OCEANSIDE — In June, Oceanside lost one of its longtime residents and teachers who also happened to be one of the country’s first Women Marines.
Adriana Willis was a resident of South Oceanside for more than 60 years and a teacher for the city’s school district for about 30 years.
She was born in 1923 as Adriana Braaksma in Friesland, Wisconsin, to immigrants from Holland.
From a young age, Adriana was an independent go-getter.
“She really just took the bull by the horns,” said Stephanie Willis, her daughter.
Adriana belonged to a family of 11 children, most of who were born during the Great Depression. The family got by during such hard times, but Adriana knew she would be on her own after she graduated high school, especially if she wanted to go to college.
Adriana was in Madison, Wisconsin with a friend when she first learned what a Marine was. She met a recruiter there wearing his “dress blues,” the formal uniform for Marines.
She had no idea what a Marine was at that point, but the outfit definitely stood out to her.
“She thought he was a drum major from a band,” Stephanie said.
After the recruiter explained what a Marine was and that becoming one would include a free college education after two years of service, Adriana signed up.
Adriana went on to become one of the first Women Marines. She served between 1943 and 1945, doing one tour of duty as a corporal at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.
At the time, women were not allowed in active combat. Instead, women took over administrative work for the men who were shipped off overseas to battle.
Adriana worked as a quartermaster, which made her responsible for supplies that were shipped onto base. She also worked in inventory and commissary while there as well.
Adriana loved adventure. During her time at Quantico, she would visit places like New York City and Washington D.C. with her friend, and even met big band leader Guy Lombardo at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration.
Her love for adventure took her all the way out to California to look for a university after she was discharged from service in December 1945. Adriana arrived in early 1946 and began taking classes at the University of Southern California, where she graduated with a degree in teaching.
In 1948, Adriana met her husband, John Willis, in 1948 in Long Beach. He was wearing Marine dress blues, the same kind of uniform that the recruiter she had met in Madison several years before had worn.
Her husband was a career Marine who had joined in 1942. He fought in the South Pacific during World War II and served in the Korean War and again in the Vietnam War before retiring in 1975 with two Purple Hearts.
Adriana first moved to Oceanside in the 1950s with her husband, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton at the time. The couple hopped around to places like Montana, Wyoming and Colorado for her husband’s recruiting work before they settled in South Oceanside where they raised their three children, Stephanie, Jeff and John.
Adriana was a natural-born teacher who loved her career. She taught in South Oceanside Elementary, Palmquist Elementary and Lincoln Junior High. She even taught in the one-room schoolhouse on Mission San Luis Rey for a time. Her former students may remember her as “Mrs. Willis.”
“Teaching was her passion, she just loved it,” said John Willis, her youngest son.
According to her son, Adriana was great with kids and approached her job creatively.
“She knew how to read a student and relate to them,” John said.
Adriana had a particular skill in special education. Her daughter, Stephanie Willis, recalled a story of her mother’s when she was teaching in Wyoming. There was a fourth-grade boy in her class that would not speak due to a “psychological barrier.”
One day, Adriana kept the boy after class to work on his speech. Eventually her efforts that afternoon worked, and the next day she announced to the class that the boy could talk.
“He was beaming from ear to ear,” Stephanie said, recalling her mother’s story. “Then from there, he wouldn’t shut up!”
According to Stephanie, her brother John inherited their mother’s skill with children and in special education. He works as an adaptive physical education teacher in Oceanside where some may know him as “Coach Willis.”
John learned a lot about teaching from his mother, but the practice also came naturally to him.
“It was either go into the military or be a teacher,” he said.
John’s siblings, on the other hand, opted for the military. Jeff joined the Navy and went on to become a career military man like his father, while Stephanie joined the Air Force for several years in the 1990s.
Stephanie said she got the calling to go into the military later in life, having already established herself as a lawyer. Stephanie even worked as an attorney in the Air Force, providing high-ranking officers with legal advice and working as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney in criminal trials.
Stephanie’s experience as a woman in the military was quite different from her mother’s.
Rules differed for men and women when Adriana was a Marine, while Stephanie said the rules were the same for both sexes when she served. Women could not participate in combat when Adriana was serving, but they could when it was her daughter’s time to serve.
Additionally, Adriana had no direct contact with senior officers, while Stephanie’s jobs were telling senior officers what they legally could and could not do.
Adriana had a big personality that has rubbed off on her children.
“All of her qualities — her independence, her sense of adventure, her career orientation — all came right through to me,” Stephanie said.
Adriana’s need for independence never went away. For the last 14 years of her life after her husband died, Adriana lived alone at home. Her son, John, lived just down the street from her and took care of her during that time.
John said his mother always stressed to him to work hard, be nice and go after something if he really wanted it.
“One of the things she used to tell us as children is whatever you want in life you have to go after it,” John said. “You can’t just sit back and think it will come to you.”
That was the way their mother, Adriana Willis, lived her 97 years of life.