Pharmacist's Mate First Class John H. Willis, posthumous Medal of Honor
Pharmacist’s Mate First Class John H. Willis, posthumous Medal of Honor

BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D.   John Harlan Willis was born on 10 June 1921 in Columbia, Tennessee. Following graduation from high school, in November 1940 he enlisted  as an Apprentice Seaman in the U.S. Navy. After completing his recruit training at Naval Training Station, Norfolk, Virginia and his advanced corpsman training, at the Norfolk Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Virginia, Willis was promoted to Seaman, Second Class in March 1941. For a short time he was assigned to the Naval Hospital, Parris Island South Carolina. In August 1941 Willis was transferred to the Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Florida.

Willis served with Naval Operating Base Units in Jacksonville, organizing and training units for overseas service. In July 1943 he was promoted to Pharmacist’s Mate First Class. That  November he was assigned to the Training Detachment, Field Medical School Battalion, Fleet Marine Force Training Center at Camp Elliot, San Diego, California.  He was transferred in early 1944 to Headquarters Company, Third Battalion, Twenty-seventh Marines, Fifth Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California.

With his unit, he participated as a Platoon Corpsman in the battle of Iwo Jima. On 28 February 1945, Willis found himself assigned as a Platoon Corpsman in the battle of Iwo Jima.  While aiding fallen Marines during a fierce action near Japanese-held Hill 362, he was wounded and ordered back to the battle-aid station. Disregarding his injuries, Willis returned to the battle area to resume casualty assistance. He was helping a wounded Marine when the enemy attacked with hand grenades. After throwing eight grenades back at the enemy, he was killed when one exploded in his hand. For his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life”, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

For those men and women in the Navy Hospital Corps John H. Willis  is a fellow “doc” whose face can be seen on Medal of Honor walls at all Navy hospitals and clinics. He is the World War II hospital corpsman who saved the lives of wounded Marines before losing his own on the ash-sand Tartarus that was Iwo Jima. Certainly, a life can never be replaced. And in the military a lost life can only be honored.
Official Navy photographs of the ceremony on December 3rd 1945 show Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal presenting the Medal to John Willis’s young wife (Winfrey) and her 7-month old son (John Jr.). They are flanked by a visibly grieving woman (Winfrey’s aunt Mrs. H.A. Morel) and an elderly man (Willis’s grandfather Austin Harlan). It is a heartfelt scene that reveals the incredible weight that the Medal of Honor carries. As a symbol, the Medal of Honor represents heroism and valor, but, also, in this particular case, the death and lost potential of a 23-year-old man. It is meaning and memory in the form of brass alloy and a blue ribbon of cotton. One does not wear or hold the Medal as much as they carry the profound burden it can symbolize.

Mrs. Winfrey Willis, wife, with Willis’ son John Jr. receiving posthumous Medal of Honor from Sect. of Navy James Forrestal.

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR posthumously to 



for service as set forth in the following


“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Platoon Corpsman serving with the Third Battalion, Twenty-seventh Marines, FIFTH 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 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. His exceptional fortitude and courage in the performance of duty reflect the highest credit upon WILLIS and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.” 



Pharmacist’s Mate First Class John H. Willis is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery, Columbia, Tennessee.

Over the years I have written hundreds of articles about heroes, many who have received this country’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.  Doing the research for these articles I am always looking for some kind of common thread between them.  So far I have not been very successful.  Our heroes are a mixed bag.  Every color, creed and age.  They have come from every state and territory of this country. 


If there is a commonality between our heroes that I have been able to identify it would be loyalty.  Not just loyalty to a person or organization but loyalty to an ideal, loyalty to doing the right thing, regardless of the cost. 


Some of my associates have accused me of being naïve to believe in honor and friendship and loyalty without price. But these are virtues to be cherished, for without them we are no more than beasts roaming the land. 


Loyalty cannot be blueprinted. It cannot be produced on an assembly line. In fact, it cannot be manufactured at all, for its origin is the human heart — the center of self-respect and human dignity. It is a force which leaps into being only when conditions are exactly right for it — and it is a force very sensitive to betrayal.  At times there can be a cost, recently someone that I would have taken a bullet for was the one pulling the trigger.  It hurt but I will get over it and still have my strong sense of loyalty and my character remains intact.

On a personal note, this is my last article written whilst an employee of the Federal Government.  Retirement has come and I am looking forward to writing many of these articles from my boat as I cruise the Hawaiian waters.  They will also be broadcast weekly on the Gerard Media Network.  Hopefully being free of any government censorship I will not only be able to tug at your heartstrings but to also share some truths with you that might challenge your current beliefs about how our Government works.

The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.