BARKSDALE AFB La. --
A young man of 26 years has just returned from the largest war in world history. He has seen men saved. He has seen men die. He has served in a constant heat of battle. He has returned home while many never made it back. Dressed in his Army Air Corps uniform, he now courts a woman who would eventually become his wife. While walking, a young inspired boy asks if he can wear his hat. The Army Air Corps member tosses the boy his hat and the boy places it on with pride. This child would later spends 24 years in the Air Force emulating his role-model. He is just one of many people that has been motivated and mentored by Mr. Willis Andrews, former aviation engineer under Eighth Air Force and World War II veteran.
Andrews just celebrated his 100th birthday March 30, during a ceremony in Truxno, La. During the celebration, “the Mighty Eighth” had the distinct privilege of recognizing Andrews’ service and presented him with two Eighth Air Force coins and a letter of appreciation signed by Maj. Gen. James Dawkins, Jr., the current Eighth Air Force commander.
“We wish you health, happiness and success as you celebrate your 100th birthday,” said Dawkins. “Thank you for all you did in the Mighty Eighth so long ago. please accept my commander's coin as a small token of appreciation from all of us in Eighth Air Force who carry on in your footsteps.”
Recall the young boy who asked Andrews for his hat? Well, he is just one of many directly impacted by Andrews. His name is Jimmie Warren, USAF Master Sgt. retired.
“Willis is one of the most outstanding men in my life,” said Warren. “As his oldest nephew, I have seen him for many years. I remember him coming back from World War II. I remember wearing his Army Air Corps hat and how that made me feel. Willis has been all that I ever thought a man ought to be. I love him, and I’m so thankful for the influence he’s had in my life.”
Every day service members do the same thing. When they get up and put their uniform on, they put on the legacy that comes with it. But for Andrews, his legacy began a little differently.
“I can remember Victory over Japan day(VJ-Day), which was the day that those boy’s flew their last mission,” said Andrews. “I was in Germany, and I saw all those planes flying and they overshadowed the sun. What’s funny is when I was back home, before the war even started and I wasn’t thinking about any of it, I saw that same thing just like I saw it that day. And when VJ day came I remembered what I’d seen long ago. You can doubt me if you want, and you got every right not to believe me, but I had seen it before and that is one of the times I will never forget.”
Was it fate? Divine providence? Or was it a divine vision meant to encourage throughout the war? Andrews has a mantra which he tells himself during times of trouble. “God will find a way”, he says and indeed the way was made for him more than once throughout his career.
“The hardest part of my military career was in basic training and if it wasn’t for a good man I would have died,” said Andrews. “I didn’t understand how the mess hall worked during dining times. Whenever we all got together to eat there would be thousands of us at tables and when they said “mess” that meant you were supposed to get a plate to eat. If you didn’t grab one they didn’t know whether you ate or not. So my first sergeant. noticed me and said, ‘Andrews! Are you gonna starve to death? You can’t do like you did at home, when he says mess you got to get a grab a plate.’ I had gotten down to about 120 pounds and if he had not intervened, I probably would not be here today. That was probably the hardest part of my service and ever since then me and my first sergeant were very close.”
After basic training, Andrews was sent straight into the war and into the heat of battle.
“We were going straight over and fightin’ then,” said Andrews. “The war had started and everywhere we stopped the heat was on. I’m serious! That’s all I could tell you is that everywhere we stopped the heat was there. And there wasn’t no thinking about back here because we were thinking about whether we’d live until tomorrow.”
“I won’t ever forget the time we had to cross the English Channel to Le Havre, France. That’s where they had all those bombs planted in the water. It took us two weeks to cross that stretch of only 20 miles. I was in transportation at the time, and we were moving trucks over the channel. We had spotter boats out in front of us and if one them boys made a mistake and hit one of those bombs it was over. That was a hard time for us.”
After enduring a brutal war, Andrews returned home in 1946 and made it his goal to settle down and raise a family. But, as many veterans know, it takes time to adjust after living through such stressful times.
“I was lost when I came home,” said Andrews. “I didn’t even know where I was when I came to my home town. After three years overseas at war, I couldn’t even remember how to get to my parent’s house. And it wasn’t good… I had to get used being home again. The war had to wear off, because if it didn’t, I would’ve gone crazy.”
As is characteristic of Andrews, he found a way. In 1946 he married his wife Gladys Andrews and started a family out in the rural community of Truxno, La. He would become a valuable mentor to many young men in his family providing an escape from city life, teaching them to hunt and fish, and instilling in them the military value she learned. Values like service, integrity and excellence. Young men have credited him with giving them the courage to start a farm, join the military or make changes in their lives.
Today, Andrews continues to make an impact, even at 100 years old. He’s protected America from harm and returned to raise a family who would do the same. It was a privilege for Eighth Air Force to recognize one of its former members who has served with honor, both in and out of his uniform.
“As a service member we stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Chief Master Sgt. Shelley Cohen, Eighth Air Force command chief individual mobilization augmentee. “Our military is great because of the foundation laid by people like Mr. Andrews who served diligently, humbly and set the reputation for service members in the future. As we look at the legacy he has left, may we ask ourselves, what will we leave behind and what will our legacy be?”