WWII vet and retired MMA staff member looks back on time spent at the academy

HARLINGEN — William Steigerwald is proud he helped instill the spirit of the U.S. Marine Corps into the minds of young men.

The retired sergeant major, 90, is one of the few surviving early staff members of Marine Military Academy.

“It’s the spirit of discipline and love of country. There’s none like it anywhere else in the world,” he said.

“It’s the United States Marine Corps spirit. These cadets pick up the same spirit and it’s exceptional.”

Steigerwald arrived at MMA in 1969 after serving in the Marines for 24 years.

He enlisted when he was 17 and served in the Pacific Ocean theater of World War II.

“I’ve been all over the Pacific, 28 months in World War II,” he said.

When the Marines went ashore in Okinawa, Japan, Steigerwald recalls climbing down a cargo net, carrying a large rubber knapsack containing a heavy radio unit, then nearly falling into the surf as he transferred from a landing craft to an amphibious vehicle.

Someone grabbed him and prevented him from falling down, where he would surely have been crushed between the two craft, he said.

He would later participate in taking the surrender of the Japanese.

He continued his service in the Marines after World War II, re-enlisting and serving in the Korean War.

After leaving the service, he worked for two years at a Catholic high school for boys in Memphis, where he set up their Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program.

He left that school to take a job at MMA, where he was assigned as the assistant to the commandant of cadets. At one point, that was Col. Bill Card, who would later become mayor of Harlingen.

“He was a great leader,” Steigerwald said of Card, who died in 2010 at age 88.

At MMA, Steigerwald wore many hats, setting up a boxing program and overseeing a physical fitness team, among many other duties. He even convinced an instructor in Brownsville to come up to Harlingen to teach fencing.

He recalls MMA went through a few lean years during the Vietnam War era, shortly after he arrived.

“Times were rough. People were demonstrating against the war and a lot of people didn’t want to come into the military,” he said.

“So MMA had a hard row to hoe to get people who wanted to be cadets.”

Gradually, that faded.

“All the noise about the war and people demonstrating tapered off and MMA started picking up. And by the mid-70s we had a good turnout of new cadets.”

He says MMA was strict on the cadets, but they learned from the discipline of academy rules.

“It wasn’t easy for them; it was very difficult. But I think they got the Marine Corps spirit and they got the discipline and they learned they have to work for what they get,” he said.

He retired in 1992, but returned part-time a couple times after that, the last time to run the academy’s alumni affairs program.

Today, he lives at Golden Palms Retirement Center. Looking back, he described his time at MMA as “fantastic.”

“My heart is in that academy,” he said. “I think there is a great need in this nation to turn out good leaders with morals and ethics.

“That’s why MMA is in business.”