I say it everytime I watch a film about World War II.
That is my grandpa’s war.
He came in at the end of it for a couple of years, but it is still his war.
PFC Donald M. Willis served his country in the US Army. He was the radio-operator, and was really upset he didn’t get to be in the US Air Force.
There is one story in particular that my mother always told me about grandpa’s war.
The 18–year-old from Wellsville 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. The commander told him “believe me son, when they start shooting at you, you will shoot back.”
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.
He was trained in Camp Upton and Camp Eustis before sailing across the choppy ocean waters to Germany.
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 and the eagerness to be a pilot.
Most of these letters are to his mother in order to ease her mind that her oldest son was well and staying out of trouble.
He wrote hundreds of letters 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, my grandma.
After he was honorably discharged in April 1946 he came home to marry his sweetheart.
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 Tonette 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.
He passed away on June 4, 2002 and he had full military honors. 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.
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.
(Jasmine Willis is a reporter at the Genesee Country Express)