Willis T. Houser

Branch: ARMY
Service Number: 6719095 
Rank: Private
Unit: 32nd Infantry Div, 126th Infantry Reg, Co. “I”

Willis Theodore Houser was born on July 10, 1906 in Millerton, Pennsylvania to parents Dr. Penrose Willis Houser and Anna "Leda" (Hamilton) Houser. Willis was the youngest of the siblings. He had a sister, Vera born in 1900 and a brother, Verde born in 1901. Dr. Houser also had two children from a previous marriage. Celia was born in 1893 (but later died in 1918) and Hugh was born a year later.

Dr. Penrose Houser
Penrose Houser was a physician who practiced medicine in Millerton and Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. He had originally gone to school for music but this career had proved too difficult to earn a decent living at the time. He decided to change his profession and attended both Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities where he received his medical degrees. Penrose's musical influence did not however go to unnoticed. He was a talented violinist and taught music lessons to children in the area. He also conducted a well known boys band that included Hugh on the clarinet and Willis on drums. For many years, Wellsboro is where the Houser children were raised.

It was said that Dr. Houser also had a history of being abusive to his spouse and children at times. Older brother Hugh was treated cruelly by his father but decided to live with his father and Leda to look after his younger siblings. He always had a close relationship with Willis and took good care of him.

In October 1919, the Housers moved to Clermont, Florida after Penrose purchased some farm land adjacent to Lake Susan to grow oranges. Willis and Hugh lived down there to run this new operation for two years until a terrible frost wiped out most of their groves. Penrose sold the property and the family returned to Wellsboro. After moving back to Pennsylvania, Leda and Dr. Houser divorced in 1922. Leda had made it a point to return to Florida to spend each winter for several years after separating from Penrose.

Margaret Herman
It was also at this time that Willis left Wellsboro to live with his Aunt Margaret (Houser) Herman and Uncle Frederick Herman who lived at 407 Black Horse Pike in Mount Ephraim, New Jersey. This is the present location of the church at Sixth Avenue and North Black Horse Pike. Penrose Houser passed away in July 1927 from heart disease. His obituary listed Willis as already living in the Camden area. While living in Mount Ephraim, Willis took a job working at the Armstrong Cork Company in Camden until enlisting in the Army on June 11, 1932. 

After basic training, he was sent to Panama to protect the south side (Pacific) of the Panama Canal. Houser was billeted at Fort Amador, where he served with Battery “G” of the 4th Coastal Artillery Regiment. In late October 1936, Willis was discharged from the Army and returned to New York City aboard the transport ship, USAT Chateau Thierry.

On September 6, 1939, Willis re-enlisted at Fort Totten in New York, where he briefly served with the 62nd Coastal Artillery before being transferred back to the Panama Canal Zone. Houser was promoted to Private First Class and assigned to the 72nd Coastal Artillery at Fort Randolph, in Panama. He would remain stationed there from late 1939 to some time in 1943. By December 1943, had returned to the United States. Willis had been promoted to the rank of Corporal and with the 140th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Group at Camp Stewart in Georgia. 

 After mid-February 1944, Willis was reduced in rank back to Private and transferred to the 399th Infantry Regiment of the 100th Infantry Division, training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was one of four-thousand soldiers destined to be added to the infantry replacement system. He was granted a 10 day furlough in early August and returned to Wellsboro to visit his family. When his liberty was up, he boarded a train which took him to the Ground Forces Replacement Depot #1 at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland. 

Fort Meade was one of only two Army installations in the country where soldiers gathered to be shipped overseas as replacements for men who had been either killed, wounded, reassigned or discharged. Here, the officers made sure these soldiers were adequately prepared for war. The men were kept active to maintain their mental and physical conditioning. Additional training, weapon proficiency checks, physical examinations, and inoculations were all performed to make sure the troops were fit for overseas duty.

Some time in late 1944, Willis received orders that he was being shipped overseas. Before he left, Willis had an opportunity to travel to New York to visit his mother. Leda was now remarried and residing in Ithaca with her husband Arthur Whiting. Mother and son spent some days together but said a sad goodbye to each other at the train station in Ithaca. Willis boarded the railcar with a destination of California. An awaiting troop ship was at the San Francisco Port of Embarkation to take the replacement soldiers overseas to the Pacific Theatre of Operations.

Willis wrote home to his brother Hugh in a letter dated January 22, 1945, from New Guinea. He was at the 5th Replacement Depot and assigned to the 191st Replacement Company. He spoke of the conditions in New Guinea and how he longed to return home and help his brother with farm work. In his closing, Willis mentioned that he was doing band laundry. It is possible that Willis performed with a band while in the replacement depot.

