It started when he wore a T-shirt that said, “I still play with drums.” That led Willie “Wild Bill” Melton to begin playing as... 1611 Militia marches back in time
New citizen Stefania Argueta, 25, of Fredericksburg, poses with members of the 1611 Militia following a Sept. 10 naturalization ceremony. From left, Brynley Dolman, Dennis Strawderman, Willie Melton and Michael Bell. (Caleb M. Soptelean photo)

It started when he wore a T-shirt that said, “I still play with drums.” That led Willie “Wild Bill” Melton to begin playing as a percussionist for the 1611 Militia volunteers of the Citie of Henricus.

The co-founder of the group, Dennis Strawderman, 68, asked Melton to play. That was about 10 years ago, said Melton, 69, a Richmond native who has lived at Greenleigh Trailer Court with his wife, Jeannette, for 28 years.

Four members of the militia – including 54-year-old Clover Hill High School history teacher Michael Bell and Buckingham County resident Brynley Dolman, 71 – were present for last week’s naturalization ceremony at Henricus Historical Park.

It was the third time in the last four years that the ceremony was held on a bluff overlooking the James River.

“It’s a great thing for them,” said Melton, who’s been playing drums since age 5 and played with Bruce Springsteen “two or three times” before Melton was drafted into military service in Vietnam.

Melton – who was trained as a tank driver – ended up working as a “tunnel rat” in the Southeast Asian country because tanks were not used in that conflict. Half-tracks, a vehicle with wheels at the front and tank-like tracks at the back, were used instead.

Melton – who patrolled tunnels with a flashlight, a .45 pistol and two hand grenades for eight months – declined to talk about that experience, which he called “very traumatic.”

When he came home after a medical discharge, Melton began working for James River Paper Co. He later moved on to work for Sonoco Paper Co. Combined, his paper company work history dated 43 years and 10 months. He retired in 2016.

Melton enjoys spending time with the 1611 Militia, which, according to Strawderman, frequently shows up for historical events at Henricus. Their next event will be Publick Days, which runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 21-22, and costs $5.

The militia has been filmed by National Geographic and PBS. The 12-man volunteer group was co-founded in 1995 by Bob Moates Sr., who owned Bob Moates Sports Shop and was a Gen. Robert E. Lee reenactor. Moates died in 2009, but the militia carries on.