Robert "Bobby" Kenneth Willis, Jr. was born February 2,
1923. He was graduated, in 1939, from Natchitoches High School in
His half-sister (Ilie Jewel Willis Close) told me that their
father encouraged Bobby to join the military and "make something of
himself." Bobby's mother had died when he was barely
11-years-old. His family's patriotic background was too influence him,
Bobby's ancestors had fought in most of the major wars in America
and served their country well. His father's brother and Bobby's uncle,
Daniel Oscar Willis, M.D., served in United States Army Medical Corps in World
War I and was commissioned as a Captain on August, 1917. He began his medical
practice in 1904 and was the first medical doctor in Vernon Parish,
Louisiana. His commanding general, Brigadier General Charlie B. Lindsey,
wrote to General John. J. Pershing of him with these words: "He has been one of
the most efficient medical officers I have ever served with during my many years
of service in the army."
Bobby's cousin, Dr. Greene Strother, captured
more Germans in World War I than any other soldier, besides the famed Sgt. York.
Greene Strother was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, the Distinguished
Service Cross and the Purple Heart. He also served as chaplain to General Claire
Chennaultís "Flying Tigers," while in China as a missionary.
Bobby's grandfather, Daniel Hubbard Willis, Jr., enlisted,
September 29, 1861, at Camp Moore, Louisiana, in the Confederate Army as a Pvt.
5th and served in the famed Washington Artillery of Louisiana. Daniel H. Willis,
Jr.'s obituary, in the Alexandria Town Talk, dated June 23, 1900,
stated: "He participated in all the hard battles of that army and for bravery,
soldierly bearing, discipline and devotion to duty, he was unexcelled in his
Bobby's great-great-great grandfather, the Rev. Joseph Willis,
was a Patriot during the Revolutionary War. Joseph joined the
legendary General Francis (the "Swamp Fox") Marion's small army.
Marion's men operated out of the swampy forest of the Pedee region in the lower
part of South Carolina. Their strategy was to surprise the enemy, cut their
supply lines, kill their men and release any American prisoners they might have.
He and his men then retreated swiftly back again to the thick recesses of the
deep swamps. They were feared, very effective and their fame was
widespread. Rev. Joseph Willisí tombstone reads: "First Baptist
Preacher of the Word West of the Mississippi River."
With this heritage, and only 17-years-old, Bobby
enlisted in the Navy (as Seaman First Class (S1/C), on July 31, 1940 at New
Orleans. He reported aboard the USS Arizona, October 8, 1940, from NTS San
Diego as Apprentice Seaman (AS). On November 30, 1940, he was promoted to S2/C
and on May 1, 1941, he was promoted to S1/C. Between November 22-28, 1940,
he was at the US Naval Hospital, Bremerton, WA.
He served for 14-months on the USS Arizona before it was
destroyed by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. He was the first
casualty from Rapides Parish, Louisiana in World War II. The American
Legion Post in Pineville, Louisiana (his last hometown) was named the Robert K.
Willis Jr. Post in honor of his service and duty to his country. (This American
Legion Post no longer exists) He is entombed in the USS Arizona at the bottom of
Two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bobby's father
(Robert Kenneth Willis, Sr.) received a message from the Rapides Parish Sheriff
that he was trying too reach him. He rushed to the Sheriff's Department.
Bobby's half-sister (Ilie Jewel Willis Close) told me that when their father
returned, she knew the moment he walked in the front door that it had been
confirmed that Bobby had been killed from the expression on their father's
face. My father was Bobby's first cousin. He and many other of Bobby's
cousins rushed too enlist and one of America's finest hours
Bobby's father, Robert Kenneth Willis, Sr., first married Eula
Rosalie Hilburn in 1903, and had the following children: Flossie Litton Willis
(b. August 5, 1905; d. September, 1985) and Ilie Jewel Willis (b. March 8,
1907; d. May, 1995). Eula was born March 10, 1884 and died February 6, 1919, at
only age 34, of the flu.
