New London native John Martin has those bragging rights. When he was with the U.S. Navy in 1977, he and some of his co-workers spent several hours with the Duke himself, John Wayne.
“We would go out to various ships; we would be sent out. I was on four or five different ships and also a Norwegian frigate … up in Norway. We had to do ops,” said Martin, who graduated from New London High School in 1969.
At one point the crew was off the coast of Puerto Rico.
“We ended up going down to the Virgin Islands and we had a three-day R-and-R,” Martin said, referring to rest and relaxation. “I spent a couple days (on) shore patrol. The one day I was able to get out and about, nine of us and a taxi driver … we had heard John Wayne was in town.”
A chatty “doorman” at a hotel in Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands tipped them off about where Wayne was.
“We heard that he was staying in a hotel there. We got there and the doorman confronted us and we told him what we were doing. He told us, ‘He (Wayne) does use this as a front, but he usually stays at another place with Maureen O’Hara,’” Martin said.
O’Hara starred in “The Quiet Man” in 1952 with Wayne. Five years earlier, she played the Macy’s special events director who meets Kris Kringle/Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street.”
The property owner in question was O’Hara’s husband at the time, Charles “Buddy” Blair Jr., a former U.S. Air Force pilot.
“He owned the island airlines down there. The driver says, ‘I know where they live,’” Martin said. “We all got in a taxi and took off up to where Maureen O’Hara lived.”
Upon arriving, the group met Blair, who asked them why they were there and how he could help them.
“We said, ‘We heard John Wayne was here and and we wanted to see him.’ He said, ‘Well, he’s busy; he’s resting right now because he has an engagement tonight,’” Martin said.
The group had a 24-ounce mug with the (underwater demolition teams) UDT logo on it.
“We said, ‘We wanted to give him this; we’re special forces and wanted to give him something because we knew he enjoyed special forces,’” Martin said.
Blair went into the house and as the group was turning around in the driveway, luck was on their side.
“All of the sudden, out come runnin’ was John Wayne with his mug that we gave him. He hollered, ‘Hey! Wait a minute,’” Martin said. “It was good; we spent about four or 4 1/2 hours with him.”
Talking shop, sharing beverages
The actor and crew talked about the military, specifically special forces.
“He was basically interested in what the guys had done. Some of them had some pretty good stories,” Martin said. “The other guys had the stories. I was (just happy to be there). I’m the support; that’s all I am.”
“We had beverages,” Martin said with a laugh. “He ordered beverages.”
Martin said generally it was difficult for his fellow Navy personnel “to open up because of what they had done.”
“They had special positions and special jobs that they had to do — and they were trained to do those,” he added.
In describing Wayne, Martin said the actor was “very easy going” and attentive.
“He wanted to know anything and everything that he could about what we were doing and what each of us did. He was interested in what I did, too,” said Martin, whose focus was information systems. “He said, ‘You’re all an integral part.’”
More celebrity encounters
While the group was sharing tales with Wayne, they had another brush with fame.
“While we were talking about all that stuff, Maureen O’Hara came in. She introduced herself and we introduced ourselves to her and said, ‘I’m glad to meet you, but you boys have fun. I’m going in the house,’” Martin said.
The New London man was asked what he thought when he saw the famous actress and singer.
“I said, ‘Wow. Look at this redhead,’” Martin said, chuckling.
Afterward, the men mentioned they met Wayne to their fellow crew members.
“We didn’t talk about too much until we had the pictures,” Martin said.
“It was interesting. While we were down there, they were filming the movie ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau.’ It was starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York. We did get a chance to see them, but it was only at a distance. They were pretty much guarded with bodyguards.”
Martin and his fellow Navy crew members also saw another celebrity that same day when they were at a club.
“This limousine pulls up out front and Michael J. Pollard came out,” Martin said. “He played Babyface Nelson I think in one of the gangster movies. … He was a big-nosed guy with curly hair.”
The crew got one more surprise.
“He came in there and slapped $400 down on the bar and he says, ‘Drinks are on me until it’s gone.’ It was fantastic.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for a story about John Martin’s experiences with the U.S. Navy.
Have you or someone you know served in the armed forces? Are you willing to be interviewed about your experiences? If so, call Norwalk Reflector staff writer Cary Ashby at 419-668-3771 ext. 1239, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or stop by the newsroom, 61 E. Monroe St.