Mrs. Winfrey Willis, widow of John Harlan Willis, receives her husband's posthumous Medal of Honor from Secretary of Navy James Forrestal at a ceremony on 3 December 1945. Photo from BUMED Library and Archives.
For many in the Navy Medical Department, John Harlan Willis is just a name. For those men and women in the Navy Hospital Corps he is a fellow “doc” whose face can be seen on Medal of Honor walls at all Navy hospitals and clinics. He is the World War II hospital corpsman who saved the lives of wounded Marines before losing his own on the ash-sand Tartarus that
was Iwo Jima. Certainly, a life can never be replaced. And in the military a lost life can only be honored. For his remarkable gallantry on 28 February 1945, John Harlan Willis was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
On 3 December 1945, at the Secretary of the Navy’s office in Washington, DC, the Willis family
was presented this Medal of Honor. Official Navy photographs of the ceremony show Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal presenting the Medal to John Willis’s young wife (Winfrey) and her 7-month old son (John Jr.). They are flanked by a visibly grieving woman (Winfrey’s aunt Mrs. H.A. Morel) and an elderly man (Willis’s grandfather Austin Harlan). It is a heartfelt scene that reveals the incredible weight that the Medal of Honor carries. As a symbol, the Medal ofHonor represents heroism and valor, but, also, in this particular case, the death and lost potential of a
23-year-old man. It is meaning and memory in the form of brass alloy and a blue ribbon of cotton. One does not wear or hold the Medal as much as they carry the profound burden it can symbolize.
In 1965, Mrs. Winfrey Willis agreed to loan the Medal of Honor and some of her husband’s personal effects, including his dog tags and uniform, to the Tennessee State Library for display at the Women’s Building at the state fairgrounds. In October of that year, tragedy
struck when a fire ravaged the fairgrounds destroying the PhM1c John H. Willis exhibit, including his Medal of Honor. It was a second loss for the Willis family, but one Mrs. Willis sought aimlessly to fix. She was given a replica Medal of Honor by the State of Tennessee Library.
CDR Christopher Reddin, a Nurse Corps officer stationed at the Navy Hospital Corps School Great Lakes, IL, knows the plight of Mrs. Willis like few people outside her family. In 2009, while trying to validate the authenticity of Hospital Corps School artifacts attributed to John
Willis, he learned of an 88-year old woman with emphysema living in Tennessee whose sole mission was to preserve her deceased husband’s legacy. CDR Reddin got her telephone number through the USS John H. Willis reunion group2, called and left a message. “A month later, while driving to the DMV, Mrs. Willis called me on my cell,” remembered Reddin. “She was difficult to understand because of the emphysema, but was very sharp. Her niece (Anita Childs) was also on the phone and able to fill in the gaps. They said they had been trying to get through local politicians for years to a get a replacement Medal of Honor after finding out the medal given to her by the State of Tennessee was not authentic.”
CDR Reddin marveled at Mrs. Willis’s spirit. “Her loss never diminished her ardent support of
the sailors and Marines, past and present. She appeared at over 40 [USS John] Willis reunions and served as the ship’s mother for over 30 years.”
CDR Reddin and his colleagues at Corps School, HMC Stephen Cavin, HMC Augustus Delarosa,
and HM2 Nathan Charboneau developed an effective strategy on how to proceed. Step 1: Authenticate Mrs. Willis and the story of the Medal. Step 2: Once her identity and story are authenticated, get the replacement Medal of Honor.
Mrs. Willis sent the team copies of her birth and wedding certificates, and a cornucopia of photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings relating to the Willis medal. These documents were then copied and sent to the State of Tennessee archivist Mrs. Darla Brock and the Assistant State Archivist Dr. Wayne Moore, who verified the story and supplied additional
documents about the fairground fire that destroyed the Willis medal. As Reddin relates, “They combed their archives for a month and found the article from The Columbia Herald that authenticated the loss. Then they actually put me in touch with Mrs. Barbara Wilson, Branch
Head, Navy Awards and Special Projects.”
Reddin and his team then drafted a letter on behalf of Mrs. Willis requesting an official replacement Medal of Honor. Mrs. Willis sent in the request and, in less than a years of quiet desperation—she was awarded an engraved replacement Medal of Honor and Medal of
Medal of Honor Ceremony, Redux
Distinguished honors are not simply given to recipients. They are awarded in the highest ceremonial fashion. On 17 October 2009, Mrs. Willis and her son John Willis Jr. were presented with the Medal and Flag at a ceremony in Ph1Mc Willis’s hometown of Columbia, TN, presided over by RADM Michael H. Mittelman, MSC, USN. Other distinguished guests on hand included representatives from the Navy Medical Department including CDR Reddin, LT Christopher
Barnes, HM1 Charles Schaefer, and HM2 Scott Gallagher; also present were Columbia Mayor Bill Gentner and staff, Chaplain Bob Adair, American Legion Post 19, and Post-19 Women’s Auxiliary.
In the ceremony, RADM Mittelman presented the Medal of Honor Flag to a tearyeyed Mrs.Willis and her son John Willis Jr. HM1 Schaefer presented the Medal of Honor to Mrs. Willis. Anyone in attendance could tell you that even after all these years the pain of her husband’s loss runs deep through the Willis family as it does through the peaceful town of
Columbia. And it is a burden that can never truly be lifted.
In his opening remarks, RADM Mittelman captured the moment best when he quoted President Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widowed mother who lost two sons in the Civil War. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic he died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
Article by Mr. Grog. Originally published in the November-December 2009 edition of The Grog Ration.