Putting life in his years

Camas resident recalls his days of military service, travel

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By all accounts, George Willis has packed a lot of living into his 89 years on this earth.

From liberating one of Germany’s most notorious WWII concentration camps to traveling the globe, Willis’ motto seems to be, “never quit.”

When physical challenges kept him from walking in the annual Camas Days Parade with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Chapter 4278, neighbor Dennis Schwartz devised a way to make it happen, using a borrowed golf cart from the Orchards Hills Country Club. Willis was eager to be able to participate in the annual parade.

“George has such a big heart,” Schwartz said. “He will do anything he can for you. I wanted to find a way to help him.”

A decorated Army veteran with the 42nd Infantry Brigade, known as the Rainbow Division, Willis makes the danger of air strikes and battles during World War II in Europe seem like just another day.

“I was young, and when you are young, everything is an adventure,” he said. “You don’t think anything will happen to you. I was lucky. I went through the entire war without a scratch.”

Others were not so lucky. Casualty figures for the 42nd Infantry Division during the European theater of operations was nearly 5,000.

Added Schwartz, “George is a true American hero in my book I am amazed each day that I spend with him his stories of perseverance and heroism just like it was nothing. He may be getting frail in his old age but George’s heart takes up most of his body.”

Willis joined the Army right after graduating high school in 1943. The war was raging in Europe and the South Pacific. The St. Louis, Mo., native had never been outside the area before heading to basic training in Oklahoma. Willis was quickly promoted and soon had the responsibility for crafting artillery charts for all the battalions within the Rainbow Division, which included soldiers from every state in the U.S.

In November 1944, Willis boarded what was known as a “tube” ship, bound for Marseilles, France, with other Rainbow Division soldiers.

“I was seasick for all 14 days I was on the ship,” he said. “It was awful. I ruined a good pair of shoes that way.”

However, seasickness turned out to be minor in comparison to the difficulties Willis faced once arriving in France. His division encountered Nazi soldiers almost immediately. The weather barely hovered above freezing in December, and Willis slept on the ground. The division was in combat until the end of the war in May 1945.

“We were never called up for rest and relaxation,” he said.

By mid-December, the Rainbow Division had advanced into Alsace, closing in on the Strasbourg area. In March 1945, the 42nd drove into Germany and crossed the Rhine River by the end of the month. In April, the “Rainbow” division captured the cities of Wurzburg, Schweinfurt, and Furth. By war’s end, it had completed its drive into Bavaria and had entered Austria.

Willis is still in awe that he was not injured. As the soldier responsible for drawing up battle maps, he spent most of his time in the fire direction center.

“They were trying to take me out,” he said. “But we had a very good forward observer.”

The fire direction center computes firing data and fire direction for the guns. The process consists of determining the precise target location based on the observer’s location if needed, then computing range and direction to the target from the guns’ location.

On April 29, 1945, the 42nd Infantry Division entered the Dachau concentration camp, the earliest and longest-functioning death camps in Nazi Germany. Even 69 years later, Willis becomes visibly upset remembering it.

“You just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “There were people in mass graves, people starving to death, emaciated bodies outside, just stacked up. Identifying them was difficult.”

The American soldiers went into the nearby city of Dachau and told the residents what was occurring just a few miles away. Although they knew there was prison there, most didn’t realize it was a death camp.

“They couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Word spread fast after that.”

The soldiers stayed in Dachau for six months, treating the sick prisoners, implementing health and sanitary measures and bringing in food for them.

After Dachau and the war’s end, the Rainbow Division spent six months in Austria, where Willis had the opportunity to attend a university there and study engineering.

Although his time in Europe was fraught with danger, there were some good memories, too. Each soldier was given a carton of cigarettes regularly, whether or not they smoked.

Willis didn’t, but found a way to become an entrepreneur.

“The cigarettes cost us 50 cents per carton, so I sold them to the Russians for $7 a carton,” he said. “The Hershey bars we received, I sold for $5. I saved all the money and sent it home to mom and dad to keep for me.”

When Willis returned to St. Louis in 1946, he bought a brand new Pontiac with the money and went to work at Gaylord Boxes. When it was purchased by Crown Zellerbach, he was offered a job as a construction engineer in San Francisco. From there, George and his growing family, which included wife Jane and three children, moved all over the country so Willis could supervise various projects. Finally, they settled in Camas in the early 1970s. Willis continued to work for Crown-Zellerbach, now Georgia-Pacific.

After retirement in the mid 1980s, Willis and Jane traveled all over the country and Europe, staying in hotels.

“We went to Hawaii eight times,” he said. “We had a map of the country and there are red pins everywhere we traveled, in every state.”

Jane passed away in 2001.

After her passing, George became more involved in the VFW Chapter 4278 and began volunteering at the Washougal Community Center, serving meals to seniors. He and companion, Marge, recently “retired” from the job. Although they’ve curtailed some of their activities due to George’s health, they still attend the twice weekly VFW coffees, host the annual summer party and eat lunch at the Community Center.

“George is so silly and keeps me laughing,” Marge said. “He’s a real entertainer.”

For example, one Halloween at the Washougal Community Center, Willis dressed up with mini cereal boxes and put a plastic knife in them.

“I was a ‘cereal killer,'” he said with a chuckle.

At 89, Willis still has some things left on his bucket list.

“I’d like to be a disc jockey and jump out of an airplane,” he said with a smile.