Listen to the podcast of this article at Ensign Eldon Leroy Willard
Ensign Eldon Leroy Willard was born 17 June 1922 in Pittsburg, Kansas to Sherman Kirt and Berthena Francis (Lambeth) Willard. ENS Willard was the oldest of the couples’ four children and the favorite son.
The Willards, a pioneer family of Laclede County, came to the area in the 1860s. ENS Willard’s grandfather, Kirt Ulysses Willard, was born in Laclede County in 1871. ENS Willard’s parents were both born and raised in Laclede County and were married in 1921 in Lebanon. The couple moved to Kansas, where ENS Willard was born, then on to Michigan, where they would expand their family. Their three youngest children, Frances, Phillip, and Helen, were all born in Michigan. The Willards settled in Port Huron, where Sherman K. Willard would be one of the first U.S. Customs inspectors to serve at the Blue Water Bridge. The bridge, opened in 1938, spans the Saint Clair River and connects Port Huron and Ontario, Canada.
Eldon enjoyed fishing with his father and often went on fishing trips with him to the lakes around Port Huron. While Eldon and his siblings were raised in Michigan, they visited Laclede County on many occasions throughout the years to see relatives.
ENS Willard attended Port Huron High School where he graduated in 1940. After graduation, he worked at the Michigan Bell Telephone Company until he enlisted with the Navy on 17 October 1942. After training as a Naval Aviation Cadet, he received his commission and wings on 05 July 1944. Like other pilots in the area of the day, including the Tuskegee Airmen, ENS Willard flew under the Blue Water bridge, where his father worked, as part of his training. His sister Helen said that when the planes flew under the bridge, it made the local headlines and she wondered if her brother was one of the pilots. It turned out, he was.
Eldon later took more advanced training as a dive bomber pilot at Wildwood, New Jersey before being assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lake Champlain with the VPB-150 Squadron. VPB-150 was a Patrol Bombing Squadron of the U.S. Navy.
The U.S.S. Lake Champlain, commissioned on 03 June 1945, was named for the Battle of Lake Champlain in the War of 1812 and was the second of what would eventually be three ships named after the battle. U.S.S. Lake Champlain set out on a shakedown cruise, when the ship is tested for performance before entering service, sometime shortly after being commissioned. During this shakedown, the pilots aboard the aircraft carrier continued their regular duties, including training.
Ensign Willard was scheduled for leave from the Navy at the end of July 1945. On this leave, he intended to propose to his girlfriend, a Canadian, who lived just over the border from Port Huron. He had already purchased a ring.
On the night of 24 July 1945, near the island of Culebra, off the east coast of Puerto Rico, Ensign Willard piloted a Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver, Bureau Number 83506. The plane stalled during join-up with the group at 1,100 feet and crashed in to the water. The crash occurred at 19-24-30N 075-01-30W. Both Ensign Willard and his Radioman, James N. Jacobs of Taylorville, Illinois, were lost. Their remains were never found. ENS Willard’s Helldiver would be the last of 4 planes lost from the Lake Champlain in World War II.
Eldon’s sister, Helen, remembers well the day that a taxi pulled up to the family home and service men knocked on the door. She heard her mother let out a scream as she was informed of her son’s death. Berthena Lambeth Williard would deeply mourn the loss of her beloved son for many years. Helen, who was 12 at the time of her brother’s death, still has the diamond that he had hoped to place on his girlfriend’s finger.
Obituaries for Ensign Willard were published in Port Huron, Michigan and Laclede County, Missouri. The latter reads, in part: “His parents are former residents of this county. He was the grandson of Kirt Willard of Sleeper and of the late Lewis Lambeth of Oakland. His loss was a sad coincidence, as Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Goss, close friends of the family, received word that their son, Lt. Noel Goss, also a dive bomber pilot, was lost in a crash the same day while operating from another carrier.”
A memorial service was held aboard the U.S.S. Lake Champlain for Willard and Jacobs. The names of both men are inscribed on the East Coast Memorial in Battery Park in Manhattan, New York. A stone at the memorial site reads:
1941 – 1945
Erected by the United States of America in proud and grateful remembrance of her sons who gave their lives in her service and who sleep in the American costal waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Into They hands, O Lord
A family memorial service was held for ENS Willard on Sunday, 09 September 1945 at the Griswold Street Baptist Church in Port Huron. The Reverands David Jordan and the P. H. Kadey officiated. A memorial marker was placed at the Lakeside Cemetery in Port Huron. ENS Willard’s name is also memorialized at the East Coast Memorial at Battery Park on the island of Manhattan in New York.
Ensign Willard has several relatives still living in the Sleeper area today. Many locals will remember Eldon’s cousin, Bill Don Willard, who founded Willard Asphalt and Willard Quarries near Sleeper and also created Lebanon Ready Mix, the I-44 Speedway in Lebanon, and the USA Speedway near Bolivar.
U.S. WWII Draft Cards, Young Men, 1940 – 1947, Ancestry
Obituary, The Times Herald, Port Huron, Michigan, 08 Sep 1945, p 1, newspapers.com
Obituary, The Times Herlad, Port Huron, Michigan, 21 October 1991, p 2A, newspapers.com
1870 Census, Hooker Twp, Laclede Co, Missouri, p 27, Ancestry
1900 Census, Auglaize Twp, Laclede Co, Missouri, sheet 11, family 230, Ancestry
1930 Census, Flint, Genesee Co, Michigan, sheet 19B, Ancestry
1940 Census, Port Huron, St. Clair Co, Michigan, sheet 4A, Ancestry
FindaGrave memorial 171316903 https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/171316903/eldon-leroy-willard
“The Student” Port Huron High School Yearbook, Port Huron, Michigan, 1940, Ancestry
Naval Aviation Cadet Selection Board, Detroit, Michigan, 31 Dec 1942, p 306, fold3
Naval Aviation Cadet Selection Board, Seattle, Washington, 28 Feb 1943, p 125, fold3
Naval Aviation Cadet Selection Board, Seattle, Washington, 31 Mar 1943, p 247, fold3
Naval Aviation Cadet Selection Board, Detroit, Michigan, 30 Jun 1943, p 490, fold3
USS Lake Champlain (CV-39), Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Lake_Champlain_(CV-39)
USS Lake Champlain (CG-57), Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Lake_Champlain_(CG-57)
BuNos! Disposition of World War II USN, USMC and USCG Aircraft Listed by Bureau Number, by Douglas E. Campbell, p 550
Obituary, Laclede County, MO, 1940 – 1946, Obituaries & Death Notices, Laclede County Historical Society, p 118
FindaGrave memorial 128397546, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/128397546/eldon-leroy-willard
Telephone Interview with Sister, Helen Willard Harmon, 07 August 2021
Blue Water Bridge, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Water_Bridge
Brown, Darcell. Author presents previously unknown stories, photos of Michiganders in WWII. 05 April 2021. The Oakland Press. https://www.holocaustcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/HMC_AuthorWWIIStories_OakPress_4-5-21.pdf
FindaGrave Memorial https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/22924958/bill-don-willard
September 2021 email communications with Susan Jacobs Snider and Timothy Jacobs, niece and nephew of James N. Jacobs
This story is part of the Stories Behind the Stars project (see www.storiesbehindthestars.org). This is a national effort of volunteers to write the stories of all 400,000+ of the US WWII fallen here on Fold3. Can you help write these stories? Related to this, there will be a smartphone app that will allow people to visit any war memorial or cemetery, scan the fallen’s name and read his/her story. If you noticed anything missing in this profile, you may contact the author.