Veteran of Three Wars: Willis Colburn

Willis Colburn’s cap reflects his service in 3 wars: WWII, Korea, Vietnam.

Willis Colburn was near 100 when I interviewed him, but his mind was sharp. What a story of service in three wars: WWII, Korea, Vietnam. His story is featured in my book, We Gave Our Best: American WWII Veterans Tell Their Stories.

Colburn’s story is featured in We Gave Our Best: American WWII Veterans Tell Their Stories.

Here is an excerpt:

Before departing from the East Coast in spring 1944, Willis ‘Bill’ Colburn and other Army Air Corps troops were issued fleece-lined jackets. This cold-weather gear may have been a decoy — their destination was Clark Field in the Philippines.

Heavy battle was happening on an island called Okinawa. Colburn of Addison, New York, and his unit joined the fighting which had begun in April and lasted through June 1945. Colburn had been an agricultural student at Cornell University in July 1942 when drafted. As two uncles had served in World War I, 21-year-old Colburn was anxious to follow their example.

Willis Colburn served in the Army Air Corps in WWII.

After basic training at Miami Beach Training Center where his unit looked for German subs, Colburn was sent to training schools as a radio operator at Sioux Falls, S.D., and Boca Raton, Fla. He was also trained as a gunner at Fort Myers and Keesler Army Airfield in Biloxi, Miss. When asked to stay in the U.S. to be an air and sea rescue instructor, Colburn declined. By now, the war had been going on for more than two years. “I was anxious to get overseas,” he said. “I wanted to go where the action was.”

Colburn had plenty of opportunity to use his gunnery skills as the planes his crew flew strafed the island of Okinawa and the Japanese soldiers dug into the mountains below.

During one flight, four Japanese ‘Betty’ bombers came alongside his plane. Colburn, standing at a gun turret inside the plane, thought the enemy would kill everyone in his crew. For some reason the planes didn’t attack and Colburn’s plane escaped without damage.

By the time the battle of Okinawa was over, there was an estimated loss of 14,000 Allied soldiers. With the additional loss of 77,000 Japanese soldiers and 65,000 casualties, it was considered one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Pacific.

Those and other horrific losses, combined with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, caused Japan to finally surrender.

After the war, Colburn obtained a commission and re-enlisted in the Air Force (the branch name changed from Army Air Corps to Air Force in 1947).

In late 1951 2nd Lt. Colburn was deployed for Korea. After that war, Colburn was assigned duties with the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon.

In 1964 Colburn was sent to Vietnam as part of a cryptography unit for the Air Force. “My duties included talking in codes that were hopefully too difficult for the enemy to crack,” he said. He retired in 1966 as a major.

The Colburns’ four sons enlisted in the Army and Air Force. One son, George, is buried at Arlington Cemetery. A grandson served with the Indiana Air Guard.

“Our generation wanted to make it better for future soldiers,” he said. “We thought if we maintained a strong military presence in certain parts of the world, it would deter dictators.”


Claire Colburn White shared these thoughts about her dad’s influence:

“Growing up, Dad told us kids lots of stories about his military life. He did not talk much about the wars themselves (WWII, Korea, Vietnam), but shared more of the personal aspects of his relationship with other soldiers and civilians.

As a kid, I found these stories to be like an adventure, but looking back as an adult, I find it to be sad for so many reasons.

Life was good as a “military brat”, but it came with its sacrifices, though those sacrifices pale in comparison to what my Dad and others went through.”


What memories do you have of growing up or knowing a World War II veteran? Share in the comments below.

I always thank veterans for their service and include the families as well. I know many family members sacrifice much to see their loved one go to a sometimes unknown part of the world in defense of others’ freedoms.

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