For someone who is 64 years my senior, I was amazed as to how mobile and jubilant Willis is. He’s witty, sharp as a tack, with a sense of humor that transforms him from a stranger a moment ago to a friend the next.
I first caught wind of Willis when I came across a notice for an upcoming poetry reading he was to host. A longtime Canton resident (since 1936), he grew up during the Great Depression, fought in World War II, worked in the Champion paper mill (now Evergreen Packaging) for 41 years, and was married for 72 years to his late wife, Evelyn.
And since the 1950s, Willis has written poetry.
In his latest release, Reflections of a World War II Veteran: Poems About War and Life, he recounts his time on the battlefields of the European Theatre. Willis faced combat in the hedgerows of Normandy and was involved in skirmishes in Brittany, Luxembourg, the Hurtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge and the Rhine River. And it was during the Battle of the Bulge where he received the Purple Heart for injuries sustained (he also was awarded the Bronze Star).
To say Paul Willis has lived a bountiful life would be an understatement. In the winter of his years, he is, in many respects, the last man standing. Most, if not all, of his friends and immediate family members have long since passed, leaving Willis by himself, a man sitting and listening to the silence of old age after a lifetime of war, love and hard work.
Garret K. Woodward: What do you remember from your childhood?
Paul Willis: It was pretty hard. And I think that helped us soldiers out later in the war, being in the Great Depression. We came back after the war ended and went to work. You hear so much now about suicide and troubled soldiers after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And it wasn’t like that back then.
GKW: Your family is originally from Canton. How did they end up in Arkansas?
PW: My dad was from here originally, but we lived in Arkansas. I was 15 when we came to Canton. His brother went before he did, down to Arkansas. Then my dad did, and quite a few went down there from here. Looking for work. They were farming. They came back to Canton in 1918, two years before I was born, lived here a couple years, and then went back down there, until 1936.
GKW: And your family came back to Canton in 1936. You were a teenager. What was Canton like?
PW: I liked it. I’d never really seen a mountain before. The first time I saw a mountain was traveling through Tennessee to Haywood County. I’d never really seen a river either until a year earlier, which was the Red River in Arkansas. Some of us would go down into the Red River Valley and pick cotton. Load up a truck. Make a little bit of money.
GKW: What sticks out the most about the Great Depression?
PW: Well, I don’t know. All I can say is that it was very hard to get along. If you worked, say for a day, you got a dollar. And that was pretty good money. I worked a lot for 10 cents an hour. We farmed. Cotton. Melons. There’s a great melon center there in Hope, Arkansas. In fact, I think the largest melon ever grown was there. [Laughs]. Back here in Canton, my grandfather owned a big farm up in Willis Cove. It’s still called Willis Cove, though there’s not a Willis up there now. All moved out. So, the farm got sold and we headed down to farm in Arkansas. We lived right outside of Hope. Went to a small schoolhouse, a brick building with a high school.
GKW: How big was your family?
PW: There were six children. Two girls and four boys. I was third in line. The two older ones were born before 1920, of course. I have a younger brother, and he and I are the only two left today.
GKW: So, you first came to Canton in the mid-1930s?
PW: It was going pretty good at that time. The New Deal had come in and things were getting better. Of course, it didn’t help us too much, us farmers, you know? President Roosevelt had quite a few things for farmers, though. I remember one time we were paid to plow under the cotton. The farm up here we grew tobacco. We had a cow and horses. Raised hogs.
GKW: And then you graduated high school?
PW: Well, I worked odd jobs here and there. In fact, one summer I caddied at the Waynesville Country Club. I’d walk from Hominy to Waynesville. I’d never even seen a golf course before. I just walked up there from Canton to look for work. Sometimes you’d get a ride from someone driving by. But, I did walk the entire distance. It’s 15 miles, I guess. Waynesville looked pretty much like it does now. Though, I remember a livery stable right there in downtown, with horses in it. Then, when they decided to build the Dayco plant, up where Walmart is now in Waynesville, I was working there to help construct it.
