John Willis enlisted in the US Navy in November 1940. From Columbia, Tennessee, the young Willis trained to become a Pharmacist’s Mate, working in hospitals in the US. In early 1944, he was assigned to the newly formed 5th Marine Division as a corpsman. Marines do not have medical personnel. They rely on the US Navy to give them corpsmen, who serve as medics with Marine units.
As Willis’s rifle company became pinned down on Hill 362 on February 28, 1945, he was wounded by shrapnel and ordered back to an aid station. Willis allowed himself to be quickly patched up, and then returned to his unit. He knew how much they needed him. As Willis was treating a wounded Marine, his position came under attack by Japanese throwing grenades. One at a time, eight grenades landed near Willis. He threw each one back. Grenade number nine exploded in his hand, killing him instantly. In December 1945, Willis’ widow Winfrey, along with their infant son, accepted the Medal of Honor on his behalf. Corpsman John Willis was 23.
Medal of Honor Citation
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Platoon Corpsman serving with the 3d Battalion, 27th Marines, 5th Marine Division, during operations against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 28 February 1945. Constantly imperiled by artillery and mortar fire from strong and mutually supporting pillboxes and caves studding Hill 362 in the enemy's 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 frontlines under mortar and sniper fire to aid a marine lying wounded in a shellhole. 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 7 more in quick succession before the ninth 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. His exceptional fortitude and courage in the performance of duty reflect the highest credit upon Willis and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Medal of Honor Series
Read Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class George E. Whalen's story next. He received a Medal of Honor for his actions on March 3, 1945.