Jerry Summers: John Harlan Willis - Baby-Faced Hero

Saturday, December 12, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

From looking at a photo of the baby-faced United States hospital corpsmen from Columbia, Tennessee the viewer would probably not recognize the young Medal of Honor winner in World War II for his heroics on Iwo Jima on February 29, 1945.

John Harlan Willis was born on June 10, 1921 in Columbia, Tennessee and graduated from Columbia Central High School

He enlisted in the Unites States Navy on November 5, 1940 and received training as a hospital corpsman at the Norfolk Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Virginia.

John steadily was promoted through the corps until July 1, 1943 when he achieved the rank of pharmacist’s mate first class.

In early 1944 he transferred to Headquarters Company 3rd Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California.

He married his high school sweetheart, Winfrey Morel, at Oceanside, California in late 1944 and, after his overseas deployment, she returned to Columbia, Tennessee while pregnant with their first child.

On February 19, 1945, John landed with the 3rd Battalion, 27th Marines on Iwo Jima as a rifle company platoon corpsman and on February 28, while aiding fallen Marines during the action on Japanese Hill 362, he was wounded by shrapnel and was ordered back to the battle aid station. 

Disregarding orders and his injuries, John returned to the battle area to resume casualty assistance. He was treating a wounded Marine when the Japanese attacked his position with hand grenades.

He was successful in throwing back eight enemy grenades before they exploded but was killed when a ninth grenade exploded in his hand.

For his actions on said date he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, two Purple Hearts, Combat Action Ribbon, World War II Victory Medical, American Campaign Medal, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Good Conduct Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and Navy Expeditionary Medal.

At the end of 1945, his widow traveled to Washington, D.C. to receive her late husband’s Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman.

One of Truman’s fondest statements was to publicly declare that “winning the Medal of Honor was a greater honor than being President of the United States.” When Truman was being considered for the honor he declined to accept it.

As part of the Willis Citation it stated that “by his personal valor in serving others at the sacrifice of his own life, he inspired his companions although greatly outnumbered, to launch a fierce attack and repulse the enemy-force.  His exceptional fortitude and courage in the performance of duty reflect the highest credit upon Willis and the United States Naval Service.  He gallantly gave his life for his county.”

The destroyed escort USS John Willis was named in his honor.  One of the barracks located at the now-closed Naval Hospital, Millington, Tennessee was named Willis Hall and the building is now part of the University of Memphis Millington Center.

John was not forgotten by his hometown of Columbia.  American Legion Post 19 and other veteran groups were responsible for the naming of the bridge over the Duck River in his memory with an appropriate memorial marker adjacent to the bridge bearing his name.

Willis was age 23 at his death and is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in his hometown of Columbia.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

           

John Harlan Willis
John Harlan Willis

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