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March 12, 2024

Profiles of Valor: PHM2C John Willis (USN)

For “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life…”

Born in Columbia, Tennessee, John Harlan Willis enlisted in the United States Navy in November 1940 after graduating from high school. He would train to become a corpsman at the Norfolk Naval Hospital. After a promotion to Seaman Second Class (Seaman Apprentice E-2), he served in Naval hospitals at Parris Island, South Carolina, and then Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Florida in the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After the U.S. entered World War II, he served at additional hospitals until January 1944, when, as a Pharmacist’s Mate First Class (Petty Officer First Class E-6), he was assigned to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California. There, he married his high school sweetheart, Winfrey, and ahead of his second Pacific deployment, she returned home to Tennessee expecting their first child.

On February 19, 1945, serving as a Platoon Corpsman, Willis landed on Iwo Jima with 3rd Battalion. Nine days later, while aiding wounded Marines during a fierce attack near Japanese-held Hill 362, he was wounded by shrapnel. He was ordered back to the battle-aid station, but despite his injuries and no medical release, he returned to his company to resume assisting the wounded.

During a brutal hand-to-hand enemy counterattack, he was administering blood plasma to a severely wounded Marine in a shell hole when the Japanese attacked his position with grenades. While continuing to provide critical medical care, Willis picked up eight of those grenades and threw them back at the enemy line, where they detonated. He attempted to do the same with a ninth grenade, but it exploded as he retrieved it, killing the 23-year-old Corpsman instantly.

For his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life,” he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

His citation notes in more detail:

Constantly imperiled by artillery and mortar fire from strong and mutually supporting pillboxes and caves studding Hill 362 in the enemy cross-island defenses, Willis resolutely administered first aid to the many marines wounded during the furious close-in fighting until he himself was struck by shrapnel and was ordered back to the battle-aid station. Without waiting for official medical release, he quickly returned to his company and, during a savage hand-to-hand enemy counterattack, daringly advanced to the extreme front lines under mortar and sniper fire to aid a marine lying wounded in a shell hole. Completely unmindful of his own danger as the Japanese intensified their attack, Willis calmly continued to administer blood plasma to his patient, promptly returning the first hostile grenade which landed in the shell hole while he was working and hurling back seven more in quick succession before the ninth one exploded in his hand and instantly killed him. By his great personal valor in saving others at the sacrifice of his own life, he inspired his companions, although terrifically outnumbered, to launch a fiercely determined attack and repulse the enemy force.

Willis is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia, Tennessee. The destroyer escort USS John Willis (DE-1027), in service from 1957-1973, was named in his honor.

John Willis: Your example of valor — a humble American Patriot defending your fellow warriors and Liberty for all above and beyond the call of duty, and in disregard for the peril to your own life — is eternal. “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776


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The Patriot Post and Patriot Foundation Trust, in keeping with our Military Mission of Service to our uniformed service members and veterans, are proud to support and promote the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, both the Honoring the Sacrifice and Warrior Freedom Service Dogs aiding wounded veterans, the National Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, the Folds of Honor outreach, and Officer Christian Fellowship, the Air University Foundation, and Naval War College Foundation, and the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for his friends." (John 15:13)

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