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Adriana Willis
Adriana Willis, a senior at the University of Southern California when this photo was taken, attended college after serving in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during World War II. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Willis
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Longtime Oceanside teacher was one of the first Women Marines

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.

Inspire Magazine Adriana Willis
U.S. Marine Corporal Adriana Willis was featured in the November 2008 edition of Inspire Magazine that chronicled her military career. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Willis

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.

Adriana teaching in a one-room schoolhouse near Oceanside. Photo and cutline by Inspire Magazine

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 and John Willis
Adriana Willis and her husband, John Willis. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Willis

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.

Adriana Willis

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.

12 comments

Cindy Braaksma August 17, 2020 at 5:14 am

What a great life and woman. God speed Aunt Cindy

Nancy Wilt August 16, 2020 at 11:10 pm

An Outstanding Marine…

Great article

Nancy Steele August 16, 2020 at 7:53 pm

I thank her for paving the way for the rest of us. Glad I ran across this story!
Semper Fi
CPL Nancy Steele
1991-1995

Michael Held August 16, 2020 at 5:09 pm

Beautiful article about an amazing wonderful woman Mrs.Willis what a great inspiration she was to all that knew her.

john martin August 15, 2020 at 3:41 pm

Semper Fi, joining our Marine family in heaven.

Cathy Hoops Henry August 14, 2020 at 7:20 pm

Oh my gosh!!! What a beautiful story and pictures about your Mom! I have sooooo many memories of them over the years!!!! She as a spitfire!!?. My parents loved them!!!! Later on, my Mom and yours would get together often. She had a great life! Thank you for the memorial. I will see you at the beach!!!!!! ❤️ Cathy Hoops Henry

Lena Elrod August 14, 2020 at 6:19 pm

What a wonderful story about our dear neighbors John and Adriana (to us she was Cindy) Willis. Adriana was the first to welcome us to our new home in S.O. She would announce her arrival with a great “YOO-HOO” Ashe came in the kitchen door. Our children loved Mrs. Willis and were friends with Stephanie,Jeff and John for the 30 some years we lived in south Oceanside . Great memories!

Lynne White August 14, 2020 at 5:21 pm

I also think this story is what movies are made of! A female marine back when, wow. And what a pretty lady (like her daughter).

Sharon Chisholm August 14, 2020 at 2:25 pm

My Mom was also one of the first woman marines during the exact same time and was stationed in Quantico, VA. I would love to have known if they knew each other, her name was Alice Piper. It would have been wonder to have shared pictures. My Mom worked as a telephone operator. She was born in 1922 and passed away in 2005 from Alzheimer’s. I feel certain they must have known each other because there weren’t that many at the time and they were in Quantico the same two years. Small world isn’t it.

Kevin Leahy August 14, 2020 at 6:23 am

What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it.

Stephanie Willis August 14, 2020 at 5:17 am

Thank you Coast News for an absolutely wonderful story about our Mother and honoring her memory as a Woman Marine and gifted teacher!

Denise Segobiano August 14, 2020 at 3:57 am

Wow! What an inspirational woman and the legacy she has left to so many.

This story has the makings of a movie look into it!
A good Woman Marine movie is just what we need and is long over due.

Semper Fi!

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