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World War II to Afghanistan: Rocket scientist, third generation Marine serves in Helmand province

27 Jun 2011 | 1st Lt. Megan Greathouse

Every Marine has a story. For one Reservist currently serving in Helmand province the story is of a rocket scientist who answered the call to serve his country as a third generation Marine.

First Lt. William J. Fredericks, an amiable 29-year-old raised in Nantucket, Mass., works as an aerospace engineer at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. He graduated from Purdue University in 2006 with a degree in aeronautical engineering, and moved to Williamsburg, Va., after landing the position with NASA. While he enjoys the challenge of his prestigious career in what he jokingly refers to as “cubical land,” sitting at a desk in the Aeronautics Systems Analysis branch was not quite enough.

“I was out of college a year and I didn’t want to be 40 and say I sat in a cubical in my 20s and 30s,” explained Fredericks, whose military occupational specialty is artillery. “I had a privileged upbringing, and I felt called to serve the country that gave me so many opportunities.”

That upbringing included a military flavor. Fredericks’ father and grandfather both served as Marines as well, a legacy now spanning three generations.

“Frankly, I consider my joining the Marine Corps more a coincidence than starting a legacy,” said the senior William Fredericks, a retired major who now resides in Mattapoisett, Mass., and flies for US Airways. “With my son, Bill, a definite pattern is evolving. He is the one clearly beginning a legacy.”

The senior Fredericks signed his son’s commissioning papers and administered the oath of office, a moment he considers the greatest honor of his life. His wife held the Bible for their son as he repeated the oath, swearing to support and defend his country. The 2008 commissioning was followed by a celebratory dinner in which the retired major handed down to his son his Mameluke sword, the ceremonial sword carried exclusively by Marine officers.

“Recognizing the importance of the moment, it now represents one of the most valuable family possessions,” said the senior Fredericks, who served on active duty for four years as an aviation supply officer and then spent 10 more years as a drilling reserve officer.

The Marine Corps tradition began with Fredericks’ grandfather, Wesley Fredericks, a World War II veteran who fought in five island campaigns in the Pacific theater as a combat engineer with 1st Marine Division. He passed away while his grandson was still young, and rarely spoke to his son about the war. The few stories he did share were of starvation at Guadalcanal, and savage fighting in the battles for Sugarloaf Hill and Shuri Castle on Okinawa.

“An interesting story – he didn’t go to boot camp until he got back from the battle of Guadalcanal,” the youngest Fredericks said. “Here he was a veteran getting yelled at by drill instructors who hadn’t been to combat yet.”

Wesley Fredericks was there as the Marines fought their way up Sugarloaf Hill 13 times before finally holding it. As a combat engineer, he often had to climb hills where the Japanese had dug their maze of entrenchments and use rope to swing dynamite satchels into caves, blasting the enemy from their positions.

After the war, Wesley Fredericks left the Marine Corps as a staff sergeant and returned to his pre-war career as a plumber in New York City.

“He made quite clear, he did not want his sons to see what he saw,” the elder Fredericks said as he explained his father’s anger when he received a full Marine option ROTC scholarship during the Vietnam War. “He wouldn’t speak to me for two days.”

But the war veteran became proud of his son’s decision over time.

More than 60 years later the family service continues, with the youngest Fredericks Marine now serving as an artillery officer with Kilo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, a High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System battery operating in Regional Command Southwest in Afghanistan.

“My dad thought I should have joined the Air Force,” the younger Fredericks said, explaining they had research positions similar to his job at NASA. Yet he chose to pursue a combat arms specialty in the Marine Corps with “pretty much zero” similarities to his desk job.

“As a parent, I am very concerned,” the elder Fredericks reflected. “At the same time, I am very proud of Bill, and all the other Marines and service members willing to go into harm’s way in service to our country.”

As a reservist, Fredericks belongs to Hotel Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, an M777 155mm Howitzer battery based in Richmond, Va. Their sister battalion, 2/14, needed more lieutenants for their deployment, and Fredericks answered that call. He arrived in Afghanistan in mid-January and is scheduled to return home and pick up where he left off at NASA sometime late this summer.

Beside their military service, the Fredericks also share an interest in sailing. Sailboat racing is their family sport, and the younger Fredericks spent 10 months between high school and college sailing around the world on a 188-foot-long ship, visiting almost 40 different ports of call. Still, their Marine Corps heritage remains their strongest tie.

“The Marine Corps now provides our family a bedrock, or foundation, as a common denominator of what we represent,” his father said. “The ideals of self-sacrifice, discipline, honor, and the sense of being part of something much bigger than ourselves certainly leads to a lifetime of responsibility as contributing members of society.”