On the outskirts of Bastogne, France, Pfc. Bob Willis banged on the hull of an American tank with the butt of his rifle Jan. 4, 1945.
“We were going through some woods, and some Germans pinned us down,” he said. “(The captain) said, ‘Willis, go down to that tank and tell them to fire into the bottom of that house.’”
As the company runner, he was tasked with ferrying messages to and from his infantry company’s captain, a “full-blooded Pima Indian” from Sacaton, Arizona, Willis said.
While banging on the tank’s hull to get the operator’s attention, a German tank fired on their position.
“The shell exploded right at my feet,” he remembered. “It blew me up into the air, and when I came down, I had a piece of shrapnel in my side.”
Seventy-one years later, an American flag rippled in the warm November breeze outside Willis’ home in Laramie. Sitting down with a handful of memories, he removed a small book, a set of dog tags and a finger-sized chunk of metal from a wooden case. The book was brown, tattered and missing a portion of its cover with frayed pages beneath.
“This is the Book of Mormon I had in my pocket,” the 91-year-old said quietly. “I don’t know that it saved my life, but it slowed (the shrapnel) down. That’s for sure.”
He ran his thumb over the missing portion of the book’s cover and explained the chunk of metal that mangled the text before nearly killing him.
Home on the Range
Born in 1925 to Mormon settlers living in Lovell, Willis’ family moved to Laramie in 1929. At the outset of America’s involvement in World War II, Willis’ father joined the U.S. Air Force, and the family moved to Santa Ana, California.
In 1943, Willis finished high school in California and, two years after his father joined the war effort, enlisted as an infantryman in the U.S. Army.
“(My father) tried to get me into flight school,” Willis said. “But, I guess they had enough pilots.”
After basic combat training, he filed onto the USS Mariposa, a former luxury liner repurposed as a troop ship, and set sail for Germany.
“The bunks were four, five or six high,” the silver-haired veteran recalled as he shifted his thin-rimmed bifocals higher on his nose. “They just piled us in there.”
During the nine-day trip across the Atlantic, the soldiers spent large portions of their time chatting on the deck.
“Most of us were seasick — I could’ve died I was so sick for about six days,” he said. “Then, the last three days I got my sea legs finally.”
Battle of the Bulge
Upon arriving in France, Willis was assigned to the 26th Infantry Division as a replacement.
His unit fought in the northern part of the country before joining Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s push to break the German offensive pouring out of the Ardennes Forest.
The month-long engagement would later be called the Battle of the Bulge, which was considered a turning point in the war that cost the American military 75,000 casualties and the German military up to 100,000, according the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
The German offensive began during a winter storm in December 1945, and Willis’ unit joined the fray a few days later.
“We were in the forest in fox holes,” Willis said. “Every night, we’d just lay down in our fox hole. Some nights, it was so cold you’d get up and rub each other’s shoulders and stomp your feet to keep from freezing.”
The American military was caught off guard by the German offensive, and the American soldiers had not been issued winter gear yet, he said.
“A lot of guys got frost bite and trench foot,” Willis said. “That caused about as many casualties as bullet wounds probably.”
Surviving the weather was as much as a concern as surviving the enemy attacks.
“We had no place to go for shelter,” he said. “We lived in holes.”
By the time he was hit with shrapnel, his unit had been fighting in the Ardennes Forest for about three weeks.
“I lucked out,” he said. “Hell, it could of taken my head off or pulverized me. I was lucky to get just one little piece of shrapnel.”
He was wearing a rabbit-fur jacket when he was hit. The shrapnel carried pieces of the jacket and powdered lemonade from a packet in his pocket into the wound.
“The problem was they didn’t know how deep it went,” he said.
From the field hospital, he was sent to a medical facility in Bar-le-Duc, France.
“(The medical facility) was an old school house,” he remembered. “It was full of people, and guys were dying of their wounds right and left. At least I was warm and dry.”
Five weeks later, he was released to return to his unit.
“The experiences we had in the military were just luck of the draw,” Willis said.
Once out of the hospital, he rejoined his unit and crossed the Rhine River. When Victory Europe was declared May 8, 1945, he was in the Czech Republic.
“As far as we were concerned, it was just another day,” he said. “We were relieved, but it was just another day.”
He didn’t return to the states for several more months. Instead, he was tasked to watch over 20 Jewish women who survived concentration camps and were selected to testify at a war crimes trial.
“I was there to make sure the Germans didn’t intimidate them,” he said.
The youngest of the group was born in the concentration camps, and the eldest watched her husband and son taken away on a train, never to be heard from again.
“That was the kind of thing those people went through, and they had no say in it,” Willis explained. “They just separated them. They didn’t care.”
He watched over the group for about a month during which time they told him their stories and cooked for him.
“I think they thought of me as a little brother,” he said.
Later, the group was released because of an abundance of witnesses.
“I’d give anything if I could just find out how they are now,” Willis said.
He returned to the U.S. in February 1946 and exited the military. Returning to Wyoming, he attended the University of Wyoming and participated in the first Reserve Officers’ Training Corps course offered since the start of the war.
After WWII, Willis met his wife, Kaye. Together they have five children and 12 grandchildren.
Willis was commissioned as an officer in the Army Reserve and served as a training officer during the Korean War before receiving his honorable discharge with the rank of first lieutenant.
Using his G.I. Bill, Willis said he studied dentistry in Oregon, because his mother always wanted him to become a doctor. He returned to Laramie and practiced dentistry for 45 years.
But he said he did his growing up in the Army on the green fields of France.
“The whole war was a lesson,” he said. “I was just lucky enough to have some unique experiences. I wouldn’t trade it in a million years.”