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Willoughby inducted into NC Veterans Hall of Fame

Posted on: 07.14.2018 at 07:00 a.m.

By Clara Cartrette

claracartrette@nrcolumbus.com

Clarence Willoughby of Tabor City joined the U.S. Marine Corps Jan. 26, 1940, a teenager who went to Parris Island, S.C. for training. As a three-sport athlete in high school and having grown up on a farm, he thought he was tough.

“But Marine boot camp in those days taught me what the word tough really meant,” he wrote for a Memorial Day service at Tabor City Baptist Church in 2005. “I learned quickly that nobody loved me. But everything went well. I learned to appreciate the training and discipline of Parris Island.”

Willoughby is well past his 90th birthday, but could pass for half his age. He was one of 22 veterans inducted into the inaugural North Carolina Military Hall of Fame ceremony in Charlotte May 19.

Sgt. 1ST Class (retired) David Broadie is the founder and CEO of the N.C. Military Veterans Hall of Fame, established in 2016, and has been owner/CEO of Broadie’s Enterprise Inc. since 2004. He joined the Army upon completion of high school and served honorably for 21 years in many positions of leadership. He was responsible for implementing new policies and procedures to ensure a more effective transition of more than 80,000 deploying and returning soldiers in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Broadie earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a minor in communications at Almeda University and is pursuing an associate degree in electronic engineering technology at ECPI.

Upon military retirement in 2004, Broadie said he always had a passion to continue serving veterans and soldiers, and with that passion he presides over the N.C. Military Veterans Hall of Fame.

“We are looking to make a difference in the way we honor veterans while inspiring youth and communities on the service and sacrifice of these brave men and women; therefore the North Carolina Military Hall of Fame was founded,” Broadie said. The organization has eight military and civilian board members  and two committee chairs, both retired military men.

Willoughby’s story

After training at Parris Island, Clarence Willoughby attended Sea School in Norfolk, Va. and was then assigned to the USS Erie, a naval gunboat based in the Pacific Ocean, home base of Balboa, Panama. As part of the land force detachment he trained in landings and combat in the jungles of Central America. The Erie regularly picked up survivors from sunken ships and it sank five enemy vessels.

Willoughby was assigned to Norfolk Navy Yard. For a short while he was in the ammunition depot, where they made shells and black powder magazines. When he got through C School he was assigned to duty on the USS Erie with a double detachment of Marines aboard.

“I was on the landing force detachment,” he said. “The Erie was used primarily for transportation. We trained in the jungles.”

At 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7. 1941, the Japanese Army bombed Pearl Harbor. A lot of the Pacific fleet was in Pearl Harbor and people hadn’t gotten up yet.

“The USS Arizona took a direct hit and sank with 1,100 men on it,” Willoughby said. “Bombing destroyed or damaged 19 of the fleet in the Pacific and destroyed 150 planes. Fortunately, we had three aircraft carriers that were not in the harbor, they were at sea. That was a real blessing. The next day, Dec. 8, President Roosevelt declared war. There were a lot of submarines, Japanese and German, in the water. The Erie went to Balboa, Panama in the Atlantic fleet and they started sending ships into the canal to get into the Pacific.”

Willoughby said the Erie did escort duty and would go out two, three or four hundred miles to keep submarines from destroying the ship.

“There were six people on deck, two at the front, two midship and two aft, with field glasses,” he recalled. They were looking for periscopes from the subs. Eventually, the Erie got credit for subs off the North Carolina and California coasts.

He then served as an instructor at Quantico, Va. for a year, requested a change of duty and was sent to Okinawa where he was severely wounded, resulting in some paralysis. He spent months in several hospitals and married one of the nurses from the Oakland, Calif. hospital.

That nurse was Mildred, who was one of Willoughby’s nurses. Like her husband, she grew up on a farm, but in Illinois instead of North Carolina. One day when they were sitting on a bench on hospital grounds Mildred expressed her feelings about not wanting to go home that weekend.

