By David Lewis
How are the lives of William (Bill) Wadlington of Fruitland, Elisa Jones Cadwell of Newman Lake, and Ed Dreyer of Western Washington involved in the journey of a small piece of metal that spans over 50 years? The story is improbable, yet true. This is the incredible journey of Wadlington’s dog tag.
Bill Wadlington is a retired teacher, principal, and superintendent who’s last assignment was Superintendent of Columbia School District in Hunters.
In 1972, four days after graduating high school, Bill found himself at the Naval Training Center in San Diego, CA. Uniforms were issued, vaccines administered, and he was given two metal tags with his name and service number embedded on them, attached to a long beaded chain. Somehow placing the simple chain and stamped aluminum “dog tags” around his neck made all the training and indoctrination feel real, Wadlington said.
Stories and experiences that involved flying as a crewman on P-3 Orion aircraft as a navy submarine hunter would become one of his teaching methods and part of an object lesson for many future classes.
After completing four years of active duty, he began his journey in education that spanned over 48 years. During the first seven years, Wadlington attended colleges in Leadville, CO, Fort Collins, CO, and Moscow, ID. He then began his teaching career as a science teacher. His doctorate degree would take him another twenty years to complete.
After Wadlington left the Navy, he wore his dog tags proudly for nine months. They were a symbol of his proud service to his country. But sadly, that was during a time in the U.S. when veterans were not venerated. So he stored this simple symbol of his service in a jewelry box. Around that same time, his parents gave him their Super 8mm movie camera in a brown leather case as they had invested in newer technologies in film making. Wadlington never had much use for the camera, and sometime in 1988 the camera went into a cardboard box with other items, and was sold at a garage sale.
For 36 years, Wadlington satisfied his passion for learning by teaching science at the secondary level, becoming a K-12 principal, and ultimately a district superintendent. One of his fondest teaching experiences was in Republic, Wash. during the late 1980s and early 1990s when he taught science in grades 7-12. The regaling of those stories as a naval submarine hunter found fertile ground in some of his students, who later either served in the military themselves or became defenders of returning veterans. One of those students was Elisa Jones Cadwell.
Elisa Cadwell and her family were living in Seattle in 1978. Her stepfather and mother had been very good friends with a veteran named Ed Dreyer. Both her stepfather and Dreyer were returning Vietnam veterans, struggling to settle back into society.
In 1979, Dreyer bought land in Republic, Wash. and moved there. He was able to find his niche in the wide open spaces of the area. However, Elisa’s stepfather continued to struggle. A year later, Dreyer invited the Cadwells to move in with him and get a new start like he did. Elisa said Dreyer’s house was like a museum. He collected antiques and showcased them throughout his home. There was an entire wall of cameras – Brownies, Polaroid, video cameras – that spanned decades of technology.
In 1988, Wadlington was Elisa’s high school science teacher in Republic. Just before the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test was to be administered to the students, they were offered the chance to be in a discussion group with Mr. Wadlington and Mr. Moore (a math teacher) as both were veterans who had served in the Navy. Students were told about the benefits of joining the military, with emphasis on the GI Bill. Most of the students came from low-income families with very few options to ever attend college. What the veterans said struck a chord with many of the students that day.
Elisa joined the Navy as did several others who were in her class. Elisa’s exact words were: “It was by far one of the best decisions I have ever made.” She served from 1989 to 1996 and used her GI Bill to become a teacher in Life Sciences (thanks to Wadlington sparking the love of science in her). She married a sailor in 1996, Toby Cadwell, who retired in 2022 with 31 years of service.
In 2021, while the Cadwells were visiting Elisa’s mom, they were told that Ed Dreyer was not doing well and would be moving to the coast to live with his daughter. He had been living in a smaller house on the Republic property for the past 20 years, as Dreyer could no longer navigate the stairs or maintain the main house. Elisa then decided to go visit Dreyer, as she had not seen him in several years.
During the visit, Elisa asked Dreyer about the collectibles she recalled seeing in the main house. Dreyer said they had been picked over by many others, but she and her husband Toby were welcome to go and look at them. The main house was in a very sad state. The roof was caving in, and it was obvious that others had ransacked the home. They found the wall that contained all of the cameras; however, there were only two remaining. They were semi-hidden under a broken shelf and not readily visible. One was a Polaroid Land Camera and the other an old Super 8mm movie camera in a brown leather case.
The Cadwells took the cameras home, and Toby got to work cleaning them to see if they could be brought back to life. Both were intrigued by the movie camera as it still contained a roll of film. As Toby worked in his shop, Elisa heard him shout, “Hey, do you know a Wadlington, W.?” Offhandedly, over her shoulder, she said, “Bill Wadlington was my science teacher.” Toby showed her a military dog tag that was in a small side compartment in the case of that old Super 8mm movie camera. It was Wadlington’s dog tag. Both Elisa and Toby were astonished at the find. She was able to get information on Wadlington from a friend and within a few hours sent an email and a picture of the dog tag to him.
A few weeks later, Bill Wadlington and his wife Janet were sitting in Elisa and Toby’s living room accepting the return of his dog tag. They all marveled at the many “right place, right time” circumstances that led up to the reunion.
Wadlington’s dog tags that were imprinted in the summer of 1972 went on a journey with many unanswered and mysterious questions. Did Bill put the dog tags in the camera case? He does not recall doing so. Did Bill sell the camera to Ed Dryer at a garage sale? The camera did sell that day, but was Ed Dreyer the buyer? He does not remember as he went to many garage sales looking for such items. Was the dog tag in the box with the camera and did it slip into the case somehow? How did the two cameras remain unnoticed for 20 years until Elisa and Toby found them?
Both Toby and Elisa were experienced in optics repair from the navy and hoped their skills would enable them to totally restore the cameras. They are now searching for someone to develop the film that was still in the camera. What will it reveal? One can only say this camera was meant to be in the hands of these particular people.
To all who have served in the military, we thank you for your service to our country. And if you ever wore and still have your dog tags, be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren and make sure they know the story behind them. It is a story worth telling.
Editor’s Note: Dave Lewis, reporter who wrote this story, served in the infantry for 21 years (1966-1987). We wish to thank Dave for his service to our country and also for his continued service to his community by reporting on interesting and historical topics. Dave has helped the Times put Hunters, Fruitland and parts of Lincoln County “on the map” and helped our readership get to know these neighboring communities along Hwy 25.