John Harlan Willis returned eight live grenades toward Japanese enemy fire — all while aiding a wounded Marine lying in a shell hole during a battle for Hill 362A on Feb. 28, 1945.
Wounded himself, Willis had been ordered by his commanding officers to return to the battle-aid station for medical attention, but, spotting the wounded soldier, he instead ran to his aid. Willis continued to administer blood plasma to his patient under heavy mortar and sniper fire, throwing back the grenades as they came into the shell hole.
The ninth grenade would explode in his hand, killing him instantly.
Willis had enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an apprentice seaman following his high school graduation in November 1940, before the U.S. entered World War II. He rose through the ranks and became a pharmacist’s mate first class in July 1943. He and his battalion were deployed to Japan in December 1944.
He was killed in action at age 23.
In his honor, Willis’ widow was named the sponsor of the destroyer escort USS John Willis (DE-1027). Also bearing his name was a former Naval Hospital in Millington, Tennessee, named Willis Hall, which is now part of the University of Memphis’ Millington Center.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, Willis was posthumously honored with a Purple Heart Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal for his actions at Iwo Jima.
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