for our father, Thomas Francis Wills, on Memorial Day 2019

a personal narrative

An excerpt from an interview by Diane Frances Wills of our father Thomas Francis Wills for a seventh-grade assignment about 1971.  I did some editing to correct the date based on historical records and my father’s military records (Michael Stephen Wills).

Thomas enlisted for the navy one day after his 24th birthday, September 25, 1939 and served 6 years and a few weeks until October 7, 1945 having experienced the Battle of the Atlantic (American Defense Medal) and liberation of the Philippines (WWII Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Theater, Philippine Liberation Ribbon).  Here is his description of an incident from that time:

Click either photo for a larger view
Thomas Francis Wills, Ocean View Beach, Virginia, 1940

1 Year, 6 months after my enlistment in New York City, March 1941, on the USS Upshur two days out of Boston on its run to Reykjavik, Iceland delivering mail and supplies to the marines stationed to prevent the Germans from establishing a base.  Steaming north we got word there was a gale blowing in our path.  We all became apprehensive.  I asked Bill Rogers, the radioman, about the approaching storm.  “Say, Bill, I see by the weather report we’re heading info some rough weather.  How long do you think it will last?”

“Yeah, according to the latest weather report it is a regular Northeaster and we can expect a couple days of rough winds and high waves, also very cold weather.  We’ll have to secure everything topside so it won’t blow or be washed overboard.  We can also expect very little in the way of normal meals except for maybe coffee and sandwiches.”  On such a small ship the cooks can’t prepare meals in such weather.

USS Upshur, 1940, the ten-man crew, including Thomas Wills, is on the bow

As we approached the storm zone the sea got rough and the wind started blowing.  Soon we were well into a horrible storm.  The sky got dark and gloomy, full of dark bold clouds.  The ocean rough, choppy and black.  The rain started coming down sharp and harsh, cold and icy.  The rain cut through your body like piercing arrows, it chilled your bones.

Sometimes I thought the ship was going to sink, the waves and the wind were so strong.  The bow would go bluntly into the water.  The ship listed sideways, seeming to almost rolling over.  The waves carried our ship up, then go out from underneath sending us crashing down.  This happened over and over, endlessly.  

 I was on duty in the radio shack and had to walk the whole length of the ship from my sleeping quarters.  Many times, I almost went overboard, the wind was so strong.  I could lay on my stomach but it did not help because I could still slide through the railings.  I would freeze to death in five minutes in that water.  I hope I never had to go through that again, seems like yesterday.  All we had to wear was a sailor suit, not too warm.  I’d just get all soaked. 

My shipmates and I, a five-foot eight-inch boy of 25 with dark brown hair, had to be calm and keep doing our normal scheduled duties, because we learned you can’t get panicky or else you will put your whole ship out of order.

 The storm went on until the end of night.  I thought the storm would never end.  It felt as if it lasted a week.  At that time no other ships sailed with us, so there was no possibility of help.  Nobody fell over the side or was drowned.

After that, a German U-Boat launched a torpedo at us and missed.  We searched, tried to sink them without success. 

Copyright 2019 All Rights Reserved Michael Stephen Wills

26 thoughts on “for our father, Thomas Francis Wills, on Memorial Day 2019

  1. Thank you Michael for sharing a story of our heroic military personnel, who frequently find themselves in harm’s way.
    I think back to an uncle who served with the Marines in the Pacific during WWII. My grandmother told the story of how she woke up in the middle of the night and knew that something had happened to her son. Fortunately, he survived his wounds and has lived a long life.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Be happy that you never experienced a real heavy war in your country in the last 120 years or longer. Where I live you can still discover traces (somehow wounds) of the 30-Years-War (1618-1648), and there is nothing glorious about such.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The US Memorial Day does NOT glorify war, it honors Americans who made personal sacrifices to safeguard our freedom. You should pay a visit to New York City, the former site of the World Trade Center and stop feeling sorry for yourself.


  2. The personal account is powerful … thank you for sharing this … my dad was in the navy, but never shared anything of this sort (perhaps he was spared, perhaps he was sparing us?) Unsettling to me is that the crew had no suitable clothing for being in such a storm. Brrrrr

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  3. My uncle, Donald W. Wilson, served aboard the USS Yorktown (CV-5) which was part of the 1941 Neutrality Patrol in the Atlantic. (He nearly lost his life at the Battle of Midway–story on my website.) My blog post on October 16 will feature the book Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1945. Donald’s older brother, Delbert G. Wilson, was on the oiler Maumee in 1942, which got caught in a typhoon on the way back from North Africa. A harrowing experience. Thank you for sharing your father’s service with us.

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