“Well, you don’t have to,” Willoughby said.

“I don’t?” she queried.

“No, you can go home with me,” he answered.

And go home with him she did. They were married in the Tabor City Baptist Church pastor’s home, had three children and have lived on the Willoughby farm a couple of miles out of Tabor City ever since.

Willoughby said he went in combat zones without being a Christian. “I know it sounds strange and almost unbelievable, but I was never concerned about my eternal life. I believed there was a God, I just wasn’t concerned about that part of my life. I had too much ‘I don’t care’ in me. I’m sure you’ve picked up on the fact that I was 200 percent patriotic, willing, able and ready to die for my country if necessary. After all, these people were fighting, trying to destroy this great country, our freedom, our liberty and our way of life, and as far as I was concerned that was not going to happen. I was not a Christian. I had never considered Christianity. I was not against it or for it. I was unconcerned and thought everything would be all right. I thought I was doing what God would have me do. I thought God surely loved the USA. I did, too.”

After four or five months in Oakland Hospital, Willoughby’s colostomy was closed. He was still in bed and partially paralyzed when a strange lady visited him. “She told me about Jesus and what He had done for me. I was convicted of my sinful life. I felt so guilty. The Lord had finally gotten my attention. As the lady witnessed, my chest began to get tight and painful. I was seriously troubled. I asked her to leave.

“She asked if she could come back and I said no. I was miserable. She left but what she said stayed. It didn’t leave. I was so stubborn I couldn’t humble myself and fully accept the message.”

After 13 months Willoughby was discharged from the USMC. He had been transferred to National Navy Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. “The message that came through this lady’s witness was always near my thinking,” he said. “I had questioned the Lord forgiving me for what I had done. I married the girl from Illinois I had met in Oakland Hospital. We had serious talks about our lives, past and future. I began to realize all the things I’d done were wrong.”

“We did escort service,” Willoughby continued. “You couldn’t go around the world with a tank of fuel like you can today. We looked for places to refuel. Argentina was pro-Nazi, and eventually they sent us five or six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador and we went ashore. There were no humans on the island but there were all kinds of animals — goats, and bad looking iguanas.”

He said Marines were stationed on the island, which resembled an old earthquake. It was rock and had cracks three or four feet wide. People were on duty looking for submarines 24 hours around the clock, and there was no water. Navy planes came. They were PBYs that could land on water. They brought food and picked up mail.

“Stamps were not available and we wrote ‘no stamps available’ and Congress passed a law that mail was free,” Willoughby said. “The Army Corps of Engineers landed on the same island and built an air strip. When they could land a plane they took us off. We trained in the jungle for hand to hand combat and an 03 caliber gun.”

Willoughby brought out his weapon and the bayonet that fit on his belt and could be attached to the end of the rifle. He said they practiced on straw dummies that popped up and he gave a brief demonstration on how the weapons were used. It went something like stab, withdraw, butt stroke, coming down with the bayonet about 110 degrees.

“I thought it was fun at first,” Willoughby said. “I had a gunnery sergeant who had been in the Marines 25 years, but he wouldn’t say 25 years. He would say ‘I’ve been in the Corps a quarter of a century.’ When we got sloppy, he got our attention and we would get a lecture on how to improve. It was ‘I’ve never seen so much mopey and dopey; in a bayonet fight there is no second prize. If you don’t win, you lose. Be prepared to do the job because second prize is not so good.”

Finally, the Erie took a torpedo in 1943, killing seven people but did not sink the ship. “We had a smart skipper,” Willoughby said. “He ran the ship ashore and everybody lost their home addresses and everything. I got on a ship that came to the New York harbor and we landed in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When we pulled in and I saw the Statue of Liberty, goose bumps came over me. I wanted to get off and kiss the ground.”

He said the late Don Hughes, who also came into the New York harbor, told Willoughby that he felt the same way.

From there, Willoughby was sent to Quantico, Va. as an instructor, which he describes “as kind of a dull life, but a good life. That was 40 miles out of Washington, D.C., which was full of pretty girls.

