Wayne M. “Mack” Lankford was born in 1955 in the North Wilkesboro, NC hospital presently known as the Doctor’s Building. Mack’s father Burl and his father-in-law started Vannoy & Lankford Plumbing Company in February 1955. Mack’s mother Marolyn was a housewife then became a school secretary for Wilkes County Schools. Mack is the eldest of four Lankford sons; the others are Rick, Randy, and Keith. “All four of us at one time or another joined our father in the plumbing business,” says Mack. Although the other Lankford men have not served in the military, Mack’s niece, Faith Lankford, is serving in the U.S. Navy and is deployed to the Pacific (now in 2022). (She is brother Keith’s daughter.)
In 1974, “there was no one really happy about me joining the Marine Corps,” Mack says. After graduating from West Wilkes High School in June, he and his Boy Scout Troop went to Philmont Scout Ranch and then Mack went straight to Parris Island, SC, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. On his trip to New Mexico, the scouts had hiked the trail, and they had continued to Disneyland and more tourist sites in California.
Lankford had signed up in December of his senior year in the delayed entry program. As a Boy Scout since age 13, with his father as Scout Master, and three younger brothers looking up to him, Mack says they were “a little apprehensive” about his going into the Marine Corps. “It was just after Vietnam and the country was getting over that, and there was quite a bit going on,” he says. “I’d always wanted to be in the Army, and there were two deciding factors for choosing the Marines instead. I was supposed to be paying attention to Mrs. Johnson’s literature class in high school and I was reading Leon Uris’s Battle Cry. On a Boy Scout camporee, one of the adult leaders from another troop was the Marine Corps recruiter and I struck up a conversation with him and he said to come on down. Everything was going great until he found out I was a junior and that didn’t make him happy. I told him I’d be around and was serious about doing this. I followed through on my word like I told him I would.” Later, Mack says he got to know the recruiters from other branches, but by then, he knew he wanted to be a Marine.
Mack was in no danger of being drafted. He left behind family and their dogs, “and everybody,” which made him realize that he was going out completely on his own, which can cause great apprehension. In July he started out in Charlotte, took his oath of enlistment, and then the bus delivered him and close to 50 others to Parris Island at “zero dark thirty” (about 4:30 am). “The closer we got—especially going over the causeway to the island—it got quiet on that bus,” Mack says. “We got off and stood on the yellow footprints. We got picked up by our drill instructors. We didn’t get to know each other until we were in squads of recruits. It was a learning experience.” Boot camp lasted 11 weeks (or 77 training days) in the hot and humid middle of summer. “We were introduced to sand fleas, which are horrible.” The drill instructor found out Mack was a Boy Scout and could read a map and he was assigned a recruit who was a little on the slow side. If he didn’t pass the skills test at the end, Mack would be held responsible and in “big trouble,” but it wasn’t phrased as nicely as that. At the end, we passed and “all was right in the world.” Looking back, even the worst parts can be pretty hilarious, Mack says, but he’s glad he escaped the “motivational platoon.” At the end of boot camp, Mack was a Marine.
Lankford’s first assignment was Naval Air Station Memphis. He had gone into the Marines with a guaranteed aviation electronics MOS field and trained with the Navy with other young technicians. “It was good experience, a positive experience, those six months of going to school” he reports. He was working and succeeding at his goal, which was to be a Marine.
May of 1975 sent Lankford to Cherry Point North Carolina and there he was actually assigned to a marine aircraft group and a headquarters and maintenance squadron. “There I did on-the-job training on tactical air navigation and other communication for about 2 weeks and then they sent me and this other guy to Naval Air Station Oceana Virginia, where we actually went to a school that concentrated on tactical air navigational equipment.” During the summer so close to Virginia Beach, Mack says it wasn’t hard to find something to do. “We had to worry a little about finding too much to do instead of doing our studies. We buckled down first.” At some point, he was promoted to E2, Private First Class.
“Joining and every major transfer I took happened or occurred in July. In July of 1975 I went home on leave. I bought a car and drove to MCAS El Toro California,” Mack says. He continued with Comm Nav and got a sergeant who taught us how to work on equipment and his name was Ron Vera. “I’m still in contact with him today, and also some of the other guys I served with.” That’s when he started working on the Comm Nav systems for the F4 Phantom, a “really impressive airplane, and I enjoyed that.”
