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Rebecca Oyler has never been one to take the easy road.
“I’ve always liked a challenge,” she said.
In 1942, the desire for a challenge and a deep love for her country changed the course of her life, leading her to become one of the first recruits to graduate from boot camp at Camp Lejuene in Jacksonville.
Born in Troy, Tenn., in 1922, Rebecca—then Rebecca Harrigan—went through school and moved to Rockford, Ill. There she worked in a factory to make precision measuring instruments until the start of World War II, when she felt called to duty.
“I left a good job, but I was patriotic and I loved my country,” she said.
She chose to join the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I volunteered for the Marines because it was more of a challenge than the other services,” she said. “It was a lot harder to get in the Marines.”
She boarded a troop train and made the journey to Jacksonville. She said the curtains were tightly drawn as they made their way into the city.
“You’d think we were going into enemy territory or something,” she said.
Once off the train, Rebecca settled into Marine life, which she described as a lot of marching and preparation.
“I can’t remember doing an awful lot, except one night, I drew guard duty,” she said. “I only had a bootie club, and you had to say ‘Halt. Who goes there?’ And if they didn’t stop, you had to blow a whistle, and it was a loud one.”
Though she said nothing happened that night, it was the only time she remembers experiencing anything close to fear.
“The night I was on patrol in the dark, I might have had some feelings there, but we were brave,” she said. “You had to do the job that was set before you.”
Rebecca’s bravery and patriotism paid off.
After boot camp, she was selected by the commandant to serve as a liaison officer between the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the White House and the Pentagon.
“I was chosen by the commandant himself to take this on,” she said. “I was investigated down to the—well, they knew everything I had done since birth.”
Rebecca’s position granted her top-secret clearance and equipped her with an armed bodyguard as she carried messages between the White House and the Pentagon.
“I had a patrol behind me at all times with a gun,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to speak (to each other), but I knew he was there and he knew I was there.”
Many of the messages Rebecca delivered contained horrific images that she still remembers now at age 91. She said she can’t pick one specific image that haunts her more than any of the others.
“I still think about all of it,” she said. “All of it was pretty bad. Every day you got up, you didn’t know what you were going to see.”
As one of the first women to hold such a high position in the military, Rebecca attracted a lot of attention.
“Especially when I wore my uniform,” she said.
Rebecca’s daughter, Melony Oyler, said her mother was honored recently by a women’s group of injured veterans at Winding River. She said many of the group’s members enjoyed seeing the photographs of Rebecca’s old uniforms. Rebecca had an olive green uniform for winter, a white uniform for summer, and a pair of dress whites.
“She still has them all,” Melony said.
Because there were so few women in uniform at the time she served, Rebecca said, she often drew stares from others, especially when she was shopping around Washington, D.C.
“I remember seeing movie stars and beautiful women, and they’d stare at me as much as I’d stare at them,” she said. “I remember several instances where I was a celebrity in a store.”
Women were just beginning to join the military in the 1940s —especially the Marines—and women were often inquisitive, Rebecca said. Sometimes they would even take her picture. But she said the women were never critical of her; they were always nice and appreciative of her service to the country.
A love story
Rebecca also remembers attracting the attention of one male soldier in particular: 2nd Lt. William B. Oyler. It was around Christmas in 1944, and Rebecca was going to visit her brother in Newport News, Va. She boarded a bus and noticed another soldier on board.
“I didn’t know him at the time, but he knew who I was,” she said.
The two didn’t talk much, but later met in restaurant where Rebecca was having dinner with her brother. William asked her to dance, then invited her to have Christmas dinner at his mother’s house the following day. She accepted his invitation.
Rebecca and William fell in love, but he was sent to Germany, where he served with the Hell’s Angels 303rd Bomb Group. William, also a patriot, was honored with the Oak Leaf for shooting down an enemy plane.
Rebecca left the military in 1944 and married William when he returned. They had five children and were married for 75 years.
William passed away in 2000, and Rebecca moved to Bolivia to be near Melony, who owns a hair salon in Shallotte.
Melony said she’s grateful for her parents and the faith they instilled in her. She’s especially proud of her mother for her service to the country and to her family.
“As far as being a marine, she’s tougher than I could ever be,” she said.
Rebecca has lived through breaking her neck and hip, and Melony calls her “a tough, old bird.”
But in addition to being a Marine and patriot, Rebecca is a Christian who credits God for her accomplishments and her survival.
“I’m breathing now because of the Lord,” she said.
She believes God has another mission for her, too.
“I think I’m still here to take care of that one,” she said, gesturing toward Melony.
And Melony said she’s thankful to have her guidance.
Renee Sloan is a staff writer at The Brunswick Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.