By Jasmine Willis
Before he was a husband, a father, a grandfather,and a carpenter he was part of what is known today as the greatest generation.
Donald M. Willis joined the thousands of other young soldiers in the journey to bring back their countries freedom in the second great war known as World War II.
He was trained in Camp Upton, New York and Camp Eustis, Virginia, before sailing across the choppy ocean waters to Germany, where he feared he would have to fight his own family.
The 18 – year- old from Wellsville, NY came from German lineage. He thought he may still have cousins who lived over there, and told his commander this on the boat ride over. His commander told him ‘Believe me son, when they start shooting at you, you will shoot back.’
This was the story I heard growing up about my grandfather and his war. He had come from a long line of patriots, so maybe he felt it was his duty to be part of the ranks. Although he was drafted like many others in that time period it always seemed like he was proud to be part of this journey with his fellows.
Every year our country honors these men for their sacrifice, along with all those before and after them. I have been wanting to honor my grandpa’s story for a long time now. Recently I got my hands on some of his war letters to his family. In them he talks about the “frozen tundra” of the Upton Camp; the eagerness to be a pilot and the every day routines of training.
Most of these letters are to his mother to ease her mind her oldest son was well and staying out of trouble.
They haven’t made any films about my grandfather, or honored him in any legions, but whenever I see anything to do with World War II I stand proud and call it grandpa’s war. We honor him as his family, and we know the stories. We tell these stories to others in hopes of keeping them alive.
Donald M. Willis didn’t belong to the world, and that is quite alright. He belonged to those who loved him and those who fought beside him; he belonged to those fellows in his barracks who were just as honored as he was to fight for the country they all loved; he belonged to the stories we tell ourselves.
For the sake of his privacy I can’t publicize all 600 pages of his thoughts on the war, family, friends, and my grandma Jean. However, I can give pieces of it to those who wish to know another person of the greatest generation.
While in training to be a radio operator, Don worries about his little brother Fredrick getting a job; his father working very hard at the plant; his aunts and uncles and cousins; he even talks about the pride he takes in the special duties he performs for his platoon.
“Our platoon is always the first one to fall out in the morning,” he writes proudly to his mother. “I wish dad could have come down to see me, but it would have been difficult.”
“I get along fine with the fellows in my barracks,” he continues to write to his mother.” After I get out of here I will make some girl a nice husband.”
That girl was Verna Jean Church. After he was honorably discharged in April 1946 he came home to marry his sweetheart he lovingly called Jeanie. They had seven beautiful children, and he had two other beautiful girls from his second marriage many years later.
Don was a church goer and a big band player. He loved the heartbeat in music.
“I have a chance to go to church every Sunday, but they are just general services. I don’t like those too well,” he writes. “This morning I was playing my Touette for the fellows, and the sergeant heard me. He asked me to come in his room and play for him. He said he knew some of the fellows in the band and he could get me in OK.”
Willis fought at the Rhineland and East Europe Battles, as well as being stationed in Japan at the end of the war. He received the American Theater Ribbon, two bronze stars, Victory Medal, and Good Conduct Medal.
Grandpa’s story may never be a movie, or spoken out to giant crowds by his fellow comrades on Memorial Day Parades, but that is OK. He passed away on June 4, 2002 and there was a 21 gun salute. There was a flag draped over his coffin and folded by two veterans. This was his ‘thank you for your service’ from his fellow soldiers.
This is my way of honoring his memory and being the keeper of his stories.