GKW: It was the Depression. You went where the work was.
PW: Of course, you had to. And then I started working at the mill, at Champion Paper. I remember one day, there was a large fire up towards where Camp Hope is in Bethel. They brought a crew of us up there to put it out. There was talk that it was the Nazis and they’d set the woods on fire. [Laughs]. My first year at the mill, I worked in the finishing department. And I’d work in the construction crews, too.
GKW: Do you remember the war before the U.S. got involved?
PW: There were people talking about it. Most people figured we’d be in it sooner or later. Although, President Roosevelt would say, again and again that, “your boys will never fight.” Again and again. [Laughs]. Of course, we could have probably stayed out of Europe if we hadn’t started sending aid to Great Britain. The Germans warned us. They said they’d sink the American ships if they kept sending aid to England. But, we didn’t stop, so the German U-Boats kept sinking our ships.
GKW: Where were you on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor?
PW: I was at the farm in Canton. I wasn’t doing anything that day. My brother was home. My dad had just died and my brother was home on furlough from Fort Riley in Kansas where he was a member of the Army Cavalry. The horse cavalry. He told me that the United States had been attacked and he’d have to go back early to Kansas. I figured sooner or later I’d be drafted.
GKW: So, the U.S. gets pulled into World War II. You get drafted in 1943. Do you remember the day you got drafted?
PW: Oh yeah. And I still have the induction slip. It was very fancy and made it sound like it was a privilege to get drafted or something like that. [Laughs]. So, they put us on a bus right in downtown Canton, in the old annex next to the Colonial Theatre. It was a called The Soda Shop back then. I went there and loaded on the bus and headed to camp in South Carolina, on to Fort Jackson in Columbia and then to Camp Van Dorn in Centreville, Mississippi. Around Christmas 1943, they loaded us up on a troop train for Camp Breckenridge in Kentucky. Did our training. By March of 1944, we went to New York City. It was Camp Shanks. We got to see the city. Rode the subways. Went all over New York. Stayed there a couple weeks. Man, was it snowing, must’ve been thigh-high, and cold, too.
GKW: And now we’re at March 1944.
PW: Yes. And we were on an old British ship heading for England. I think it was the one the Pilgrims used to come over to America. [Laughs]. It took us 12 days to cross the Atlantic.
GKW: Were you worried about being sunk by the German U-Boats?
PW: Oh yeah. We were part of a great convoy of ships, all marching across the sea. And you could hear depth charges all around you late at night, which were used to check for U-Boats. But, we all got to England safely. If a lone ship went it didn’t stand much of a chance, but we were surrounded by other ships and made it. We landed in Liverpool. Then, they put us on a train and we went to Wrexham, Wales. And we trained in the mountains there. Beautiful country. It got cold up in there. We were in there until June, when the invasion took place.
GKW: June 6, 1944. D-Day. France. Storm the beaches of Normandy and push back the Nazis.
PW: Yep. We were part of the invasion. The first wave stormed the beaches and then we followed soon after. We fought more in the hedgerows than anywhere. We knew sooner of later we were going to cross over the English Channel. The British Royal Air Force at that time had pretty much defeated the German Luftwaffe, so it was pretty well quiet when we were in England. I remember that there were barrage balloons hanging high in the sky above these English towns. Steel cables, hundreds of feet high, floating above us. Can you imagine? Hundreds of balloons to keep the planes from flying down low.
GKW: At that point, did you think the Germans would invade Britain?
PW: Well, why the Germans didn’t, I don’t know. And Adolf Hitler would have, but he did the craziest thing and attacked Russia. Why didn’t he just take England? Then we wouldn’t have had a place to land. We couldn’t have invaded France without England.
GKW: And then you crossed the English Channel.
