Walter Michael Willis—born on 14 January 1917 at Minneapolis, Minn.-—enlisted in the Naval Reserve as a seaman 2d class at Minneapolis. Willis received an appointment as reserve aviation cadet on 22 December1939. Six days later, he reported to Pensacola Naval Air Station for flight instruction and, on 14 August1940, emerged with his aviator's wings.
Commissioned an ensign on 10 September, Willis soonjoined Bombing Squadron (VB) 6, based in Enterprise (CV-6), and flew Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers until early in December 1941. On the morning of 7 December, as Enterprise was returning from Wake Island to Hawaii, the carrier sent up a flight of SBD's to scout the water ahead. Willis took off in one of these bombers for what was intended to be a routine flight to Ford Island, the naval air station at Pearl Harbor. However, instead of enjoying an ordinary scouting mission, these planes ran head-on into a war, for they arrived almost simultaneously with the start of the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor. In the ensuing aerial melee, Willis and his gunner were among the Americans shot down.
(DE-395: dp. 1,200; l. 306', b. 36'7"; dr. 8'7" (mean); s. 21 k.; cpl. 186; a. 3 3", 2 40mm., 8 20mm., 2 dct., 8 dcp., 1 dcp. (hh.), 3 21" tt.; cl. Edsall)
Willis (DE-395) was laid down on 17 July 1943 at Houston, Tex., by the Brown Shipbuilding Co.; launched on 14 September 1943; sponsored by Mrs. Marie E. Willis, the mother of the late Ens. Willis; and commissioned on 10 December 1943, Lt. Comdr. G. R. Atterbury, USNR, in command.
After fitting-out at Houston and loading ammunition at the San Jacinto Ordnance Depot, Willis departed Galveston, Tex., on 5 January 1944—in company with Kretchmer (DE-329)—bound for the British West Indies and reached Bermuda on the 10th.
Following shakedown, Willis departed Bermuda on 3 February—in company with Kretchmer and Thoma-son (DE-203)—and arrived at Charleston, S.C., on the 6th. The destroyer escort underwent post-shakedown availability in the navy yard there over the ensuing week and sailed on 15 February for the Chesapeake Bay, escorting the merchantman SS Exanthia to Hampton Roads where she arrived the next day.
Two days later, Willis then proceeded—in company with Stewart (DE-238)—to Staten Island, N.Y., and, upon arrival, reported for duty to Commander, Escort Division (CortDiv) 51. Subsequently, Willis joined Task Group (TG) 21.11 at Hampton Roads on 26 February, the hunter-killer group formed around the escort carrier Bogue (CVE-9).
That day, the task group put to sea for operations in the Central Atlantic that took its ships first to Casablanca—visited from 18 to 22 March—and then to the British West Indies in mid-April. Besides Bogue and Willis, the group was composed of Haverfield (DE-393), Swenning (DE-394), Janssen (DE-396), and Hobson (DD-464). They scored their first success on 13 March when Hobson teamed with Haverfield, planes from Bogue'& Composite Squadron (VC) 95, a Canadian vessel, and British aircraft to sink U-575.
Willis continued to operate in Bogue's screen into the summer, calling at Casablanca for a second time from 29 May to 2 June, before TG 22.2 moved to Bermuda. On 24 June, 800 miles southwest of the Azores, TG 22.2 bagged another Axis submersible when planes of Bogue's VC-69 sent the Japanese submarine 1-52 to the bottom. The task group completed that stint of hunter-killer operations on 30 June when it arrived at Port Royal Bay, Bermuda. Willis departed Bermuda on 1 July and proceeded to Hampton Roads, where TG 22.2 was dissolved upon its arrival there on the 3d.
The destroyer escort then underwent repairs at Bayonne, N.J., from 4 to 14 July, after which time she joined CortDiv 51 for a period of refresher trainingout of Casco Bay, Maine. Proceeding back to Hampton Roads upon completion of those training evolutions, Willis moored at the Naval Operating Base (NOB), Norfolk, Va., on 22 July.
