From Enterprise Staff
Ellis “Willie” Williamson will celebrate his 100th birthday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Onalaska Fire Station located at 181 Old Groveton Rd. in Onalaska and is inviting everyone to join him in the celebration. Lunch will be served at 11:30 and will consist of fish, chicken strips, potato salad, beans and all the fixings, with birthday cake to follow.
Williamson served in the 397th – 599th Army Air Corp of the U.S. Air Force as a staff sergeant flight engineer/gunner. Hailing from Gallatin, Texas, Williamson was born April 16, 1923 and graduated from Gallatin High School in June 1941. He reported for duty to the Army Air Corp in Houston in February 1943 and went on to Kessler Air Force Base in Mississippi for basic training, then Fort Meyer, Fla. for flight training, gunnery and aerial gunnery training.
In mid-1944 he shipped out with the 397th BG to Rivenhall, England until D-Day and was then based in Dreux, France. He was assigned as a flight engineer/gunner on a B26 marauder bomber and his duties were to double check the ground crew’s preparation for light, make sure the gas tanks were full, battle damage repaired and then man the top turret as gunner.
Williamson shared stories of some of the events that occurred on his missions. Of the mission over LeHavre Submarine Station, he said, “Ours and 11 other planes went with no bombs or escorts to attract gunfire so other bombers could bomb the submarine station. It was a very eventful day. Fighter planes were everywhere. We were lucky. There were over 100 holes in the plane with no injuries or severe damage. We got back, patched the holes and then went to debriefing. Usually, on a mission a day lasted on average three to four hours.
“On D-Day, we flew two missions with the first one leaving in the dark before sunup. I manned the top turret, could not see the water, but saw the flashes of the battleship’s guns on this mission to bomb Normandy Beach. We would normally fly at 12,000 feet but that day came in at 6,000-7,000 feet. We could see the anti-aircraft guns on the ground firing when our plane tilted. When we turned around, I could see the beach live with fire everywhere. We made it back and reloaded for the second mission around 2 p.m., bombing roads and tanks.
“My last mission, the 65th, before shipping home, I never made it,” he said. “On Dec. 24, 1944, I was to be on a ship, headed to New York for New Year’s with my fiancé. I was all packed and all my belongings had been loaded on the ship. On Dec. 23, 1944, it was to be my last and final mission to complete my tour of duty. Sixty-five missions but I only made 64½.
“The Battle of the Bulge was raging, the air cleared and everything that could fly was in the air – including the Luftwaffe. The 397th target was Eller Bridge, to cut the enemy supply line from the Bulge. Flying under clouds at 8,000 feet the flak was intense. The plane’s left engine was hit, landing gear was tangling down. A shell exploded in the compartment behind the engine, starting the fire in the oil tank and oil lines.
“I got out of the turret, pulled the fire extinguisher, but was not enough to put out the fire. The waist gunner had been shot in the stomach but was still alive. The tail gunner and I tied off his rip cord and threw him out the Bombay door. The pilot gave the orders to bail out. The tail gunner went out the waist window, the bombardier was coming from the nose of the plane, the pilot was standing in the door of the radio room and the co-pilot was at the controls. Those were the positions of the crew when I bailed out. The co-pilot was in the prison camp and they found the bodies of the pilot and bombardier in the wreckage of the plane. Three of us survived and three perished with the plane.”
William was a prisoner of war from Dec. 23, 1944 until he was liberated at the end of April, 1945.
“We jumped at approximately 7,000 feet, never having parachuted before. After bailing out of the plane, the parachute opened immediately. I was looking for the plane but never saw it again. Landing in deep snow, I was taken prisoner by German soldiers immediately. I had hurt my knee and one of the German soldiers carried my parachute for a while. They asked me if I had a gun. I took my .45-caliber pistol out of my flight suit pant leg, put the clip in my pocket and gave them the gun.
“I was taken to Bitburg, Germany, a German outpost and held in a basement until the American planes stopped bombing, two hours after capture, then taken to a farmhouse where they left my gun on the windowsill and left me alone for 30 minutes. They came back and took me to a store-like building and met up with a ground soldier who was also captured. Sirens started for an air raid. The Germans took us to the basement again to keep us safe. After it was over, we and the German soldiers helped all the people that were hit by the bombs. Then everyone disappeared.
“We went with the guard and helped push a truck to a cemetery. We spent our first night there in a small building. The next day was Christmas Eve. The ground soldier and I found half of a sugar beet. I’ll never forget. Christmas Eve dinner was one-quarter of a sugar beet. That would be the last food we got until Jan. 17, 1945.
“We’re now on the way to Koblenz, Germany and we are 15 prisoners. We left there and just started walking, southeast I think, gathering other prisoners as we went. By the 17th of January, we were up to 150 prisoners. On this day we were given one number two can of cheese for two people, one loaf of black bread for three people and one blanket for two people. The other soldier and I cut our blanket in half to share. Before this, the only thing we had to eat was snow, grass, tree bark and anything else we could find on the walk. I went from 180 pounds to 118 pounds in my time as a POW.
“We made it to Nuremburg, Germany and there the food was better. From Nuremburg, to Munich there were 15,000 POWs by now. Americans, British, French, Italians all going now to our final destination – Stalag 7A POW Camp. The ground soldier and I had walked over 400-plus miles in winter conditions. I was not long in the POW camp, most of my time had been walking.
“On or about April 29, 1945, we were liberated by General Patton. He came for a brief speech and we were all anxious and excited. The German soldiers all surrendered willingly. Giving their guns to their captains or commanders, some ran, not many, mostly all were very polite. At this time the Red Cross gave all POWs a postcard to fill out for your family to let them know you were found, freed and alive. Bonfires and great joy.
“It was during my flight back to LeHavre, France to start the journey home when we were told the war had ended. We boarded a Liberty Ship, Troup Carrier for 10 days to New York. I took a train for six days to San Antonio, then a bus to Gallatin. Along my journey home, I met up with my fiancé, Antoinette Lima, married, and later honeymooned in Miami on my R&R from the army. The very day I walked on our porch to see my family, the mailman delivered my Red Cross postcard from the POW camp to my mom.”
Afterward, Williamson was awarded the Air Medal with two silver oak leaf clusters and two bronze clusters and several others. He worked from then on, retiring three times in his life. He retired in 1979 after 30-plus years as a paint salesman with Celanese Coating Co. He retired the second time in 1983 after owning and operating 18-wheelers. He retired for the third and last time in 1990 after seven years in sales at Devoe Paint.
His wife of 45 years, Antoinette, passed in 1990. They had three children, four grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. He remarried Priscilla Carrick and gained two stepdaughters but she passed in 2020.
As for his time in the service, he said, “I wouldn’t give anything for it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”