PW: It was a great convoy. When we got close enough to France, we went over the side of the ships on nets, where we climbed down and got into the duck boats and went ashore. The beaches were already secured. They held us a back a little while. Then when we relieved the 101st we went in. And it was hell in those hedgerows. We just lost so many men. Day and night. Snipers everywhere. For me, it was really the worst part of the war, worse than the Battle of the Bulge, well, except for the cold. So much combat in the hedgerows, so close. Just bodies lying everywhere, many screaming for medics. Shells coming in from every direction. One day, we were advancing from one hedgerow to another, and you’d run and hit the ground, and when you fell you put your rifle down beside you. And this one time, I did that when I dropped to the ground and a mortar hit right beside me and the shrapnel hit the rifle. The force of the explosion lifted me right off the ground, but the shrapnel hit the rifle, deflecting it from hitting me. Day in and day out. All those shells, 88 millimeter.
GKW: Did you see any Germans face-to-face?
PW: We did. This one day we were out locating a sniper. There was about four or five of us. And we were losing so many men that we’d get replacements all the time. And this lieutenant had just come into our unit. Lt. Stewart. I only knew him one day. And we dug a foxhole that night. Well, the next morning, Stewart was with us, four or five of us, and we came to this opening in this hedgerow, about shoulder-high with growth on them. We came to opening and suddenly this German soldier popped out in front of us and shot one blast. It hit Lt. Stewart right in the chest. The German soldier knew who the leader was, and they targeted the leaders. Lt. Stewart was holding his rifle in his hands. And we were caught off guard. He shot and killed the lieutenant, and was gone before any of us knew what had happened. It was like that all the time. And, you know, you can go without sleep for a long time in situations like that. You learn how to control sleep, in a way, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. Shells landed all over.
GKW: It must’ve felt like a long, long way from Canton.
PW: Yes, it was. I thought some, but you didn’t have much time because you were just trying to survive. I hoped that I’d see home again. I never did lose hope. We lost so many out of my platoon. Company G. About 200 men, with around 40 in my platoon. There were six or seven of us left at the end of two weeks from the original group.
GKW: So, it must’ve been hard to make friends?
PW: Well, you didn’t even have time to learn their names usually. We did what we could. I was in the 329th regiment. There were three regiments — 329, 330 and 331. And each regiment had three battalions — 1st, 2nd and 3rd. And I was in the 2nd battalion.
GKW: Where did you go after the hedgerows?
PW: July 1944. OK, well, after the breakout, they sent a great bombing raid ahead of us. That bombing raid helped a lot. We could see planes continually overhead. I remember seeing the old British Lancaster planes. And every once in awhile you’d see one get hit by the Germans and explode. The air was just electric. The air was quivering. A lot of the bombings fell short so we had to pull back a little bit, though some Americans soldiers did get killed accidentally because they’d lie banners down for the planes to hit and the wind would blow them back towards the American soldiers. After the breakout, the Germans pulled back mostly to their German border.
GKW: And you soon left Normandy?
PW: Then, we headed for Brittany, which is another province, and Saint Malo was there on a peninsula that sticks out into the English Channel. Now, there was this fort there that I suppose the French built. Steel reinforced. And there was a German colonel who was holed up in there with a couple hundred men and he wasn’t going to surrender. Well, our colonel decided he was, so he ordered the 2nd battalion of the 329th regiment to go in and take the fort. It stuck out high above the channel. French built it there against the British, I guess. But the planes and their bombs had no effect on it. There was an open field across from that fort, about the size of a football field, and the colonel lined us up. Then they called in artillery and they started that barrage of firing right over our heads, landing on that fort to keep the Germans down, and nobody from that fort could get up because the firing wouldn’t let up. They started us walking, and I expected every step that I’d step on a land mine. That’s the one time I just knew this was it. But, you know, we all crossed that field and no one stepped on a mine, I guess the Germans figured nobody was crazy enough to walk across that field and approach from that way. We got up pretty close to the fort and they had to lift the barrage or it would fall on us. You could see the shells as they flew over our heads. When they let up, we darted in. We had a flamethrower, the only time I ever saw one used in action. We went in and took 197 German soldiers as prisoners of war.
