Marines who provided funeral duty for the late president gathered outside Dallas to honor one of their own.

Ed "Mac" McCloskey, a member of American Legion Post 370 in Highlands, N.C., organized the reunion of more than two dozen Marines who served during the early 1960s in the 8th and I in Washington, D.C. They gathered to honor their leader, retired Maj. William F. Lee.

McCloskey was inspired by Lee in part because he fought in the Korean War before leading the platoon at 8th and I. "He’s a stud, the ultimate Marine," McCloskey said, describing Lee as a "mustang officer."

"We respect Bill so much because he was a mustang officer," McCloskey said. "For example, there are two officers standing there and two platoons of men. One officer says to the platoon, ‘Marines, take that hill.’ The other officer says, ‘Marines, let’s take that hill.’ A mustang officer is a man who becomes part of that unit."

Nat Emery remembers Lee’s leadership, saying he set very high standards for himself and the unit.

"When Bill put on his uniform, he looked good," Emery said. "He was tall and thin and ramrod straight. He carried himself well. One of the things we (the drill team) did was called a glide step, a way of walking without your head bouncing. Bill was the only officer I knew who learned how to do it because it looked good. That was part of our drill. He set an example."

Lee "instilled in us what we needed to do," Jon Peterson said. "He always looked like he always knew what he was going to do, how he was going to do it. He dressed the part. He looked the part. When it came time to do it, he did it. … Pete Rose said he would follow Sparky Anderson into hell in a gasoline suit. And that’s what we would have done with Lt. Lee. He exuded leadership."

In the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, Americans were shocked and confused. Standing at attention as the Kennedy family, administration staff and members of the public paid their respects were the Marines of the 8th and I. Lee’s leadership through that time bonded the men together.

"Each one of us has a first kiss, first marriage, first child," Emery said. "Those things you remember because they’re personal. There are some things that are a little bit broader scope … the Challenger disaster, 9/11. They impact a whole bunch of things. Here is a group of guys who happened to be together 50 years ago for this monumental public event, and that’s what draws us back together."

American Legion Post 275 in Dallas assisted with the reunion, providing a Marine Corps cake, flag, decorations and rifles for a color guard for the banquet. "The local post, 275, is being very cooperative and very helpful with our reunion. We really appreciate it," McCloskey said.

At the banquet, Lee was presented with a book of memories put together by Emery, a special commemorative plaque and continued gratitude from his men.

The reunion in late November may be the group’s last official one. The Marines and their wives made the commitment to travel – some from as far away as Florida and New Jersey – out of respect for Lee.

Frank Castora, a member of Denville Post 390 in New Jersey, stated simply what brought the group together again.

"I realize he’s going through a hard time. And that’s the reason we’re here. For Bill."