“You didn’t have to pick up girls,” he added. “They would pick you up in a nightclub, tap you on the shoulder and reach to shake hands, leaving their phone number in your hand.”

Willoughby said he had more patriotism than he had sense. He went through five classes of candidates and wanted to do something else. The commander of officer candidate school told him if he put in for a transfer he would go back where he came from. “If that’s what it takes, I’ll go,” was his reply. But then he got transferred to Camp Lejeune, which was loaded with people and they slept in tents.

“They didn’t know when they would leave nor where they would go,” Willoughby said. “My lieutenant was mess officer for the outfit and gave us a little freedom, but we couldn’t leave the base. The lieutenant told me he got orders to draw food for a week and we got orders to leave Camp Lejeune. We loaded four trains with military. It was known that the enemy would blow up a railroad, especially one with a troop train on it.” After his train pulled into the station, they left and went the southern route to Atlanta and he later went to Camp Pendleton, Calif. He didn’t know when they would leave or where they would go, but he soon found out.
“They went to San Diego and put us on a ship,” he said. “When we left I found out we were going to the Solomon Islands to prepare for an invasion.”

He said they slept in tents and took something by mouth that would keep the mosquitoes off, but it also turned their skin brown after a while. They had homemade showers that consisted of a barrel of water and a string.

Willoughby chuckled when he told a story about two big mosquitoes sitting on a bunk and one asking the other, “Do we eat him here or take him out?” The other replies, “We better eat him here or the big ones will get him.”

“The island was secure but scattered with Japanese and Gooney Boys,” he said. “When it was time to leave there was a bunch of ships and after we left Guadalcanal a few days they called all officers and non-commissioned officers and gave a lecture on where we were going and when we would land.”

They landed on Okinawa April 1, 1945. “I was section leader for the machine gun section,” he said. “We had four big machine guns, two water cooled and two air cooled that would shoot 600 rounds a minute just by touching the trigger. They gave everybody instructions on where we would land and there were 9,000 Japanese soldiers on the island. One Jap landed after we had it. Across the island was an airport that was under Army control and two Marine divisions took the airport, Marines on the left and Army on the right. We secured the north end of the island and got word that the war had ended and that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died April 12, 1945.”

Willoughby said they thought they would get help, but didn’t. “We got word to go to the south end of the island to help relieve some of the Army Division. We were so tired and worn out and I remember falling asleep while walking, stumbling and nearly falling. We came to a river that was running swiftly. The old gunnery sergeant, the Quarter Century man, was carrying a 51-pound tripod on his shoulder but he couldn’t swim with it. He got a long rope and anchored it to the other side of the river. There was a man we called Chalk and he was about as sharp as chalk. The gunnery sergeant told him ‘don’t throw the rope in the river’ but he didn’t hear don’t and threw the rope in the river. The sergeant threw his helmet on the ground.”

Switching gears, Willoughby talked about being on the farm. “Ninety-nine percent of the people smoked back then,” he said. “There were three tobacco barns on our farm and we cured tobacco with wood. My sister Alene was five years older than I was and we were working in dry tobacco that day,” he said. “We made some cigarettes out of the dry tobacco and I saw two tenants sitting there blowing smoke out of their noses. I asked how they did that and they told me just to swallow the smoke and exhale. I thought I would die. Mother came up and asked, ‘Clarence, have you been smoking?’ I told her, ‘Well, Mom, I’m going to die anyway so I might as well tell the truth.’”

Willoughby said the troops were moving south and had backed the Japanese off the hill when he was injured. He had two machine gun squads and was moving across the wagon road, but decided not to. They would be between squads. He went first and a shell struck him in his right leg, went though his intestines and into his back.

