John Harlan Willis was born on 10 June 1921 in Columbia, Tennessee, and graduated from high school there before enlisting in the U. S. Navy as an apprentice seaman on 5 November 1940. He received recruit training at the Naval Training Station, Norfolk, Virginia, before he transferred in January 1941 to the Hospital Corps School at the Norfolk Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Virginia. In March of the same year, he was transferred to the Naval Hospital, Parris Island, South Carolina. During the next two years, he served at various posts as well as advancing through the enlisted ranks until reaching pharmacist’s mate first class on 1 July 1943.

In November 1943, PhM1c Willis joined Training Detachment, Field Medical School Battalion, at Camp Elliott, California. He transferred to Headquarters Company, 3d Battalion, 27th Marines, 5th Marine Division in February 1944 and embarked with the unit in late December for Iwo Jima.

On 28 February 1945, during a fierce battle for Hill 362A in which numerous Marines were wounded, PhM1c Willis resolutely administered aid. Despite suffering from painful shrapnel wounds and ignoring superiors’ orders to return to the aid station, PhM1c Willis instead returned to his company to continue helping the wounded. Spotting a Marine lying wounded in a shell hole at the extreme front lines, he went to the Marine’s aid despite the heavy mortar and sniper fire. He was administering blood plasma when a grenade landed in the hole with them. PhM1c Willis grabbed the grenade and returned it to the enemy. As he continued to aid his patient, he returned seven more grenades. Tragically, the ninth grenade exploded in his hand and killed him instantly. For his selfless devotion to duty, PhM1c Willis was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Willis was laid to rest in Rose Hill Cemetery in his hometown of Columbia.


In addition to the Medal of Honor, his decorations included the Purple Heart Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. The destroyer escort USS John Willis (DE-1027), sponsored by his widow and named in his honor, was launched on 4 February 1956.


Navy Medal of Honor recipients serving with Marine units at the time of award

Marine Corps University