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Remembering those who served our country

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Posted: Friday, November 11, 2011 8:00 am

Ahwatukee Foothills resident John Willis still remembers his time in Europe during World War II.

He was sent to war in 1941 and spent years training in St. Ives, England, as part of the 29th Division before they were sent to Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

D-Day was the beginning of the end for Nazi troops as the allies began to take back Normandy. Willis was part of five or six campaigns that led to the fall of the Germans in Normandy. His division on Omaha Beach was asked to scale cliffs and throw grenades at German forces that had been shooting ships in the ocean.

Shortly after arriving, on June 18, he was injured at St. Lo by a falling mortar shell that took out a portion of his shoulder.

Willis recalls large hedges of dirt built up around French farms to protect the cattle. When he was injured, he saw a dead cow at the top of one of the hedges, so he ran up and hid near the cow's belly until a medic could find him and send him to get treatment for his wound. Eventually, Willis was found and sent to a hospital in Wales to heal.

By the time he came back, three months later, he hardly knew anyone.

"When I got back from the hospital I didn't know hardly anybody in my company because of all the replacements," Willis said. "They kept getting killed. My captain was still with the company, but my first sergeant was gone. I didn't hardly know anybody. But we made it."

Willis ended up near the Battle of the Bulge, which eventually ended the war.

He was sent to Denmark once the war was over as part of a group teaching the Danish people about American soldiers. He says he stayed for about 18 weeks before he decided to go home. After all, Willis had a girlfriend, Emily, back home that he was eager to marry.

"My sister had married my brother-in-law and he left in the Army about the same time I did, and she got a little pension from the Army," Willis said. "That's what I wanted for my wife, but her dad said, ‘No, you better not get married John because you could get killed or something, and it wouldn't be fair to Emily.' So we got married as soon as I got back in December of 1945. One year later our daughter was born."

Willis was employed for a short time at a factory that made Army supplies before he became a manager at Bob's Big Boy, a hamburger chain in Cleveland. Eventually, he followed a few of his older siblings to Arizona in the '60s and has been here ever since. Two years ago, his wife of 64 years passed away.

Willis now spends much of his time at the Pecos Senior Center with his daughter. Now 90 years old, Willis is grateful to be alive and be in the condition he's in.

"I want people to be appreciative of aged veterans," Willis said. "Boy, there's a lot of them. If you would take a little time to go down to the veterans hospital, I'm walking and I'm lucky, but some men have arms off and legs off. They use walkers and are ill. Age has a way of making you old. The veterans hospital does a wonderful job but, now with the war in Iraq, they're going to need the support of the people to help take care of these soldiers that are coming in to get service."

• Contact writer: (480) 898-7914 or

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