“The hardest part of the military lifestyle was being away from family for holidays. On holidays you would get the day off and then you would have time to lay around feel sorry for yourself. I would always take the duty of a married Marine who has family living in on-base housing so he could spend time with his family. And so it worked out okay. I got some pretty good home cooking out of that deal,” Mack says. On the other hand, he reports that the easier part of military life then was being able to see and explore more of the Southern California, more of the out-of-the-way places, as well as Disney and Knotts Berry Farm. Through Special Forces you can go buy tickets and they would get deals for military personnel: “I got to go see The Who in concert at Anaheim Stadium and that was my first concert I ever went to, and you talk about setting the bar high!”
During Lankford’s time of service, the United States military was mainly going through the Cold War era. “I was very fortunate in that respect. I never shot or heard a round fired in anger. One of the biggest things we had to do was bring the military back after Vietnam. I’ve read some very sobering statistics on the amount of drug use among the officers and enlisted. Our commandant cracked down on that right away.”
In July of 1976 he got orders to go to Japan with 1st Marine aircraft wing. First to Okinawa then to the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan, a location a few miles south of Hiroshima. On an excellent rail system, he could still explore the area. “We would get off in a small town, and all the restaurants in the area had plastic miniatures of the food on display. We learned how to point and order and they would laugh at us in a refined Japanese manner,” Mack says. “We’d go every couple of months to Hiroshima, a beautiful city. We could do a lot there, and visit Peace Park, where I took photos. It was a very sobering place. The first time we went, we were there during the anti-nuke protests they did back then. As you go into the museum, the first thing you see is a diorama and it shows the in the background the city in flames and among the figures, there are two women. One might be carrying a child and the other one was holding hands with a child. They had been burned horribly. You see tatters of clothes and burned skin and flesh coming off. I was taking that scene in, and moving on into the museum, there was a Japanese woman standing there and I have never experienced such hate in my life. Unadulterated hate. We weren’t in uniform, but she could tell we were Americans by our haircuts. I'm guessing she was of an age that she would have been a little girl when that happened. It had only been 31 years. She was at least 40 years old, so she remembered it.”
When asked about the equipment he worked on, Mack says he doesn’t know exactly. The F4 Phantoms were nuclear-capable, but he didn’t ever work the flight line. The gray boxes would come and go through receiving areas of the shops, so he never knew where they were in the planes. One regret is: “When I was off duty, I should’ve gone to the flight line and asked the Marines there to show me their job.”
Lankford’s pictures show some of his friendships. “You’ve got your band of brothers in the military,” he says, “in all branches. When you’re sick, you need help sometimes. Somebody to fill in for mom so you eat and don’t lay there and suffer. It’s not the loving care mom gives, though. It’s more like, ‘Hey you lazy son-of-a-gun.’ Concern masked by bravado.”
Lankford’s last day was also in the month of July, 1978. “I got out two days early because my EAS date was on Sunday. I was in Beaufort, South Carolina, got in my car, and drove home. Two or three days later, I got a job in the plant over at Holly Farms [poultry company], and I told the supervisor that hired me that I wanted to try to work this second shift job and go to college during the day.” Mack went to Wilkes Community College for two years, then Appalachian State University for two more for a BSBA in Business Management. The GI Bill and $1,000 from his grandfather helped Mack get his degree without debt. “I had good friends who really helped me out because I was having a hard time adjusting to civilian life. I was going to college with people who had just gotten out of high school. I renewed friendships with friends from high school and scouts. I found out that you do congregate with other veterans.”
Lankford was the first in his family to serve in the military since his great-great-however many-grandfather served in the Civil War in the Army of Northern Virginia. He says he came back with more discipline, but not as much patience. “It may have been hard to understand, but I’m fortunate,” Mack says. “My niece married a young man that decided to go into the Marine Corps, and told him that whenever he got out, and whenever my niece in the Navy was home, we’d have someone to talk to about shared experiences.”
“My active duty service in the Marine Corps was motivated by patriotism, pure and simple. That’s exactly what I thought then and what I think now,” Mack says.
What was the best part of Lankford’s military experience? “The best part about being a Marine, is serving with Marines. That’s about the only way I can say that.”
Lankford married his lovely wife Mary Markle on June 15, 1991. He continues his professional life with Vannoy & Lankford Plumbing Company in North Wilkesboro.
Interviewed by Mara Lynn Tugman in May 2022