My Grandfather, the Reluctant Warrior
During this past Memorial Day, I was reminded that my grandfather, F.B. Willis, landed on Normandy on D+2 or +3. The waters off Omaha Beach were still red with the blood of soldiers. My grandfather and his company helped toe-tag and dig graves — until they captured German soldiers and made them do the digging. (During my lifetime, I only heard him talk about it a few times. He almost NEVER mentioned it, but he maintained close relationships with his “war buddies” until the very end of his life.)
When the Allies broke through and liberated Paris, my grandfather and and his company were able to drive through the city without stopping. He said the Parisians lined the streets, cheering the Allies as they passed through the city.
While in France, my grandfather's company was stationed at Reims — about eighty miles east of Paris. During their time there, some of the soldiers formed a basketball team and received leave to go to Paris to participate in a basketball tournament. (I recently discovered a picture from those four days in 1944.)
Apparently, there was a better picture that showed the Eiffel Tower more clearly and had a young French girl standing next to him. She had walked up to my grandfather while he was getting his picture taken and asked if she could have her picture taken with him. He obliged, of course. (But, because of his deep love for my grandmother, he always preferred the photo of him standing alone.)
My grandmother contributed to the war effort on the home front. Living in Amarillo, she took a job in the Pantex Plant, pouring TNT bombs. Using copper kettles on loan from Hershey’s, she often remarked that she could smell the remnant chocolate while cooking up the TNT. She often spoke about her firmly-held belief that it was one of the bombs she poured at Pantex that a train derailment in Tolar, NM, caused one death, and the total destruction of the small village.
Living alone, stateside, my grandmother saved her money, bought war bonds, and eventually had saved enough money to buy my grandfather a wedding ring. (When they got married, he only had enough money to buy one for her.) My grandmother sent the wedding band to him through the Armed Services Mail.
In late 1944, while in a foxhole during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, my grandfather was called for mail call. Snow covered the ground around him. My grandfather later said that he was reluctant to leave the warmth of the foxhole. Upon the second call, “WILLIS!,” he emerged from the foxhole to receive his mail. He opened the package to find the wedding band, which he placed on his finger — and never removed it. Seventy years later, it was on his finger when he was buried.
Upon returning from war, my grandfather went to college on the G.I. Bill, earned his master's degree, and spent a career teaching and coaching — (several sports, including basketball).
My grandfather never sought recognition for his military service. He had a flag he hung out on patriotic holidays; he was a reluctant (drafted) soldier, to begin with. And he certainly never considered himself heroic in ANY way. In my eyes, he was.
Over the past weekend, I also discovered a number of letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during wartime. They were only his letters to her, and there were times that his desperation for a letter, or word from home, was evident.
When some WWII soldiers came back from the war, they smuggled Lugers and other firearms in from Europe. My grandfather didn’t.
“I hope I never see another gun in my life,” he often said.
I miss my grandpa. I spent the past Memorial Day weekend being grateful for the role that this reluctant warrior, my grandfather, played in history — and in my life.
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 05/23/19