Retirement with a View

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Decorated war veteran to celebrate 100th birthday

By MARGARET EVANS

For Sgt. Major John Thomas “Tom” Collier, USMC, Retired, some of the memories are a little hazy.

But he vividly remembers how cold it was in the Chosin Reservoir in 1952. 

“It was 31 or 32 below zero up there! I had to wear all the clothes I had … at the same time. We couldn’t have a fire, ‘cause the mortars would come in on ya.”

And he remembers a time the mortars did come in on him. Tom jumped in his foxhole, his buddy jumped in on top of him, and miraculously, they both survived. Again, this was the Chosin Reservoir, Tom thinks …

Or maybe it was Guadalcanal?

Before Korea, Tom served in World War II. He has a Bronze Star, a Good Conduct Medal, the Seventh Award, and an Expert Marksmanship Badge, Pistol Caliber. And those are just the medals he remembers.

This month, along with November 11 – Veterans Day – Tom Collier is anticipating November 19, the day he’ll celebrate his 100th birthday.

“I never thought I’d make it this far,” he laughs. His secret? “I stayed out of trouble.”

There’s a twinkle in his eye with that answer, so we try a more somber question. “Tom, how did you survive two wars when so many were dying around you?”

“Luck, I guess,” he replies. “Wasn’t no skill to it.” 

Again with the twinkle.

Tom grew up in Eastover, S.C., where he was an avid tennis player as a boy. After high school, he made his way to the Lowcountry to work in the CCC Camp at Hunting Island. “Digging up tree stumps for something like $1 a day,” he says. “They were getting us ready for the war, but we didn’t know it.”

Next thing he knew, Tom was at boot camp on Parris Island. The year was 1940.

Tom’s military career spanned 24 years and two wars, and it ended where it started. In 1964, he retired from the Marine Corps after having served on Parris Island for a second time. The second stint was better than the first. One of his memories from that period is of accompanying Vice President Richard Nixon, who was visiting PI, on a cruise on the USS Sequoia.

During his military career, Tom and his first wife lived in a mobile home, driving it from one assignment to the next. When he ended up at Parris Island the second time, it was the first time he’d really seen Beaufort up close. It seemed like a nice enough place to put down roots. So when he retired, Tom built a house on the water – “I bought this lot for $3,000,” he says – and he’s lived in that house since 1967.

After retirement, he worked for a lumber company for a while. He also bought a boat and tried his hand at shrimping.

“I wasn’t too good at that,” he laughs. “As a buddy of mine said when he tried shrimping, ‘It was a big tax break … but I wasn’t looking for a tax break.’”

The memories may be blurry, but the humor is sharp.

Though his Marine Corps career took him all over the world, after retirement Tom spent most of his travel and leisure time in his favorite place – Disney World. Until recently, he’d go three or four times a year, always by train. Tom doesn’t fly anymore. “I used to fly everywhere I went,” he says, “but too many planes went down.”

These days, Tom enjoys a simple life, sitting in his backyard, looking at the water, “just living.” He and a pal have a standing lunch date at IHOP every Tuesday, and his grown stepchildren visit regularly. Otherwise, he’s got his five cats to keep him company, along with Helen, his wife of 23 years.

“I wouldn’t have made it this far if it hadn’t been for her,” he says, in a rare moment of serious reflection.

Looking back on his life, Tom is philosophical. “I wouldn’t do anything different,” he says. “It’s been a good life. I went all the places I wanted to go. I did everything I wanted to do.”

We should all be so lucky.

Thank you for your service, Sgt. Major Collier. And Happy Birthday.

 

Margaret Evans is co-publisher of The Island News, editor of Lowcountry Weekly (www.lcweekly.com), and blogs at www.memargaret.com.

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