SUN CITY CENTER — He was a half-drunk Marine, shipped back stateside from the hellish battlefields of the South Pacific with a case of malaria.
She was a sassy private, one of the first women to join the Marine Corps.
It was 1943 in the Mojave Desert, on a military base where love would soon blossom for Staff Sgt. Ray Hill and PFC Dorothy Russell.
Saturday, they celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary in a private ceremony in Sun City Center.
They have a great back story.
In 1940, with war drums beating over both horizons, Ray Hill was a 16-year-old living in Indiana. He and his older cousin wanted to join the military so they went to a Navy recruiter, but were told to come back when they were older.
They went next door to the Marine recruiter. In short order, Ray was a leatherneck.
After Pearl Harbor, he was shipped off to the South Pacific and sent to Guadalcanal, where the U.S. launched a surprise attack in August of 1942. It was a bloody campaign, with the Japanese losing about 20,000 troops and the Americans about 2,000.
“The thing that made Guadalcanal so bad was the living conditions,” Ray told the Times in an interview. “We ran out of supplies. We got so hungry we would even eat Japanese fish heads and rice. That's not very good eating. But nothing else bothered me.”
He said he saw “blood and guts but it never got to me. Some of the guys couldn't take it, but I guess it was the way I was made. I was only 17 and I had to lie about my age in order to get into the Marine Corps. I was just having fun.”
But after catching malaria, he was sent to Mojave Marine Air Base in California in June of 1943. There he served as a guard and spent his off-hours at a local joint where he downed burgers and beer. Sometimes a little too much beer, which was his condition one fateful November evening.
Enter Dorothy Russell.
Russell was the second youngest of 12 children raised by an adventurous widower in a town near Spokane, Washington.
In 1943, Dorothy was 19 and working in an office. She pined for more.
“The war was raging and none of my brothers were serving. They were all older and married,” she said. “I was very patriotic and wanted to serve my country.”
One by one, the military services opened programs for women. But Dorothy had her heart set on joining the Marines. When the Marines opened a program for women in February, 1943, Russell knew where she wanted to be. But she needed her father's permission because of the age requirements.
He granted it, with words of advice.
“'Make me proud of you,'” he told her.
On July 24, 1943, Dorothy walked into the Marine recruiting station in Spokane and raised her right hand, thus becoming the first woman from her town, and one of the first in the nation, to become a Marine.
Already a sharpshooter, having spent her weekends shooting squirrels in the woods, the new private wanted to see some action. Much to her dismay, the only action she saw was the keys of a typewriter hitting paper.
Eventually shipped out to the Marine air base in Mojave, things picked up for Dorothy when she wandered into the burger place with a few other women Marines. As they sat around wondering what they were going to do for Thanksgiving, Dorothy walked over to a table full of guys sitting nearby.
“I sat down with them and Ray was at the table,” she recalled with a laugh. “He was slumped down in a chair, not having anything to say.”
When she decided to leave, Ray and another Marine stood up and offered to walk her home.
“When Ray stood up, he looked pretty good,'' Dorothy said. “He had dark hair and brown eyes. The other one was light hair and blue eyes. I was a sucker for dark hair.”
Ray, too, laughs at the memory.
“I was half-loaded on beer,” he said. “She sashays up and wants to talk to the boys. She got tired of talking to the girls. She came over, introduced herself, and I kind of thought, 'She's a pretty cute chick. I'll look this babe over.' “
After a short separation while Ray went for training in Baltimore, the two realized they were meant for each other and decided to marry, with the understanding that Ray would leave the service because of his malaria. They were married Feb. 12, 1944 and Dorothy soon became pregnant with the couple's daughter, Sandra. As a result, Dorothy was honorably discharged.
But then a doctor cured Ray, and back off to war he went, missing his first child's birth. Stationed in Okinawa, Ray convinced a fighter pilot to take him over the A-bombed city of Hiroshima.
“I saw the devastation and it was a lesson in what Hell would look like,” he said.
Ray left the service in November, 1945 and the couple had a second child, Gary, in 1946. For several years, the couple moved around, often living in a trailer until Ray finally settled down in Ventura, California working for Bank of America. They moved to Florida 16 years ago and on Feb. 23 will celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary.
When asked the secret to a 75-year marriage, Dorothy spelled it out in four letters.
“L-o-v-e,” she said.
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