Bobby's father then married his mother, Julia
Mae Johnson on June 13, 1922. Bobby's mother was born September 4, 1899
and died February 17, 1934, at age 34. As mentioned before, Bobby was
barely 11-years-old at time of his mother's death.
Robert Kenneth Willis,
Sr. and Julia Mae Johnson Willis had the following children:
Robert "Bobby" Kenneth Willis Jr. (b. February 2, 1923; d. December 7,
1941), Glenn Dewey Willis (b. May 8, 1924), and Billy Edward Willis (b.
June 2, 1925; d. August 6, 1991).
The doctors said Bobby's father
died of a heart attack in 1951; the family said it was of a broken
Ilie Jewel Willis Close wrote to me about Bobby
and her childhood. Much of their youth was spent at their
grandmother's home, The Old Willis Place:
"The home was a gathering place for all the family. There
was always food cooked for family and friends. There was lots of blackberries,
huckleberries and fruit of all kinds for good pies. The home was about a quarter
of a mile from Barber's Creek, [Babb's Bridge, Louisiana, near present-day
Long Leaf] known to be one of the coldest and clearest waters in the area.
Grandma [Julia Ann Graham Willis] would walk down and swim sometimes twice
a day. She said that was what had prolonged her life. All of the children and
grandchildren loved to go swimming with her.
She was reared a Methodist but later joined the Baptist
Church and was a devoted Christian. She read the Bible daily. We use
to joke and say 'she didn't think there would be anyone but Baptist in
Heaven.' Her hobby was making quilts and she kept the family supplied with
her hand work.
She was bitten by a ground rattler at the age of 75 and
survived with home remedies. Her son, Dr. Daniel Oscar Willis, said at the
time she would live to 90 and she lived to be 92. She was a very wonderful
and a remarkable woman, a real pioneer."
Another grandchild of Julia Ann Willis and first cousin to
Bobby was my uncle Howard Willis; he told me she would sit on the front
porch of The Old Willis Place and eat an orange and latter eat the orange peal.
He ask her why she ate the peal and she said "I don't know, I think it's good
for you." He said "she would read her red-lettered Bible on the front
porch and then sometimes pull out her late husband Daniel Willis' Civil War
picture and get a tear in her eye.' He died 36 years before her, she never
My father and Bobby's first cousin, Julian Willis, said
Bobby was the nicest person he ever knew. When news came of the surprise attack
on Pearl Harbor and then the confirmation of Bobby's death, my father said
that he and other family members were deeply grieved but all had a resolve that
Bobby's death would not be in vain.
Our families motto, as corny as it may seem, was "God,
country and family." Bobby had descending from a long list of ministers. The
account above testifies to his and his families patriotism. Family and God were
at the center of every activity. My uncle once told me that they grew up much
like the Walton's on TV.
I pray we never forget the cost of our precious freedom.
1) Robert "Bobby" Kenneth
2) Robert "Bobby" Kenneth Willis, Jr's named
inscribed at the USS Arizona Memorial.
3) Bobby's father, Robert
Kenneth Willis, Sr., and his father's first wife Eulah "Eula" Rosalie Hilburn.
4) The Old Willis Place where Bobby spent much of his
youth. Pictured are Bobby's father: Robert "Ken" Kenneth Willis, Sr. (he
has the reins in his hands), his first wife Eulah Hilburn Willis is in the
backseat. Bobby's grandmother Julia Ann Graham Willis is holding a fish
and standing. Bobby's half-sister, Flossie Litton Willis (b. August 5,
1905) is held by an unknown lady. Flossie told me that this photo was taken on
her first birthday in 1906.
5) Bobby's uncle, Daniel Oscar Willis, M.D.,
served in United States Army Medical Corps in World War I.
6) Bobby's grandfather Daniel Hubbard Willis,
Jr. fought in the Civil War for the