The next day, the destroyer escort sailed for Bermuda, again as a unit of TG 22.3 and screening Bogue. Other ships in the escort carrier's screen included Haverfield (with Commander, CortDiv 51 embarked), Swenning, Janssen, and Wilhoite (DE-397). The group conducted antisubmarine warfare (ASW) training exercises and gunnery drills en route to Bermuda and arrived there on 29 July.
Bogue and her escorts resumed hunter-killer operations on 2 August. Four days later, Willis obtained a sonar contact at 1353 and fired a full "hedgehog" pattern which produced no positive results. A little over a week later, the ship participated in a futile search for a lost plane from Bogue.
Four days later, however, Bogue's planes scored again: aircraft from VC-42 found and destroyed U-1229. Willis arrived on the scene in time to take part in the search for possible survivors but obtained only oil samples from the extensive slick covering the waters in the area. Soon after the search for survivors was discontinued at 1730, she rejoined Bogue's screen.
Four days later, TG 22.3 reached the Naval Air Base at Argentia, Newfoundland, for a brief period of in-port upkeep. The group subsequently resumed hunter-killer operations soon thereafter; and, during the ensuing patrols, Willis obtained a sonar contact at 1147 on 14 September. She fired a pattern of "hedgehogs" and made two depth charge runs before she laid a sono-buoy pattern. Swenning joined the search at 1600, and the two destroyer escorts made a coordinated attack. Willis and her sistership then combed the area thoroughly throughout the night but finally gave up the hunt at 1906 the following day.
The next day, Willis contacted a lost carrier plane and vectored her back to her ship. The radio operator on duty in Willis was subsequently commended for his action that enabled a lost aircraft and her crew to reach home safely.
Willis arrived at the New York Navy Yard on 25 September for repairs and got underway again on 7 October, bound for New London, Conn., in company with most of CortDiv 51. The destroyer escorts conducted ASW exercises out of New London for a week before they moved to Norfolk; whence, on 23 October, they joined TG 22.3 and headed for Bermuda, their base for gunnery and ASW exercises from 25 October to 20 November.
Willis proceeded back to New York for an emergency availability period late in November, reaching the navy yard there on the 25th. Shortly before she left the yard to shift to Pier 92, New York, on 28 November 1944, the ship received the Presidential Unit Citation "for outstanding performance in combat as an escort vessel in two task groups with USS Bogue during the periods: 26 February to 19 April 1944, and 4 May to 3 July 1944."
The destroyer escort sailed on 4 December for ASW operations with TG 22.3, again formed around the now famous Bogue. In ensuing days, the group operated off the northeastern seaboard, running into rough weather over a week after their departure from New York. At 1030 on 13 December, the wheelhouse inclinometer in Willis registered one roll of 62 degrees. The ships did not experience good hunting but investigated numerous sonar and radar contacts with negative results. On 16 December, Willis moored at the convoy escort piers, Norfolk, where she remained through Christmas.
Underway for the British West Indies on 26 December, Willis and the rest of TG 22.3 operated out of Bermuda, conducting ASW exercises from 28 December 1944 to 14 January 1945 before heading north and touching at New York City en route to Casco Bay for gunnery and ASW maneuvers. Willis planeguarded for Bogue in the carrier qualification areas off QuonsetPoint and Narragansett Bay before the destroyer escort put into the New York Navy Yard for availability. She returned north upon completion of those repairs and alterations and resumed her training out of Casco Bay.
After another brief, unscheduled availability—this time at the Boston Navy Yard—Willis again resumed training in Casco Bay before she shifted south to conduct ASW exercises out of New London. At the end of March, she became part of Task Unit (TU) 22.3.1 to conduct further training exercises before joining TG 22.14 on the last day of the month.
For most of the first week of April, Willis carried out a scouting patrol well off the eastern seaboard before proceeding to Hampton Roads, arriving at Norfolk on 8 April. Underway again two days later, the destroyer escort shifted north, honing her ASW skills in exercises conducted in company with Bogue off the coast of Rhode Island, putting into Melville, R.I., in mid-April.
