HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. — Ask Phil Ernst about his military service and it’s clear he is proud of being a Marine – a chapter in his life that’s still reflected at his home.
A spotlight illuminates a Marines flag flying in his front yard and there are various other reminders of the four years he served.
Not unlike others, Ernst believes there are no former Marines.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he said without any hesitation.
And nestled in the corner of his living room hangs another memento of his military days – a large, slightly faded poster featuring the profile of a single Marine who appears to be looking into the distance.
If it looks familiar, that’s because he’s the Marine who was chosen for this honor – a recruiting poster used in a national campaign that eventually also included every mail truck in the United States, he said.
To this day, Ernst isn’t sure how he was selected, but still chuckles at his own reaction to being picked for this honor.
“They called me into the office one day and started off by saying, ‘Lance Corporal Ernst, you are very photogenic.’ But I didn’t know what photogenic meant, so I said, ‘Sir, I am very sorry. What can I do to fix it?’ Well, that’s when he lost it, and soon they sent me off to a photo lab,” he said.
Ernst, who enlisted and then served from 1963-67, spent all of his time stateside, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t doing important work – including receiving top-secret clearance that allowed him to do security work and be a bodyguard in Washington, D.C.
The photos were taken at Henderson Hall, the Marine Corps headquarters in Arlington, but Ernst said he’d already been assigned to a naval security station in Alameda, California, before learning anything else about how his image was going to be used.
“When I got shipped to California, I had heard the poster was out but didn’t really think much more about it,” he said.
Since this new assignment was close to San Francisco, Ernst said he and his (now former) wife often took trips in the area.
That’s when he got his first glimpse of the new recruiting poster.
“We had gone to San Francisco for the evening and were on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. There was a mail truck that passed me, and my wife just started making strange noises in that direction. So I turned my head to look, and before I knew it had crossed three lanes of traffic. It’s a wonder we didn’t go off the bridge,” Ernst said with a smile.
“It was quite a shock when I saw the poster for the first time, to say the least. I didn’t know what they were going to do with it, and I couldn’t believe it was a close-up like that. I was so shocked, but then I realized it really was me,” he said, adding that 50,000 copies of the poster had been printed.
Family members and friends were proud, Ernst said, adding, “I think my Mom popped every button on her dress. But my buddies just razzed the hell out of me. And the sailors at the security station I was at, well they also ragged on me but I enjoyed every minute of it.”
He also did a poster for the Marine Corps Reserve Civic Action Fund for Vietnam in 1965.
“I held a captain’s son, and they took the picture. Then a naval artist transformed the American boy into a Vietnamese girl, and this was the cover for the magazine section of the Washington Post,” Ernst said, pointing to another smaller, framed poster also hanging in his living room.
“I think it was trying to show that we were humanitarians, that we weren’t going in and wiping out the children or anything like that – that we still had a soft spot in our hearts for the children. Most of us didn’t really want to be there, but we didn’t like what the Viet Cong were doing so it was a difficult time overall,” he said.
Although he had orders to go to Vietnam, that didn’t happen.
“I had orders for ‘Nam and was two days away from leaving, but my orders got canceled. I don’t know exactly why or how. But somebody was watching over me, because to my knowledge none of my buddies who went there ever came back – and I would have been in that, because it was the height of the war,” Ernst said.
Ernst also served as a bodyguard in the military and his most memorable assignment was at the late President John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession, where he was the closest Marine to the body.
“It was another very sad, troubling time. I was completely devastated, because I though the world of JFK. He was a good president and role model,” Ernst said.
After leaving the military as a sergeant, Ernst realized a lifelong dream of owning a nursery and very successfully operated the Woodbrier Nursery off Interstate 81 for about 10 years. Originally from a Baltimore suburb, he came to Martinsburg after helping resurrect a nursery in Williamsport, Maryland.
He credits his childhood for giving him a green thumb, explaining that his baby bed was often placed on some raised flower beds at his family’s greenhouse.
His love of plants hasn’t diminished, and he’s continued to grow lots of different kinds at his rural home in northern Berkeley County. At one point, he specialized in hostas and eventually had more than 700 different kinds for sale. Some of those shade-loving plants are still in his flower beds, along with other unusual flowering plants and even several different kinds of ferns.
Lately he’s been experimenting with lupines and recently planted some lupine seeds from Ireland. Gesturing towards a nearby row of Asiatic lilies, Ernst said he could never have too many flowers.
“Gardening is my ministry, and this is my haven – a place where I can have a positive spirit and think about what’s really important in life,” Ernst said.