Willis, James D. (817th)

James D Willis 1James D. Willis

Biography:  James Darrell Willis, “Jim”, was born on April 29, 1920, at Springfork, Missouri. He is the son of Grover Lee Willis and Jewell Irene Hatler and attended school in Springfork through the 8th grade. When Jim was 14 years old, the family moved to Oregon due to difficult economic times in their home state. He then worked on various farm and construction jobs including truck driving for the J. Phillips Murphy Company.

Service Time: Jim entered the service on January 3, 1943, at Spokane, Washington. During his training, he qualified as a Sharpshooter with the Mi Rifle and an Expert  with the Carbine and Thompson Sub-Machine Gun.

He was assigned to Company A of the 817th Tank Destroyer Battalion and served as an ammunition truck driver but later moved into Headquarters Company as a driver for staff officers. They shipped from the Boston port on July 24, 1944, and arrived at Greenock, Scotland, on July 31st. They began preparations for shipment to France, boarding ships and landing at Utah Beach on August 25th.

The unit took up rear-area security duties in France and Belgium, guarding COMZ (Communication Zone) from August through November.  They entered combat in the Hürtgen Forest with the 8th Infantry Division on December 9th.  They shifted to the Ardennes in February, 1945, and were then transferred back to the Roer River sector to fire as artillery. The 817th then participated in the advance to the Rhine River with the cavalry and crossed the river at Remagen on March 15. The 817th was the only towed TD battalion to enter the bridgehead.

James D Willis 2They began conversion to the M18 Tank Destroyer on March 26th and joined the 104th Infantry Division at the Ruhr Pocket in April.  Two companies joined the drive eastward from Marburg in mid-April, fighting in the Harz Mountains and helping to capture Halle. They advanced to the Mulde River where offensive operations ceased.

Jim received credit for the campaigns of Northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland and Central Europe. He was awarded the American Service Medal, WWII Victory medal, EAME Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. He left the service on December 23, 1945, at Fort Lewis, Washington, at the rank of Private First Class.

Honorable Discharge

He returned to Oregon and worked in a number of positions in retail stores. On November 19, 1947, he married the former Wanda Faye Rogers, who was born in Kansas and was the daughter of Frank L. Rogers and Fern Ivey. The couple made their residence in Idaho and had two children, Tanna, born in 1949 and Gerald in 1953. Jim purchased a small mom and pop style store that was going out of business and he and Wanda turned it into the Willis Department Store. A photo below shows Jim in the store around 1980. In his spare time, he raised sheep and was an avid gardener and rockhound (rock collector). The other photo shows Jim holding his grandson Adam.

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Jim is still very much alive and enjoying his retirement. I want to thank him for his service to this country and thank Jim’s son, Jerry, for providing the information and photos for this tribute. Jerry also provided other materials about the 817th.