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The Navy Memorial will honor comedy legend Bill Cosby this year with its Lone Sailor Award, which recognizes the lifetime achievements of veterans of the Navy and Marine Corps — in Cosby's case, a veteran who got his start because he preferred the prospect of drowning to being shot.
"Back in 1956, when I went in, I was just looking at something simple like, well, how do I want to die?" Cosby told Navy Times. "You're going into the service, so you're putting your body on the line. So you wanna go in the Army? You'll die in a foxhole. Marine Corps? Die in a foxhole. Air Force? Plane crash, or get shot out of the air. For some reason I just chose that I wanted to die out at sea."
But Cosby not only survived his enlistment, but the skills he picked up in the Navy got him into college, taught him responsibility and generally changed his life, he said. From 1956 to 1961, Cosby was a hospital corpsman, serving in naval hospitals, as well as a star basketball and track athlete. In Cosby's recollection, the Navy transformed him from an aimless, uneducated kid into a man with drive, discipline and self-respect.
He pinpointed the exact moment of the change at 4:30 a.m. on his first morning of boot camp.
"This man came, and he didn't play the game like my mother," Cosby said. "She would come three times. This man came once and stayed there. Waking everybody up. Throwing things and banging on cans. Very rude fellow. He also said something to me: He said ‘I'm not your mother.' I wanted to punch him in the face, but I knew about the brig."
Rather than hit his recruit division commander, Cosby went on to become his division leader at boot camp, he remembered, although they cropped him out of the yearbook photo. When he finished, it was the first time his mother had seen him graduate from anything since junior high school.
Stationed at National Naval Medical Center Bethesda, Md.; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. and elsewhere, Cosby worked as a physical therapist helping Marine patients recovering from wounds they sustained in the Korean War. He did a cruise on the dock landing ship Fort Mandan. And in 1961, the Navy also helped then-HM3 Cosby with another critical transition — getting out.
Cosby was offered $200 to re-enlist for another four years, he said, and he went to a detailer to accept the offer. But the man talked him out of it.
"Divine intervention, I think it might have been," Cosby said. "With [a second four-year enlistment] you don't get a Bill Cosby. Temple University? Gone. Instead, now, I'm retired, working at the post office."
The Navy Memorial also will recognize former pro footballer Ed LeBaron and the Navy's first black sonar technician, Lanier Phillips, at its Lone Sailor awards dinner Sept. 15.