I first met Lee Marvin in 1964. I had seen him around town for several years. He lived on Latimer Road in Rustic Canyon, a part of our then small, quaint hamlet of Pacific Palisades. He had four children, but his marriage was on the rocks, and he was spending many an evening drinking at The Cottage, a bar on the Coast Highway in Malibu. My older brother had a beach house nearby and frequented the watering hole as well. He and Marvin became friends, and I wound up riding motorcycles with Marvin one day up the coast to The Cottage.
Marvin loved to ride motorcycles ever since playing the part of Chino, Marlon Brando’s rival in The Wild One. Marvin excelled at playing tough guys. He was convincing in such roles because he was one. Expelled from St. Leo’s prep school just shy of graduation for his continual flouting of rules and regulations, he joined the Marines at age 18 in August 1942. For someone who had a problem with authority and discipline it seemed like an odd choice of services. “I knew I was going to be killed,” explained Marvin. “I just wanted to die in the very best outfit. . . . There are ordinary corpses. And Marine corpses. I figured on the first-class kind and joined up.”
The tall, lean, and muscular Marvin excelled in boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, and in further training following graduation. By the time he was stationed at Camp Elliot, near San Diego, California, he had been promoted to corporal. Rowdiness and fighting got him busted back to private and ordered to the 4th Marine Division, which was being organized at Camp Pendleton. Marvin again excelled in training for combat. He also again excelled in wild behavior, which got him confined to base and assigned to mess duty for a month.
In January 1944 Marvin shipped out with his unit bound for the Japanese-held Marshall Islands. He was now in a scout-sniper platoon, which was more conducive to his personality. Scout-sniper platoons are organized more horizontally and less hierarchically than other outfits. Camaraderie, physical prowess, and the ability to do one’s job are more important than rank and regs. Marvin, who starred in track and field at St. Leo’s and in his spare time hunted feral pigs with a bamboo spear in a forest near the campus, had found a home.
Marvin’s first action came at the northern end of the Kwajalein Atoll, which consists of some 90 small islands and islets. The Marines would concentrate their efforts on Roi-Namur, two islands joined by a causeway. On January 31 Marines landed on five small islets before assaulting Roi-Namur on February 1. Long before the main body of Marines hit the beaches, teams of scout-snipers landed in rubber boats in the dark to reconnoiter. When interviewed years later, Marvin made light of his own efforts:
So you’d land with maybe twelve guys and you’d wander around and not see a thing because you didn’t want to see anything. All you wanted was to get off. . . . The next morning the sun would come up and there would be the whole United States Navy out there because it’s D Day and they would be shelling you because if they saw you they figured you were Japs and nobody told them otherwise.
Marvin was again in action at the end of the month at Eniwetok, a coral atoll of some 40 small islands and islets. The Marines’ principal assaults would occur at Engebi and Parry islands. Marvin’s luck held, and he completed several more missions unscathed.
After R & R in Hawaii and more training, Marvin landed on D Day, June 15, 1944, on Saipan, which the Japanese had occupied and fortified for 20 years. The fighting was fierce from the minute he hit the shore. Reaching open fields beyond the beach, Marvin saw a strange sight—hundreds of stakes with sake bottles on top. His puzzlement ended quickly when artillery fire rained down on the Marines with deadly accuracy. The stakes and bottles were markers the Japanese had used to preregister their fire.
On the fourth day he found himself headed into what Marines would call “Death Valley.” Marvin’s company was tasked with assaulting 1,500-foot-high Mount Tapotchau, which overlooked the valley. Rugged terrain and hundreds of caves that held thousands of crack Japanese troops made the mission near suicidal. “We started out with 247 men and fifteen minutes later there were six of us.” Marvin lasted only a little longer—a machine-gun bullet ripped through his lower back and buttocks, missing his spinal cord by a fraction of an inch and severing his sciatic nerve. “Jesus Christ! I’m hit,” yelled Marvin.
“Shut up, we’re all hit,” another Marine replied.
Marvin was awarded the Purple Heart and spent 13 months recovering from the wound. Six years later he appeared in his first movie. He would appear in dozens more and win the Academy Award for Best Actor for the dual roles he played brilliantly in Cat Ballou.