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Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton

"The West Coast's Premier Expeditionary Training Base"

Old Breed of Martial Artists still kicking

By Sgt. Joe A. Figueroa | | March 29, 2001

To most people on the street Bill Miller seems like a harmless grandfather with an infectious smile.  Little do they know, behind that smile and gray beard is a 68-year-old Korean War veteran who happens to be a martial arts master.

This warrior is one of many little known Marine Corps legends who happens to go about his business in the hills of Escondido.
In essence, it is safe to say that Miller, along with Jim Advincula, are the pioneers of today's Marine Corps martial arts program.  Recently, he was given a "Black Belt Emeritus" award by Marine Martial Arts Program here in recognition for his accomplishments. 

While serving as a drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, his commanding officer, LtCol. Ralph Hayward tasked him with a mission. 
In time the lessons taught would be forgotten, only to be reborn in today's Marine Corps.

"Colonel Hayward happened to be the captain of the judo team at MCRD.  One day he called me in and told me that I was the new non-commissioned officer in charge of hand-to-hand combat.  He wanted me to develop a new curriculum that a 110 or 210 pound Marine could use to quickly kill the enemy," Miller said.

With that in mind, Miller took the very best of each martial art under his belt and displayed the movements at a gym across from an old staff non-commissioned officer's club at MCRD.

"Colonel Hayward was pleased with what I had done and added a few moves of his own.  Before I knew it, we were teaching Marines," Miller said.

However, Miller's stature as a seventh degree black belt in Isshin-Ryu and Combat Karate as well as several others didn't just happen.

Instead, it was culmination of an evolution that continues to this very day.

It all began as he grew up on the mean streets of Manhattan, N.Y.  Miller's father died when was only five years old and his twenty-year-old mother was left to raise him.

"Not having a father and growing up on the streets of Manhattan and The Bronx, I had to learn how to fight," Miller said.

Although the streets of New York were cruel in those days, Miller didn't learn martial arts there.  Instead, the experience served as the catalyst in the unique adventure that fate had in store for him.

As he continued to develop into a young hoodlum, Miller decided that perhaps it was time to make a better life for himself.

With the help of a local priest and forged documents, he joined the Marine Corps in 1948 at the age of 15 and began his long journey.

"I was close friends with a Father Kelly (in my neighborhood) and I asked him if I could get a baptismal certificate.  He asked me, 'Why do you need that certificate Billy?'  I told him that I needed to get on in the world.  Father Kelly agreed and gave me one.  In those days, everything was handwritten so the certificate was blank and I used a typewriter to put my information on it," Miller said.

Soon after, Miller was on his way to boot camp to become one of the few and the proud.

When he was 17 years old, he met a Marine professional boxer by the name of Rocky Donatelli at Camp Lejeune,N.C. and it was then the martial arts evolution took root.

"He was 10 years my senior and took me under his wing.  (Rocky) taught me everything about boxing," Miller said.
Around that time, Miller received orders to become a Marine Security Guard at the Bangkok, Siam (Thailand) embassy.

A young "buck sergeant" and approximately 185 pounds, Miller made up his mind to pursue martial arts at his new duty station.

"As soon as I got there, I asked the Marines where was the local dojo (judo training hall)," Miller said.

Pointed in the right direction he discovered that it would be a decision that he would never regret. 
It was then that a Burmese and a Japanese student immediately adopted him.

"I soon found out the reason they took me under their wing was because they wanted to see more (Caucasians) at the dojo," Miller said.  "Keep in mind this was post World War II and so Americans could do no wrong in Southeast Asian eyes."

It wasn't easy at first learning his deadly trade, but Miller never faltered in his desire.

"I learned to fall for the first six months.  The (students) would line up to throw me around.  I mean you would (literally) see a line of black belts, brown belts and green belts waiting their turn. It wasn't often they got to throw a 6 foot 2 inch guy around," Miller said.

Nevertheless, it was this type of "hard-knocks" training that made Miller become proficient.  Before he knew it, he himself became very good in throwing people around and developed a keen sense of timing as a result.

In the meantime, Miller was assigned a collateral duty of an attaché and was able to travel all over Southeast Asia.

"I carried my (martial arts uniform) everywhere I went in Asia.  As soon as that attaché case was taken off my wrist I was told I had 24 or 48 hours before I had to leave.  I would immediately find the local dojo and bow to the sensei (teacher) and ask for permission to study.  Of course, Americans were very welcomed because of the liberation," Miller said.

Through his extra travels, Miller was able to study arts forms such as Judo, Karate, Jujitsu, Kickboxing and a multitude of other martial arts.

These days, Miller teaches business executives "street survival" and has been doing so since his retirement in 1968.  However, he is quick to point out that in the Marine Corps it is known as close quarters combat.

"In the Corps, you have to kill the enemy.  In the street, you just want to disable thugs so you can escape," Miller said.

With constant physical activities such as swimming, lifting weights and running in 50 to 100 mile marathons, Miller finds himself to be lucky in his life.

"If it wasn't for the Marine Corps I wouldn't be where I am today.  I happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right commanding officer," Miller said.

However, Miller finds himself wanting nothing more than to teach Marines what he knows that they may go into battle better equipped.

"This type of skill is a necessary tool when facing the enemy.  It may one day save a Marine's life," Miller said.