LAHARPE — Monday evening Willis Ross meandered outside LaHarpe’s Veterans of Foreign Wars building, pulling small pockets of weeds from the edge of a sidewalk after arriving early, as he usually does, for the post’s monthly meeting.
Ross’ attention to detail is typical for a man who grew up facing the daily demands of a farmer and for more than 63 years has been proud to be a member of the LaHarpe VFW.
“Keeping busy” is in his genes, said Ross, allowing it’s been his formula for living to 93. Recently he has occupied himself caring for more than two acres of lawn and trees on a spread belonging to his second wife, Jessie, whom he married in 2002. They live near Mildred. He and first wife Pauline were married 49 years before she died in 2000.
Ross has been a farmer, LaHarpe postmaster for nearly 23 years and, when most men his age aren’t looking for a job, as a handyman and painter at Windsor Place in Iola and at Moran Manor, where he retired in July 2012.
If chores at home weren’t so demanding, he might be looking for yet another job.
AFTER learning the three R’s at Waverly District 77 school north of LaHarpe, Ross graduated from LaHarpe High in 1939.
“I was in the top 10 percent of the class,” he crowed.
In early summer of 1942 he was helping a great uncle harvest wheat in western Kansas when his induction papers came. After a couple of weeks to get his affairs in order, Ross marched into Fort Leavenworth in late July to do his World War II duty.
He learned the nuances of being an infantryman at Camp Roberts, Calif., and then was put with an Army Air Corps outfit, the 302nd Squadron, at Gowen Field, Boise, Idaho.
“I spent some time with guard duty, and” — an accomplishment that he still likes to talk about — “I learned to type,” Ross said.
By December he was at Camp Kilmer, N.J., along with 150 other men of the squadron, ready to sail for Scotland, and an eventual train ride to England.
That’s where he came the closest to being in harm’s way.
“We were in Buzz Bomb Alley,” Ross said, the name the Yanks gave to a corridor where unmanned German bombs often crashed with terrifying results.
Buzz bombs were rocket-propelled aircraft filled with explosives. They flew across the English Channel and fell to earth when they ran out of fuel. Fighter planes sometimes shot down buzz bombs and that’s what happened the day one landed just outside a hangar where Ross was working.
He was in England for several months, prepping for the D-Day Invasion of June 6, 1944. His unit arrived in the Normandy region of France on Utah Beach, one of two designated for American forces, a little later in October 1944.
His job was to haul fuel, and during one particular mission drove 600 miles across France.
Late in the war, he chaffeured a 750-gallon tanker, towing two 600-gallon trailers, across a pontoon bridge over the Rhine River into Germany and to Mannheim. He recalled hearing about President Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, during the journey.
“On V-E Day (victory in Europe, May 8, 1945) or maybe it was the day after, I was working on the airstrip when a German fighter plane came in and landed,” Ross said. “The pilot wanted to surrender. I took him to the commanding officer.”
After Germany’s capitulaton, Ross helped prepare equipment for shipment to the Pacific Theater, but he had enough points to win discharge.
BACK HOME, he did what so many former World War II service men and women did, resume civilian life, which in his case included joining the LaHarpe VFW — the only VFW post in Allen County — on Jan. 1, 1951.
He served as post commander in 1951-53, 1956-57 and 2001-02, and is post quartermaster, a position he has held one time or another for 25 years.
“We once had 273 members and have 88 now,” said Ross, who has a keen memory for details. “We have 72 life members, but a lot of them have moved away.”
Monday evening, he and Doug Northcutt, LaHarpe, were the only members on hand, an outcome which they agreed was “a little sad.”