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In memory of two WWII soldiers

By DAWN HANKINS - dhankins@t-g.com
Posted 8/15/20

This is the first in a series of features highlighting the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Please see next week’s Life and Leisure section for a feature on the late Clyde Rees. While many World War II soldiers made it back home to Bedford County to later tell their children and grandchildren of their experiences in places like Germany and New Guinea, two local men, James Marshall Smith and P.M. Willis, were not so fortunate, giving the ultimate sacrifice for their country...

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In memory of two WWII soldiers

Posted

This is the first in a series of features highlighting the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Please see next week’s Life and Leisure section for a feature on the late Clyde Rees.

While many World War II soldiers made it back home to Bedford County to later tell their children and grandchildren of their experiences in places like Germany and New Guinea, two local men, James Marshall Smith and P.M. Willis, were not so fortunate, giving the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Two bridges near the these former soldiers childhood homes off Highway 130 West were recently named in honor of Willis and Smith. A special dedication service, featuring official county resolutions, was held.

The 75th anniversary of World War II, or VJ Day (Victory over Japan) as it has come to be known, will be officially observed in America on Sept. 2.

Military and family notes-James Marshall Smith

▪Marshall was inducted into Federal Army on Feb. 24, 1941at Camp Forrest. Assigned to Headquarters Battery, Second Battalion, 181st Field Artillery

▪On May 5 1941 Marshall became Pvt. 1st Class

▪In 1942, he was at Camp Roberts, California and finished training as a radio mechanic

▪Also in1942, Marshall participated in the California Desert Maneuvers

▪In May 1943, he was at Camp Crowder, Missouri for a radio repairman’s course, then went back to Camp Roberts

▪At some point, Marshall was transferred to the Headquarter Battery, 947th Field Artillery Battalion-one which supported the 41st Infantry Division

▪947th is a 155 mm howitzer unit

▪155 mm howitzer has a range of about 9 miles and fires a shell which weighs nearly 100 lbs. It requires radio contact between a forward observer which could be a plane and the howitzer crew to pinpoint where the enemy is located so maintaining the radio was highly necessary

▪Marshall left San Francisco, Calif., Jan. 9, 1944, and arrived at Goodenough Island just off the southern tip of New Guinea on Feb 2, 1944

▪947th went to the Pacific Theater to support the Island invasions enroute to the Philippines and then Japan.

▪The first invasion for the 947th was at Holland- April 22, 1944 on the east coast of New Guinea which met little resistance. It was a giant leap across thousands of Japanese troops further south and had 350 planes but very few troops to guard it.

▪With that success, MacArthur invaded Biak Island on May 27, 1944, where there were 3 airfields and expected the 4,000 Japanese to be defeated in a week,however,there were10,000 well-trained and fortified Japanese.

▪The invasion surprised the Japanese and they chose to not resist the first day but had a big counter attack the next morning which is when Marshall was killed. This became the tactic for the other islands to follow.

▪Taking Biak Island took 2 months and cost a lot of American and Japanese lives. It would have been even worse if a Japanese troop carrier bringing backups from China had not been sunk by American submarines, historians have noted.

▪Marshall was initially buried on Biak Island, New Guinea, at Bosenk Cemetery No. 1 on May 28, 1944

▪He was later brought to Shelbyville and buried in Willow Mount Cemetery.

▪Marshall was given a Purple Heart posthumously with the following message to his parents: “Nothing the War Department can do or say will in any sense repair the loss of your loved one. He has gone, however, in honor and the goodly company of patriots. Let me, in communicating to you the country’s deep sympathy, also express to you its gratitude for his valor and devotion.”

Military and family notes-P.M. Willis

▪Enlisted in the military on Sept. 22, 1942

▪Killed in plane crash in California while on post-war test piloting maneuvers on Oct. 28, 1946

▪Prior to joining the Carrier Hancock, he trained in such places as Clarksville, Memphis, Corpus Christi, Texas, Hawaii and Glenview, Ill.

▪Willis was said to have loved being a Hellcat pilot on the Carrier Hancock, which began in Feb. 1945. Received the Distinguished Flying Cross (extraordinary achievement in aerial flight)

▪Air Metal with 3 Gold Stars (naval vessel destroyed or 3 aircraft shot down/stars are repeats)

▪Asiatic Pacific Ribbon with 2 bronze stars

▪American Area Ribbon

▪World War II Victory Ribbon

•The bombing missions mentioned for his medals were primarily on islands near the Japanese mainland and harbors on the mainland.

▪He narrowly escaped death when a kamikaze attack made a hit on the Hancock on April 7, 1945, in the vicinity of his bunk, but he wasn’t there at that time. Sixty plus men were killed and buried at sea from that attack and the Hancock went to Pearl Harbor for repair and resumed combat operations on June 13.

▪The carrier planes flew over Tokyo Bay as the Japanese formally surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945.

▪After the surrender, the Hancock embarked passengers at Okinawa and sailed for California.

▪After the war, Willis ferried planes wherever needed then got accepted as an officer in the U.S. Navy and was assigned as a test pilot in San Diego.

▪While a test pilot, he took off for a 1 hr flight in a Curtis Helldiver w/ a passenger and no word was received. After the plane was 30 minutes overdue, a search was started which lasted 24/7 for 6 days. No sign of wreckage was ever found.

▪He has a stone in Willow Mount Cemetery in Shelbyville, awaiting his body to be recovered.

▪The bridge over Sugar Creek off Highway 130 West, which is very near his home, was recently named in his honor.

▪He was married to a neighbor girl, Mildred Harrison, who was pregnant with a daughter when he was killed. Her name is Sandra Willis Glover from Perris, Calif. He has several nieces and a nephew.

▪He had a number of first cousins in the area and one, John Harlan Willis, was killed in one of the battles of Iwo Jima and was a Medal of Honor winner.

▪The Willis’s lived the first house was on Snell Road from Highway 130 West. Several letters would come to his wife and family during the military search for his body, but sadly, the soldier never returned home.

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