GKW: And onward into the French interior.
PW: After we took that fort, we began moving across France. We loaded some trucks and ran across France to Luxembourg, along the Siegfried Line that the Germans built. We were there, patrolling a lot, over into Germany, right over the German border. We were there for about three months in Luxembourg City. We tried to take out a German patrol on Thanksgiving night. I remember Lt. Koch, from California. He got wounded and had to carry him back. We’d do that, have little battles with the German patrols. One night, about 400 yards away, I remember seeing a German officer standing and talking to a group of his men sitting on the ground. We began firing on them. Man, they scattered like fleas on a dog. [Laughs]. I just figured out later than he was telling them what was going to happen pretty soon, which would have been the Battle of the Bulge.
GKW: And leading up to the Battle of the Bulge, the coldest winter, in what, a hundred years decided to show up?
PW: Yep. We left Luxembourg and were relieved by an outfit from the United States and we went to the Hurtgen Forest and battled there. This was the first of December. We took the towns, one of which was Duren. The Germans came in on us with their tanks. Those Panzer tanks were incredible. And we were in different buildings in the town. My platoon took over a great big house and we were upstairs in that thing and this German tank came up the street. He hadn’t located us yet. And then one of our tanks came down the same street and opened fire on the German tank, which didn’t have any effect on it. The German tank fired that 88 shell at our tank and it caught on fire. Those German tanks were the best, with all that armor. Well, all we had at that point was a bazooka. We had an 18-year-old kid, Marion Powell, who was the bazooka man.
GKW: 18 years old with a bazooka?
PW: Yeah. And we were up above that German tank. It finally located us. It started to swing towards us. We loaded up the bazooka for that kid and he held it out the window and shot it right into the turret of the tank. It was an accident, a one-in-a-million shot. And that tank caught on fire. You never heard such a noise, the cracking and the popping from all the oil and gas being on fire. But that bazooka kid saved us because that tank would’ve knocked the top off that building in another minute or two. From there, we dropped grenades out the window to fight the Germans back. We eventually got relived from that town and jumped on some trucks for the next town. Blackout all night to be safe and not be spotted. All of us heading for the Ardennes. That’s where the Battle of the Bulge began.
GKW: And that’s where the trees would explode above the soldiers from the artillery shells smashing into them.
PW: Yeah, but more so in the Hurtgen Forest. Tree bursts as we called them. Shells would hit the trees and explode, shrapnel and branches falling all over, hitting and injuring men, killing some of them. It was December and it was snowing very badly. We were moving into the Ardennes Forest. December into January. Snow. Cold.
GKW: And you were injured at the Battle of the Bulge, which led to you receiving the Purple Heart.
PW: Yes. A shell hit a tree above me. It exploded. I got hit by a few pieces of shrapnel in the chest. I walked back to the medic. The shrapnel didn’t go that deep, so they were able to remove it, then I walked back to the front lines. That snow was deep for a month, and we’d be losing people with frozen toes, more so really than combat, although we did lose a lot in the battle.
GKW: Then you pushed further into Germany.
PW: The Black Forest. We took a little village called Petite Langelier around the latter part of January. We were pushing through, but there were still scattered pockets of organized resistance by the Germans. I remember standing at an outpost one night. I held a blanket around me trying to keep warm. It was a squad of us, standing on this hillside keeping warm together. During the night we heard a German patrol coming. Of course it’s dark and you couldn’t see anything. They were talking and walking right in front of us, so we had a little battle with them. They left one of their men wounded. We could hear him screaming through the night. Once daylight hit, I went over to him. A bullet had hit his leg, in the left shin. He was a young kid, and out of his mind from being shot. I felt sorry for him. I wish we hadn’t fired on them, really.
