Charles Whitman: The Texas Bell Tower Sniper
On the surface, Charles Whitman would have seemed as steady and upstanding as the Texas Tower itself. He came from a wealthy, prominent family in Lake Worth, Florida. He was a gifted student, an accomplished pianist, and an Eagle Scout. But the trappings of the Whitman home concealed turmoil. C.A. Whitman was a self-made man, a plumber who had worked and willed his way to the top of his profession and into polite society. He brooked no weakness in any of his three sons, and he ruled his home dictatorially. "I did on many occasions beat my wife," he would later say, "but I loved her...I did and do have an awful temper, but my wife was awful stubborn....because of my temper, I knocked her around." His discipline with his sons was equally harsh—he often employed belts, paddles and his fists to make sure they complied with his rules and met his expectations. Materially, though, C.A. Whitman's family was amply provided for. C.A. and Margaret always drove late-model cars, and each of the boys was given guns, motorcycles, and other gifts C.A. thought fitting. Their home was the nicest in the neighborhood, with all the amenities and a swimming pool. But the luxuries did nothing to alleviate the troubles within the Whitman household.
In June of 1959, shortly before Charlie Whitman's 18th birthday, tensions with his father came to a head. Charlie came home drunk from a night out with friends, whereupon C.A. beat him and threw him into the pool, where he nearly drowned. A few days later he applied for enlistment in the United States Marine Corps. He left for basic training on July 6, 1959.
Charlie spent the first part of his stint with the Marines at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. He worked hard at being a good Marine, following orders dutifully and studying hard for his various examinations. He earned a Good Conduct Medal, the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, and a Sharpshooter's Badge. Chillingly, the records of his scores on shooting tests show that he scored 215 out of 250 possible points, that he excelled at rapid fire from long distances, and that he seemed to be more accurate when shooting at moving targets. Captain Joseph Stanton, Executive Officer of the 2nd Marine Division remembered, "He was a good marine. I was impressed with him. I was certain he'd make a good citizen."
It was important to Charlie that he be the best Marine he could be. After years of belittlement and abuse from his father, he was anxious to prove himself as a man. Every opportunity for advancement was a chance to distance himself from his brutal upbringing. The Naval Enlisted Science Education Program (NESEP) seemed tailor-made for the up-and-comer Charlie fancied himself to be. NESEP was a scholarship program designed to train engineers who would later become officers. Charlie took a competitive exam and then went before a selection committee which chose him for the prestigious award. He would be expected to earn an engineering degree at a selected college and follow that with Officer's Candidate School. His tuition and books would be paid for by the Marine Corps. He would also receive an extra $250 a month.
Charlie was admitted to the University of Texas in Austin on September 15, 1961. After years of rigid discipline at home and regimented life in the Marines, he was suddenly free to use his time as he wished. Almost immediately he began to get into trouble. He and some friends were arrested for poaching deer. He accumulated gambling debts and refused to pay them, angering some dangerous characters in the process. His grades were unimpressive. He did manage some improvement after he married his girlfriend, Kathy Leissner, in August, 1962, but the Marine Corps was unforgiving of his previous behavior. His scholarship was withdrawn and he returned to active duty in February, 1963.
He was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. After a year and a half of freedom, he found the discipline and structure of military life oppressive. His wife was back in Texas finishing her degree and he was lonely. He tried to recapture his scholarship but failed, and was informed that the time he'd spent in Austin did not count as active duty enlistment. He resented the Marine Corps and it showed in his behavior. In November 1963, he was court-martialed for gambling, usury and unauthorized possession of a non-military pistol. He had threatened a fellow soldier who had failed to repay a $30 loan with 50 percent interest. He was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days confinement and 90 days hard labor. A promotion he had received upon his return to active duty was stripped from him. Lance Corporal Whitman was once again Private Whitman, and he was desperate to be free of the Marine Corps. He turned to his father for help. C.A. Whitman had made connections in his years as a prominent businessman, and he set about trying to pull strings to get Charlie's enlistment time reduced. Charlie's stint was reduced by a year, and in December 1964, he was honorably discharged from the Marines.