World War II Veteran Recalls Repairing Bombed Airstrips - The Missourian: Senior Lifetimes

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World War II Veteran Recalls Repairing Bombed Airstrips

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Posted: Monday, December 2, 2013 5:32 pm | Updated: 11:19 am, Wed Dec 4, 2013.

Willis Mayall of Washington held a homemade book titled “Of Men and Mud,” which documents the time he and his battalion spent in World War II.

He did not write the book, but it does include stories as told by members of his battalion.

“I was in that group that went to China,” Mayall said.

The book, which dates back to the 1940s, has held up just as well as Mayall through the years.

His home is adorned with patriotic flags and ribbons, and he said he gets a lot of respect, especially when he wears his veteran hat.

A list of more than 10 casualties from his battalion are printed in the book.

“Those guys went out on patrol and never were seen again,” Mayall said. “The Japanese did away with them.”

A member of the U.S. Army, Mayall explained that he was injured multiple times in the war.

He still has shrapnel in his body from an ammo dump explosion.

As a young man at the time he did not give a lot of thought to some of the dangerous situations he was in during the war. He recalled that Japanese fighter planes shot at his tent, and he said the bullets were “right above my head.”

And he broke his collarbone and arm when a machine he was driving tipped over.

Luckily, he was about 20 years old and “could stand a lot of abuse.”

Like other members of the Greatest Generation, Mayall was resilient, and at 90 he still comes across as a stalwart person.

879th Airborne Engineers

Born and raised in central Illinois, Mayall came from a farming background. In fact, his family farm is where he got an early taste of the armed forces because the Army took over the land to make it a German prisoner of war camp in WWII.

He and his father worked for the Army camp, and he joined the service in 1943 at the age of 19. He was a member of the 879th Airborne Engineers.

“We operated out of gliders,” he said. “They were towed behind bigger planes.”

He added that gliders did not have engines and were made in St. Louis.

“They were towed behind C-47s and C-46s,” Mayall said, adding that the gliders, which were made of plywood, carried equipment to repair airstrips.

During his 31 months in the service he operated equipment to repair bomb crater holes in captured airfields. He noted that U.S. planes had to bomb airfields to recapture the airstrips from the Japanese.

“Then we went in and repaired the airstrips so the bigger planes could come in,” Mayall explained.

There were tough times in the service such as when he contracted amoebic dysentery and was put into a hospital in Burma. This put him out of commission for six months, he said, adding that he got the illness after eating pineapple despite warnings to avoid it.

“It was severe dysentery that affects your liver,” he said.

Also in the service, he repaired airstrips in China and in India helped build the first B-29 airbase.

“B-29s were just introduced to the Air Force, and they were going to be used on long-distance flights,” he said.

He was in China when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but at the time he did not know how much damage had been done.

When the war ended, he helped other troops push damaged tractors over mountain ranges before leaving.

Life After War

Serving his country in the military also allowed him to see a lot of the world that he never would have seen. When he left the country to serve, he was shipped to North Africa and then went through the Suez Canal to Bombay, India.

After the war, he went back home and his dad was farming again but Mayall was not drawn to the lifestyle.

Shortly after, he got married to his late wife, Margaret, in 1947, and they moved to Estes Park, Colo., and he worked in construction. They lived in a camper there until relocating to another Colorado town before winter hit. His wife got pregnant with the first of their four children and wanted to return home to Illinois. They had three girls and one boy, and he worked for his father-in-law’s dealership.

He thought about moving to Florida and buying a motel, saying he thought that would be a fun life.

But he never acted on the impulse even though he sold his house with the intentions of going.

Through the years he stayed in touch with some of the approximately 300 members of his World War II battalion, but they are deceased now, he said.

These days, he spends some of his time taking a free computer class at the Washington Senior Center.

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