GKW: What happened to him?
PW: I was there with him. I left him my blanket. He was in misery, all frozen there. And our company was coming in, so we had to leave. We had to leave him there. I don’t know what happened to him. I guess he died. I wish the captain had sent a couple men to bring him back to a medic. I would have. That next night, we began leading this group to a village where there might have been a holdout. We came to the village and went in. We thought there might be some Germans. We found this building for shelter. It’d been the first building we’d been able to stay in, in over a month. We had a stove and a fire. It’d been awhile since we’d been able to keep warm. We tried to sleep. I sat there, about 20 of us in that room, I don’t know why, but then I just stood up and took two steps, and just as I did that an artillery shell came through the ceiling and hit exactly where I was just sitting.
GKW: You were like a cat with nine lives in the war.
PW: [Laughs]. I must’ve been. I had a lot of things happen like that. But, that artillery shell was a dud. And I just stood there, looking back at that dud shell, and nobody else said anything, and we kept trying to keep warm around the stove like nothing had happened. It’s strange, you know? I suppose ordinary people might have gone crazy with something like that happening, but there was no reaction at all by us.
GKW: Just another day in the office.
PW: Yeah, it’s strange how you get out there. Well, daylight came, and it wasn’t long after that and they pulled us out. Then, we went to the Netherlands and Holland. February 1945. We lost a lot of men. I was one of the men who didn’t get lost, and I don’t know why. I withstood that whole thing. Very few of us did. They took us into the Netherlands and we got replacements again. And that’s when Eddie Hart joined us. [Editor’s Note: Willis wrote a poem about Hart, which was used in a recent documentary about the late North Carolina soldier, “Thank You, Eddie Hart.”] In March, we began to march towards the Rhine River. We didn’t cross it first, but we were the first American troops to get there. We held up there. The Germans had blown up all the bridges. But, you’d be surprised how fast a group of Army engineers could build a bridge. They’d build one overnight, strong enough to hold a tank up. Finally we crossed the Rhine River and made a dash across Germany. We moved so fast, they called us the “Ragtag Circus.” Now, we were heading towards Berlin. We would come to a town and maybe we’d get a little opposition and then we’d keep moving. In the Battle of the Bulge we were in Gen. Patton’s Third Army, but we were moving so fast we caught up to his First Army. And he said, “No damn infantry outfit is going to outrun me.” But, we did. We got to the Elbe River and raced ahead of the tanks because we had trucks, cars and motorcycles. We moved fast. Stopped at the Elbe River. Then, the Battle of Barby, and that’s where Eddie Hart was killed. I remember him. He was about 22 years old. He hadn’t been drafted until later, 1944 I think, because he was family, his dad had died and he stayed home. April 12, 1945 he died, President Roosevelt died that same day, and the war was over a few weeks after.
GKW: Victory in Europe Day. V-E Day. May 8, 1945.
PW: I just sat down. I was tired. It was strange, you know? We didn’t shout or anything. We were just relived. We couldn’t believe it. War ended. Russians moved into Berlin. And I remember crossing paths with them. Russians took Berlin. Hitler killed himself. After the war, they set up checkpoints all over just in case there was an uprising. I would go in a jeep and check all the posts. June 1945.
GKW: Were you part of any of the groups that liberated the concentration camps?
PW: Yeah, we liberated a small one. I don’t remember the name. There were a lot of small ones. I wasn’t aware of what was going on in those camps during the war. I didn’t know Hitler and the Germans were persecuting the Jews. We liberated that camp. The people were just pitiful. They were starving, especially the large and tall ones. I didn’t get home until December 1945. We got on a train in New Jersey to Fort Bragg, then took a bus to Canton. I stayed about two weeks out then went back to work in the Champion mill around Christmas. I worked in that mill 41 years.
GKW: And you came back home to your wife.
PW: Married just three months before I went overseas in 1943.
GKW: Married 72 years. And she just passed away, right?
