August 30, 2013

WWII vet Willis presented Congressional Gold Medal

Misty Watson

— Minnie Marsh always “felt in her heart” her father, William James Willis Sr., was a hero.

Now she knows the full extent of his heroism.

“I know his dedication and sacrifice for this country,” Marsh said.

Willis, 89 and a Dalton resident, was a Montford Point Marine, who were the first blacks allowed in the Marine Corps during World War II. Their commitment and dedication to serve helped advance civil rights and lead to the decision to desegregate the military in 1948.

On Thursday, Willis was honored in a ceremony at Dalton City Hall where he was presented the Congressional Gold Medal and was thanked for his service.

“Daddy always said he was stationed at Camp Lejuene (N.C.),” Marsh said. “He never mentioned Montford Point. I didn’t know that’s where daddy was. I knew there was segregation.”

Some 20,000 black Marines were trained at Montford Point in Jacksonville, N.C., while about 13,000 served overseas during World War II. Legislation signed by President Barack Obama in 2011 allowed Montford Point Marines to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

After some friends of the family received the same honor, Marsh looked at her father’s discharge papers and realized he deserved the recognition. She contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, and his staff organized the ceremony.

“It’s a delight to be part of this,” Graves said. “He’s a husband, father, grandfather and a hero in our country.”

Willis’ other daughter, Mary Suttles, said she is glad to have him as her father.

“It’s a wonderful honor,” she said. “I’m so proud God blessed me with my father, and mother (Dorothy), too. I’m proud beyond proud.”

Willis, a native of Wilkes County, graduated from Emery Street High School in Dalton and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta. While in college, the draft for World War II began. The only students exempt from the draft were those studying to be in the medical field or a minister, Willis said.

“I said, ‘The Lord hadn’t called me,’” he said with a laugh.

A Marine had visited the campus, and Willis noticed girls were interested in the uniform.

“Girls were crazy for him,” he said. “I wanted to be a Marine.”

So when he was drafted, Willis signed up for the Marine Corps knowing he was one of the first blacks to be admitted in that branch of service.

“It was quite different,” he said. “We showed them (desegregation) could be done ... Just because you’re black doesn’t mean anything.”

He served from 1943 to 1945, stationed primarily in Okinawa, Japan, doing clerical work. Later, he began working in grave registration in the South Pacific. He supervised body recovery. He became a licensed embalmer and funeral director. His first civilian job was in Hawaii preparing bodies of military personnel who died in Pearl Harbor back to their families.

In 1949, he and his wife, established Willis Funeral Home in Dalton where they continue to work with their son, William Jr. and daughters.

“It’s been a great pleasure,” Willis said. “I enjoyed it. I’ve seen so many things. Thank you all for everything.”

The Congressional Gold Medal, first given in 1776, is considered the highest civilian honor. It has been awarded to hundreds of people, including Walt Disney, Jackie Robinson, George Washington and the men and women who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.