Ralph Walker Willis was a fireman, the author of five books, including My Life as a Jarhead (1999), and a contributor to Chronicles, but most of all he was a Marine. He was related to the famous mountain man Joe Walker, and, like Walker, Ralph was a tall, strapping fellow with a booming voice. He was born in 1921 in Redondo Beach, California, and reared in San Diego, spending his spare time on the sand and in the surf. He played football in high school, but the thought of college paled in comparison to making his part-time job of lifeguarding a career. By 1940 he was a beach lifeguard for San Diego, watching the pretty girls stroll across the sand and occasionally rescuing a swimmer swept out to sea by a rip current. This all came to an end with the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 17, 1941, Ralph enlisted in the Marine Corps. He graduated from boot camp at MCRD as his platoon’s honor man, which meant PFC stripes and a $2 increase in pay to $23 per month. “I was starting my climb up into the big time,” recalled Ralph.
For the next two years Ralph trained at Pendleton, rising to sergeant and becoming part of the newly formed 5th Marine Division. His only combat during that time came in Los Angeles. He and a Marine buddy and their dates were accosted by a pack of Zoot Suiters. The Marines made quick work of the Latino delinquents. At something over 6’4″ and more than 200 pounds of lean muscle, and with a volcanic temper, Ralph was a force of nature.
In 1944 he climbed aboard a Liberty ship and, after a couple of weeks of heavy seas, reached the big island of Hawaii. The 5th Marine Division was in for more training, this time at Camp Tarawa on the Parker cattle ranch. On a weekend liberty he ran into a comely lass in Hilo, who invited him home. He accepted and stayed—for three days. When he finally returned to Camp Tarawa, his company commander asked him why he had been AWOL. “I was kidnapped,” declared Ralph.
“Tell it to the court-martial board tomorrow, Willis,” said the skipper. He then handed Ralph a piece of heavy-bond paper. It was Ralph’s promotion to staff sergeant. But the captain quickly snatched it back and tore it to pieces.
The next morning Ralph was standing in front of seven officers. They were all hung over from the night before in Hilo. Several had only arrived back at Camp Tarawa an hour or two earlier. They had their own kidnapping stories. They did nothing more than fine Ralph $50 and give him two weeks duty cleaning the head. They then suspended the latter punishment when the division chief of staff said they couldn’t have an NCO scrubbing toilets.
Soon the 5th Marine Division was on board troop transports and headed for a small volcanic island in the Bonin chain. They learned its name while at sea: Iwo Jima. Ralph landed in the fourth wave on D-day, February 19. A few minutes after landing, Ralph was almost blown into eternity. An artillery shell hit the volcanic sand and penetrated several feet before exploding directly under Ralph. He was lifted into the air and thrown six or seven yards before landing with a thud. His eyes, ears, nose, and mouth were filled with sand, but he had not one bit of shrapnel in him. His helmet had been knocked off his head, and his rifle blown so far away he couldn’t find it.
A few hours later another huge blast flattened him again. Before he could get up, “a very large something” slammed down beside him. It was the body of a Marine, burned black with “arms and legs still jerking like a puppet.” Ralph soon realized that the Marine had been blown off an amphibious vehicle that had taken a direct hit and that there was a struggling, wounded Marine still on the vehicle. Under fire, Ralph raced to the vehicle, grabbed the Marine, and carried him into a shell crater. The Marine was beyond help, though, and died within minutes. Japanese artillery barrages continued all through the day, and machine-gun fire was incessant. Darkness brought no relief. Halfway through the night a Marine tumbled into Ralph’s foxhole, holding his guts in. He had been shot in the stomach. He was in terrible pain. Ralph shot him with morphine—most Marines carried a vial or two—and asked him if he could hold on until sunrise for evacuation. The beach was so littered with damaged landing craft and armored vehicles that nothing could get in or out until combat engineers would blast pathways through the wreckage in the morning.
On D+3 Ralph heard someone yell, “They got the Flag up!” He looked around, and there it was, snapping in the breeze atop Suribachi. Two days later his unit pushed onto high ground between the two airstrips. Before they began the long push to the north end of the island, Ralph and a few others hiked to the top of Suribachi to salute the Flag. Although the volcanic cone was considered secured, Ralph and his buddies climbed to the top with weapons in hand. “There were many Japs still dug into and under the mountain,” said Ralph. From time to time one or more would pop out to lob a grenade or fire a rifle.
The push to the north end of Iwo was as horrific as the initial landing. The Japanese had miles of tunnels connecting hundreds of caves. Jagged ravines and volcanic ridges meant progress was measured in yards. Ralph was in the thick of it each step of the way, throwing grenades and firing a Thompson submachine gun and an M-1 Garand. More than 6,000 Marines were dead before it was over.
After R&R back in Hawaii, Ralph’s unit was sent into the Western Pacific again, this time as part of Operation Olympia—the invasion of the Japanese home island of Kyushu. The atomic bombs and the surrender of Japan aborted the operation, but Ralph still got to Japan. His battalion was assigned as an occupying force in Sasebo. Although he would remain in Japan for four months, his most vivid memories were of his first days there. “The just-released, skeleton-like U.S., British, and Australian POWs haunted us,” recalled Ralph. “They had been starved and all but worked to death. Many did die.”
Ralph died April 15, at the age of 90. His wife, Helen, predeceased him. I knew him well and was fortunate to have spent a considerable amount of time with him, most recently in February at Camp Pendleton for the annual reunion of Iwo Jima veterans. He would do anything for anyone in need. He retired from the fire department after nearly a quarter-century of service only because he injured his back when lifting up a car so an accident victim could be pulled from underneath it. Semper Fi, Sergeant Willis.