PW: Yeah, a year ago next month. The last day of March. She was 94. That’s the last picture of us together on the wall there. [Points to photo on nearby wall]. Look how blonde her hair stayed. She was a Canton girl. She worked in the mill. That’s where I met her.
GKW: You started writing poetry in the mid-1950s, correct?
PW: I guess it was around then. Sometimes there would be someone at the mill who would retire. And they’d ask me to try and write something humorous for their retirement. I just dreamed up the words. I kept doing it and then I got to liking it.
GKW: Did writing help you deal with things? With the war perhaps?
PW: Yeah, I think so. The war didn’t bother me as bad as you might think. Sometimes you hear about people and having a spell. Especially now. I think at the beginning of the war, the discipline of the Great Depression toughened us. We could stand it better. I don’t know. You hear so many today committing suicide. You never really heard about that back then.
GKW: What’s it like to write about the war?
PW: It brings back a lot of memories. Some of the poems are a little sad for me. One is about my grandson. He was in the Army. He was a lieutenant colonel when he died three years ago in Germany, in a train accident. And before he died, he asked me to write a poem about his friend who was killed in Iraq. I was out mowing the yard one day and the words just came to me. I like to do that, you know? It gives me a reason for not being bored. It preserves a lot of memories for me, too.
GKW: What about when folks say you’re part of the “Greatest Generation”?
PW: I’d hate to say another generation wasn’t “great,” but I sometimes think we withstood things better. Sometimes I think it must be a miracle I’m still here. There are a lot of men who were better than I was and they got killed.
GKW: What do you think about being 95?
PW: It snuck up on me. [Laughs]. To be able to think is great. I see so many just hobbling along, not saying much, and they ain’t even as old as I am. I’ve had a pretty good life. My wife and I both lived a long time together. So, it was pretty good in that way. She was in a nursing home the last year, but other than that we were together over 70 years. Try to take things as they are and always have something to do. Just writing helps me.
GKW: How do you see the world these days?
PW: I have hope. These terrorists today are just something I don’t get. You can’t beat them when they just go and kill themselves. They claim acts of terror, where you didn’t ever used to claim things like that. They want to. I think the mass of people in the world, in a way, are better today. Back in the Depression, nobody had anything, and maybe weren’t able to help others. But, nowadays, people try and do help each other, a lot.
GKW: I always think the good of humanity will prevail.
PW: I think so, too. I think the good will win. In fact, I think there’s more good than evil in the world today. Especially in civilized countries. So many people now are against Islam, but actually it’s a religion that isn’t like the way the terrorists portray it. I’ve read a lot about Islam. I’ve read the Koran. They are a very peaceful religion. For hundreds of years, Christians and Muslims got along. America is better today, in a lot of ways. Just like the Muslims have these extremists, we as Americans have these schools shootings and violence. But, it doesn’t define us as a people. The violence is a minority.
GKW: You’re 95. What’s next?
PW: Not much, for me. [Laughs]. I write so maybe after I’m gone someone will pick it up and see what things were like back then. I’ve lost my wife, our two sons have passed in the last few years, and my grandson, too. I try to keep busy. I teach a Sunday school class. This helps having you here, to express and tell things. I’d rather be your age, 31. [Laughs]. I’d like to see all those people again sometime. I wasn’t necessarily the youngest, and I’m still here. Why me? Why am I still here and others aren’t? It’s the great question of life.
Editor’s Note: Since their initial meeting, Garret K. Woodward and Paul Willis have become friends. There are already plans in the works for breakfast and hearty conversation over coffee at the local Waffle House.
Want to go?
World War II veteran Paul Willis will present his latest book of poetry, Reflections of a World War II Veteran: Poems About War and Life, at 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.
All are welcome to attend this reading and recollection by the 95-year-old Canton resident. To learn more about the event, or to reserve a copy of Willis’ book, call 828.456.6000 or visit www.blueridgebooksnc.com.