Tough Marine was loving family man

CorrespondentJanuary 26, 2014 

  • Lt. Col. Cleo Philip ‘Pete’ Stapleton

    Born: Aug. 29, 1931, in Yakima, Wash.

    Family: The oldest of five children, he marries Harriet Lawrence in 1954. They have three sons, Peter, Philip and Stuart, and live at 15 different addresses before settling in Cape Carteret in 1972. He is widowed in 1994 and then maintains a close relationship with his companion, Virginia Brown, a Morehead City schoolteacher, for about 20 years.

    Military: He enlists in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1949 on his 18th birthday. In 1950, he is deployed to Korea in the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade defending the Pusan Perimeter and participates in the water landing at Inchon. Commissioned in 1953, he serves aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard and does tours in Okinawa, Japan, and Vietnam before his final duty station at Camp Lejeune. He retires as a lieutenant colonel in 1976 on his 45th birthday.

    Commendations: During his 27-year career with the U.S Marine Corps, he is awarded a Bronze Star with combat “V”, Navy Commendation Medal with combat “V” and star, Good Conduct Medal, Vietnam Gallantry Cross and various campaign ribbons.

    Education: After retirement from the military, he enrolls at Carteret Community College, later transferring to and graduating from East Carolina University with a business degree.

    Non-military career: Works for Blue Bell, Wrangler division, in Morehead City for eight years in various management positions. His final 14 years working are spent as shift manager at Jungleland in Atlantic Beach.

    Dies: Jan. 3 in Cape Carteret.

In December 1950, Pete Stapleton, a young private first class in the U.S. Marine Corps, developed a passion for fruit cocktail.

It was often the only food he was able to thaw during the 17-day Battle of Chosin Reservoir. The temperature in Korea hovered at about 30 degrees below zero. For those who somehow managed to stave off frostbite, a slushy can of fruit cocktail was the world’s greatest comfort. Fruit cocktail, tootsie rolls and Charms lollipops were what fueled the 30,000 American troops that had been encircled by 67,000 Chinese soldiers.

Decades later, his son Phil Stapleton, a local chef, discovered his father wolfing down a can of fruit cocktail at the kitchen table.

“It came to me in a flash that ‘comfort food’ to a Chosin Reservoir Marine was pretty basic,” Phil Stapleton recalled.

Stapleton died this month at 82.

Pete Stapleton spent 27 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was an artillery specialist and made the jump from enlisted man to officer before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. But though he insisted his grandchildren call him “Colonel,” Stapleton hardly represented that gruff stereotype.

He finished out his working years as a shift manager at Jungleland, a now-defunct amusement park in Atlantic Beach. There he was known simply as “Tiger,” and he delighted in working with the young people on staff and the families who frequented the seasonal venue.

Stapleton seemingly never hardened from the atrocities he saw in both Korea and Vietnam, and he provided a loving home life for his wife and three sons.

“He took the uniform off when he came home. We knew a lot of families where the Marine was a Marine full time. The kids were just a troop at a different address,” Phil Stapleton said.

15 different addresses

When Pete Stapleton was a child, his mother left his family. His father was not in a position to care for his five children, so they were dispatched to relatives. Stapleton, known for being quite the prankster in his youth, went to live with his grandmother, along with a brother; this move made his uncles and cousins seem more like parents and siblings.

One of these uncles was a Marine who had served in China. After high school, Stapleton quickly followed in his uncle’s steps and enlisted. His community in rural Washington state was poor, and his family was among those dependent on government programs for clothing and food.

When he enlisted, the Marine Corps was in a time of reduction. But the Korean and Vietnam wars reversed that trend. His dedication to the Marines, and his success in Officer Training School, made it possible for him to embark on career that spanned two wars and 15 different addresses for his growing family.

Stapleton didn’t talk much about his time fighting overseas until the mid-1990s, when he began writing some memories down. The spectrum of his experiences emerged in a story about the first man he killed in Korea, and another about having to shoot a mentally unstable fellow Marine in self-defense.

“The fact he wasn’t scarred by it was the fact people were amazed by,” Phil Stapleton said.

Still, during a family trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the elder Stapleton was unable to bring himself to walk near it. He had too many friends who did not come home.

Later years in Cape Carteret

For all his moving around, he never lost touch with his Washington roots, said his cousin, Marge Huntington.

“I was perhaps 10 when he went into the Marines, but we stayed connected. As adults, the cousin connection was always there, but over the years we became best friends. We helped each other through some very rough patches and shared a commonality that far outreached blood ties.”

One of the toughest times in Stapleton’s life was when his wife of 40 years, Harriet, died in 1994. Following her death, he did share a special companionship with Virginia Brown, though, for about 20 years.

After he retired from the military, Pete Stapleton knew he wanted to settle near the water. He had always loved boating, so Cape Carteret was the ideal home. He and his family relocated there in 1972.

With his sons in their teenage years, he earned a business degree from East Carolina University and began working for the textile company Blue Bell, holding various management positions in the Wrangler division. After his second retirement, he enjoyed the seasonal gig he secured at Jungleland – a much different jungle from the ones he visited as a Marine.

“He resisted being old to the very end,” Phil Stapleton said.

And Pete Stapleton always maintained a warm, but dignified, air. As a member of his local “Chosin Few” chapter, he would often serve as guest speaker before active-duty Marines at both training and celebratory events.

“People respected him. He wasn’t pompous about it, and he didn’t demand it,” his son said.

His family remembers fondly his motto: “Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way.”

“His career duties meant that he was never in attendance when his boys were born. So it was fitting that, in his final hours, he waited until his sons had left his side before breathing his last,” Phil Stapleton said.

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