On 16 April, Willis cleared Melville as part of TG 22.3 to conduct hunter-killer operations—known as Operation "Teardrop"—on "barrier patrol" to prevent the penetration of U-boats to the east coast of the United States. Four days out of Melville, TG 22.3 rendezvoused with TG 22.4. At 0840 on 24 April, U-546 torpedoed and sank Frederick C. Davis (DE-136), one of the other escort destroyers in combined screen. A search immediately began; and a covey of escorts flushed out the enemy submersible and sank her in a determined attack.
Three days later, Willis picked up a sonar contact and decided that it was "a possible enemy submarine." The destroyer escort fired a "hedgehog" pattern and was soon joined by Cockrill (DE-398), who likewise fired her "hedgehogs" at 2138. Both ships then began a retiring search in which they were soon joined by Swenning and Janssen.
At 0040 the next day, the 28th, Hayter (DE-212), Hubbard (DE-211), and Otter (DE-210) joined forces with the four escorts already searching the area, but none of the ships achieved positive results. On 30 April, Willis, in company with Swenning, TU 22.7.1 and TG 22.8, left the screen of the task group to investigate a disappearing radar contact reported by aircraft from Core (CVE-13).
Rejoining TG 22.3 on 1 May, Willis suffered minor storm damage when a heavy wave tore loose her number 1 gun shield, ripping a 4-inch hole in the deck; but a damage control party patched the tear as the ship proceeded independently to Bayonne, N.J., for permanent repairs. While the destroyer escort was there, Germany surrendeded at Reims, France, on 7 May, ending the war in Europe.
Upon completion of the repairs, Willis—now earmarked for service in the Pacific, a theater of war— underwent a month-long availability at the Norfolk Navy Yard before sailing for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to conduct refresher training. From 2 to 15 July, the ship carried out those evolutions, after which time she sailed in company with most of the ships in CortDiv 7 for the Canal Zone.
Transiting the Panama Canal between 17 and 19 July, Willis reached San Diego, Calif., on 26 July and pushed on toward Hawaii at the end of the month. She arrived at Pearl Harbor on 7 August and reported for duty to the Commander, Destroyers, Pacific Fleet. For Willis, however, there were to be no more active combat operations—because a week later, Japan—reeling under the unexpected power of a pair of atomic bombs —capitulated. World War II was over.
Willis trained in the Hawaiian Islands until 20 August and then departed Pearl Harbor, bound for the Marianas as part of TU 12.5.1. She reached Saipan on 30 August but got underway again the next day, escorting Wharton (AP-7) to the Marshalls. The ships reached Eniwetok Atoll on 3 September.
Willis subsequently escorted the attack transport Lycoming (APA-155) to Saipan between 6 and 9 September and, on 13 September, proceeded from Saipan to Guam, reporting for duty upon arrival to Commander, Submarines, Pacific Fleet. She remained on operations out of Guam, probably as a target vessel for submarines, through the end of the year. She ultimately departed Apra Harbor, Guam, on 10 January, bound for home.
Reaching San Pedro on 28 January, via Pearl Harbor, Willis transited the Panama Canal on 19 and 20 February and reached Houston on the 26th. From there, she pushed on to Green Cove Springs, Fla. Decommissioned on 14 June 1946, Willis was placed in reserve and berthed at Mayport, Fla.
Willis remained inactive for the next decade in Florida waters until transferred to the Philadelphia group of the Reserve Fleet on 29 August 1957. She remained there into the 1970's. Never modernized, Willis was considered "unessential to the defense of the United States" by mid-1972; and, on 1 July of that year, her name was struck from the Navy list. She was stripped and, on 17 August 1973, was sold to Edward O. Sanchez, of New Bedford, Mass., and scrapped.
Willis was awarded one battle star for her World War II service and a Presidential Unit Citation for her work with Bogue in the Battle of the Atlantic.