State’s first military aviator &(Citadel Grad) was buried in Simpsonville

Lt. Col. Willis Class of 1908

Lt. Col. Willis Class of 1908

By: Scott Keeler greenvillenews.com

Photos by: MYKAL McELDOWNEY/Greenville News staff)

November 11, 2015
(Blog editor’s note: Lt. Col. Willis was the 1st honor graduate of The Citadel class of 1908)

Like every Veterans Day, there will be U.S. flags flying at cemeteries today to honor those who served in the military. Each year in Simpsonville (SC) prior to Veterans Day, the local VFW Post 1845 installs flags at Simpsonville City Cemetery, Cannon Memorial Cemetery and Graceland East Memorial Park. But one flag at the historic City Cemetery flies next to a tombstone that is shining a bit brighter than usual this year.

It’s the tombstone of World War I veteran Robert Henry Willis Jr., and it’s recently received some upkeep from Bill Skroch, an 86-year old veteran who was born years after Willis passed away. After six years of research, Skroch says the 125-mile drive from his Sumter home to Willis’ resting place was well worth it. Skroch’s research has shown him that Willis is the first military aviator in South Carolina history.

“This guy was one of the first 25 guys to ever wear what’s officially called an aviation badge,” Skroch said. “Everybody says ‘he’s got wings,’ not ‘hey, he’s got an aviation badge.” Skroch said the badges were issued in 1913 and were a reward for those who survived flying school. In those early days of aviation, Skroch said, many did not. “They only made 25 because the guy in charge of the whole operation said, ‘hell, we’re never going to have more than 25 airplanes anyway,'” Skroch said.

Like most, Simpsonville Judge Leslie Sharff was unaware of Willis’ story but marveled at the work of the early aviators. Sharff, who’s the senior vice commander of Simpsonville VFW Post 1845, earned a Purple Heart as a combat medic with an Infantry unit in Vietnam. “That (flying) must have taken a lot of guts,” Sharff said. “There weren’t any parachutes back then. “Can you imagine trying to throw a small bomb about the size of a mortar round out while you’re flying a plane?”

Skroch’s research all started after he looking for a project to do as part of his work with a group of retired military pilots out of Shaw Air Force Base, where Skroch retired. In that first project he learned that one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous group of African-American military pilots who served in World War II, hailed from Sumter. After writing a narrative about the first black military pilot from South Carolina, Skroch was determined to find the first military pilot of any race from South Carolina.

Searches around archives in the state came up empty. Then Skroch got a break at a military museum in Washington, D.C. “I met this lady, whose grandfather was a World War I pilot. She turned me on to a book that told about these first 25 guys,” Skroch said. Willis’ name was in there. “When I saw that, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” After getting a name, Skroch thought his research would get easier, but it did not. According to Skroch, all of Willis’ records were burned during a 1973 fire at a repository in St. Louis. Skroch said he was able to contact distant relatives of Willis, but they didn’t know much about him either. “The repository gave me some clues about alternate places to find some pieces of information, but you’re never going to find everything,” Skroch said. “So it took about six years to get enough to write a narrative about the guy.

Under Gen. John J. Pershing, Willis served in the Philippines, and in Mexico where he helped search for Pancho Villa, and in France during World War I. Willis began flight training at Signal Corps Aviation School in San Diego in July of 1913. On Dec. 26, 1913, he and 24 others earned their Military Aviator Certificate and Badge. “In early 1914, he was awarded the ‘expert’ aviator certificate by the Aero Club of America,” Skroch wrote in the narrative. “It was reported by the San Diego Union that Willis set a world speed record by flying 140 miles in 132 minutes.”

Willis’ life ended tragically on Sept. 13, 1918, when he accidently shot himself while working on a malfunction with his gun. He died six days after his 32nd birthday and less than two months before the end of World War I.

On Aug. 17, 1920, Pershing wrote a letter to the Willis’ home farm in Simpsonville.
“I first knew this young officer as a member of the small group of aviators on duty with the American Punitive Expedition in Mexico, where I had ample opportunity to observe his work,” Pershing wrote. “Being imbued with the ideals of a true soldier, his service was in keeping with the high standards of our army, and I was pleased to have him as a member of the flying corps in France. “Colonel Willis was a man of pleasing personality and an officer in whose ability I had the greatest confidence, and I was deeply grieved to learn of his untimely death.”

After discovering that Willis could possibly be buried in Simpsonville, Skroch contacted the Simpsonville VFW and told members of the work he was doing. He got someone from the VFW to go find Willis’ grave, take a picture of it and send it back to him. Skroch noticed that Willis’ tombstone had not been well maintained over the years, so he came to clean it. He’s planning on a return trip to the grave with an engraver to tell more of Willis’ story.

2015_2-RobertWillisJr-MM-007

“His gravestone just had his name, his rank, his branch of service, the day he was born and the day he died,” Skroch said. “That was it. “That poor guy deserves more than that.”

Gen. Pershing's letter

Gen. Pershing’s letter

for more information on Lt. Col. Willis go to: http://www.earlyaviators.com/ewillisr.htm

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