126th Inf. Reg. Patch
On February 18th, Willis was moved to the 32nd Infantry Division's 12th Replacement Company on Luzon in the Philippines. Four days later, he was assigned as a rifleman to the 126th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company “I.” The 32nd Infantry Division was conducting offensive operations to clear the Villa Verde Trail from late February to May 1945 as part of an overall effort by I Corps, 6th Army, to defeat the Japanese in northern Luzon, Philippines. 

The Division had already accrued two years of combat experience in the Pacific prior to the beginning of the operation. Facing, perhaps, its most difficult challenge of the war, the 32nd Infantry Division came into this battle understrength, tired, diseased, and weary. Willis himself would suffer from dysentery and have to be sent to a field hospital on March 20th. He recovered from the illness and returned to duty on March 29th.

Morale was low and the Division's leadership had been significantly reduced prior to Villa Verde. The 32nd Infantry Division found itself confronted by an experienced, dug in, and well fortified enemy in the rugged, densely vegetated mountains of northern Luzon. Consequently, the 32nd Infantry Division had no alternative but to fight it out using small unit tactics under extremely difficult environmental conditions.

126th Inf. Reg. soldiers
on Villa Verde Trail
The following is from a paper entitled “CSI Battle Book 14-D" from the Combat Studies institute that explains the operations of the 126th Infantry Regiment in Luzon on the Villa Verde Trail: 

"It had become apparent by 1 April that the 32nd Infantry Division on the Villa Verde Trail was engaged with the enemy's main line of resistance. The only way the Division could be reinforced was for I Corps to relieve the 126th Infantry Regiment of its mission in the Ambayabang and Arboredo River Valleys. On 5 April, 32nd Infantry Division Field Order 1117 directed the movement of the 126th Infantry to the Villa Verde Trail sector.

The 126th Infantry Regiment was immediately committed in the Salacsac Pass area, on the left (north) of the 128th Infantry. Its first objectives were hills 518 and 519. To reach its objectives, the 126th Infantry was to strike off the Villa Verde Trail from a point about a mile-and-a-half west of hill 502 and push northeast along the Miliwit River Valley.

The 3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry, moved east through the Miliwit River Valley to the Salacsac Pass area and contacted the enemy on hills 518 and 519. Hill 519 was captured before dark on 6 April, and hill 518 was gained the following day.

The 1st Battalion, 126th Infantry reached the much-used Japanese track which led north from the Villa Verde Trail on 6 April. On 7 April, the 1st Battalion reached the base of hill 511, and by 10 April had reached a point about 350 yards due south of hill 511.

The Japanese reacted violently to the advance of the 126th Infantry with concentrations of artillery fire, particularly on the 3rd Battalion. On 8 April, 200 rounds of artillery and mortar fell within the zone of the 126th. A high casualty rate and a large number of shock cases resulted from this continual artillery pounding.”

This is where Private Houser was killed after being struck in the neck by a piece of shrapnel. It was stated by a niece that he was serving as a flamethrower for this company. The only effects that Willis had in his possession at the time of death was a prayer book.

USAFC Santa Barbara #1, Luzon
Willis was buried originally at U.S. Armed Forces Cemetery, Santa Barbara #1, Luzon, Philippines on April 26, 1945. This cemetery was located 135 miles north of Manila. At the request of Leda, Willis’s remains were disinterred in November 1948 for transport back to the United States for burial in Wellsboro.

Houser’s remains were returned to the United States on March 30, 1949 aboard the Army transport, USAT Sergeant Jack J. Pendleton. He was then transported from Fort Mason, California to Brooklyn Army Base via rail car, arriving on April 11th. He left New York on May 4th by rail, arriving at Troy, Pennsylvania that evening. His casket was escorted by Corporal Vincent J. Bertolli. From there, Houser’s body was consigned to the Johnson and Tussey Funeral Home in Wellsboro. 

Leda was reportedly very ill and at home in Ithaca at the time of Willis’ arrival in Wellsboro. Sister, Vera took power of attorney and handled the funeral arrangements. A military funeral was held on May 6th by the W. Earle Champaign American Legion Post #84 of Wellsboro. Private Houser was awarded the Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman Badge posthumously.

Willis T. Houser is buried in Section M, Lot 105, Grave 5 at the Wellsboro Cemetery in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. He was survived by his brothers, Verde and Hugh, and sister, Vera Weaver. He was also survived by his Aunt Margaret and Uncle Fred who had taken him in after difficult conditions back at home. Willis's mother, Leda was suffering from a long-time illness. She would pass away a year after having to bury her son.

Willis Houser grave marker, Wellsboro Cemetery

May their sacrifice never be forgotten.


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