“I got knocked down and I thought I got hurt when I fell,” he said. “A Navy Corpsman was servicing the injured and gave me a shot of morphine. My sciatic nerve was blown off and my back was stinging. The corpsman, Carl Cook, dressed it and called for a half-track. They put me on that and took me a mile or two to an aid station and they stitched up my hand. I had 4×8-inches blown off the back of my leg and I thought I would lose it. Me and Cook and two others were put on an Army ambulance and taken to the hospital tent. They ran me through a fluoroscope but didn’t know my intestines were hit. They started lathering me up and I asked what they were doing. They said they had to operate. I didn’t eat a bite for eight days but when they got me to the hospital in Guam they ran water in my stomach and I got something to eat. Intestines don’t have feelings and where the shots went through intestines it looks like two rosebuds.”

They flew Willoughby to Pearl Harbor and did two or three more colonoscopies and sent him to Oakland, Calif. Naval Hospital. And that’s where he met the love of his life. Mildred was a Cadet Nurse in training. She said there was a shortage of nurses and girls were encouraged to go into nursing.

“I had done all of that and I joined them,” she said. “I was probably halfway through (nursing training) and they paid about $20 a month. We wore seersucker uniforms and hats.”

Willoughby was in a ward with 40 bunks. When they came to cut off the cast, they asked him what they could do for him, and when a pretty nurse, Mildred, walked past the door he said, “Tell that pretty girl to hold my hand.” The Navy medic brought her in.

“All the military men had girls back home,” she said. “Nothing romantic entered my mind.”

“Mine either,” Willoughby said. But that wouldn’t last.

“She would visit and talk to me,” he said. “After I got my intestines put back together, I was there four or five months. She left Oakland and went back to Illinois, but we stayed in touch. We wrote letters occasionally.”

“He sent me a corsage at Easter,” she said.

Willoughby was sent to Bethesda, Md., for surgery on his leg where a hunk of nerve had been shot out. They bent his knee, brought his leg up to the back of his thigh in order to allow the nerve to grow together and put it in a cast. When the cast was removed he couldn’t straighten his leg, so they pulled and stretched him and soaked the leg in hot water to straighten it.

Doctors told him when he could walk with a walking stick they would let him go home, and after 13 months he got released.

The couple had stayed in touch and one day when Mildred got home from work she found a box with a dozen red roses.

Willoughby still appears to be amazed that a Marine was in a Navy hospital, met a pretty nurse, he was sent to a hospital in Washington, D.C. and the nurse and a couple of nurse friends visited him in Bethesda.

But the best was yet to come. After he had improved considerably, the two of them were sitting on a bench on the hospital grounds when Mildred mentioned that she had to go home tomorrow.

“You don’t have to go home tomorrow,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because you can go home with me,” he replied.

That was a marriage proposal.

“I didn’t have clothes, so I had to find clothes and a cane, and I finally found one,” he said.

So they rode the train to North Carolina and he took that pretty nurse to meet his parents and siblings. While they were at it, they planned a wedding, and they were married in the Tabor City Baptist Church preacher’s home. He had told her about his parents, that his dad read the Bible all the time, and that his mother was wonderful.

“I didn’t have any money or clothes,” he said. “She had $500, so together we had $1,200.” Each got a gold wedding band.

Unable to do heavy-duty work, Willoughby was happy to learn from his brother Lonnie about an advertisement in the paper about a civil service exam for a rural mail route. He and Lonnie had been in the dry cleaning business, but he took the civil service exam and got appointed mail carrier in 1949. His route was 83 miles long and it included five post offices: Guide, Dulah, Dothan, Olyphic and Pireway.

“That’s what got me off my feet,” he said. He retired when he was 72 after 25 years of service and six and a half years in the U.S. Marine Corps.

After they were married, Clarence and Mildred lived with his parents for a few years. Beth was their first born, and later came Colon and Mary Lynn. They now have eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Beth and her family live at Lake Wylie, S.C., Colon and his family live in Raleigh and Mary Lynn lives at Sunset Beach.

“We are blessed with little girls,” Mildred said.

“We’ve had a good life,” Clarence add

A lot has happened since January 1940 when Willoughby enlisted and trained at Parris Island, S.C.

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