A thirst for equality: Dying Navy veteran’s story resonates as Black History Month lesson

Phillip Willis, Jr

By Jeff Jardine,

Featured, Minority Veterans, Calvet Connect,

One summer afternoon in the late 1950s, eight-year-old Phillip Willis Jr. took a break from

Phillip Willis, Jr

mowing lawns at a home in Jackson, Mississippi. Having worked up a thirst, Willis asked his employer, a white woman, for a glass of water.

That simple and reasonable request required minimal physical effort on the woman’s part. Mainly, it required mere humanity and compassion for a young black kid toiling in the stifling heat and humidity. She begrudgingly gave him the water, Willis said, along with a not-so-subtle reminder that he was a black in America’s Deep South during the Jim Crow era.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, but don’t you come in the house, you hear me?’” Willis said. “She went to the (kitchen) counter and got a mayonnaise jar and gave me a glass of water in it. No ice – just regular tap water. Then she sat there and watched me drink it, like I was going to steal it while I was drinking it.” 

When he finished, she took the jar from him and threw it into the trash.

“She closed the screen door and locked it, and said, ‘If there is nothing else, you can get about your business,’” Willis said. “That was the attitude I got.”

Many years later, Willis got the last word (which we will save for the ending of this story). In the meantime, count that experience among the reasons Willis – now 70, and a U.S. Navy veteran in hospice care resulting from exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War – offered to share it with CalVet during Black History Month.

Willis said doctors in mid-August gave him three to six months to live. 

“It’s been six months,” he said. “I’m still here and I’m not going anywhere.” 

“Nobody knows the day or the hour, but I know he’s going out as a champion and he’s worked so hard,” wife Darlene Willis said.

That eight-year-old – whose grandfather had been enslaved – grew up and went on to study chemistry at Jackson State (then College, now University). When his draft notice arrived before his senior year, Willis enlisted in the Navy, knowing induction into the Army and the jungles of Southeast Asia, otherwise beckoned.

During the war, Willis served aboard the destroyer escort USS Hepburn in 1972 and 1973. The ship steamed into the Gulf of Tonkin, well within the 12-mile range, exposing its crew to Agent Orange, a defoliant used to eliminate the dense growth the enemy soldiers used as cover. Agent Orange causes cancer and numerous other ailments including pulmonary fibrosis, which afflicts Willis. He also suffers from PTSD.

The Navy left discernible scars in many ways not unlike what he remembered from back home in Mississippi, where his father worked as a janitor for a Jackson Coca-Cola distributorship. Every Fourth of July, his dad would barbecue for the white workers. 

“But blacks and whites were not able to sit down with each other in Jackson,” he said. The black workers returned the following day, heated up the leftovers, and celebrated their fourth on the fifth.

Willis himself returned to a nation that treated many Vietnam veterans horribly. Willis’ son, James C. Willis, wrote about his father while contributing to a new book titled, “REVEALED: True Testimonials and Lessons Learned on Covert and Blatant Racial Experience,” and authored by Dr. Darlene V. Willis, a psychologist who is Phillip’s wife and James’ mother. 

“… the ‘love for troops’ that we now, rightfully, know as normal, was not extended to soldiers, especially black soldiers, once they returned to the states,” James Willis wrote. “So, after fighting for the country, witnessing sites unimaginable, my father and his heroic colleagues returned to insults and disrespect, along with limited to no resources to help heal their wartime traumas.” 

Indeed, while in a grocery store one day in San Marcos, Phillip Willis said he waited in the checkout line behind a white woman who unloaded her goods onto the counter. 

“She looked up and saw me and stopped,” Willis said. “She went back to her cart and grabbed her purse and put it under her arm. Then she proceeded to take out an EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card. That’s a welfare card. I am paying for her groceries and she thinks I am going to steal her purse. Amazing!”

After leaving active duty in 1973, Willis served in the Naval Reserve for eight more years while building what became a long and successful career in the finance industry and in real estate. His wife, Darlene, is a psychologist, author and nationally recognized speaker. They recently moved from San Diego to Manteca, in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Their two sons, Phillip and James, both work for the non-profit Concerned Parents Alliance/College Bound Programs, which the Willis family created. 

They feel Black History Month is vital to all Americans. Knowing about the discrimination every day folks like Phillip Willis endured – and still do – is just as valuable and educational as the stories of well-known historical figures.

“We’re forever grateful to the Frederick Douglass’s, Sojourner Truths, Maya Angelous, and Martin Luther King, et cetera,” Darlene Willis said. “But there are real people like my husband and the countless others that experienced things that aren’t necessarily told in the history books.”

In his final days, Phillip Willis Jr.’s stories resonate more than ever; like the one about an eight-year-old wanting a glass of ice-cold water on a steaming hot Mississippi day in the late 1950s. That story now has a most fitting ending, as son James wrote:

“My dad not only still passes that house when we visit Jackson, he stops by to check on the tenants, as he now owns that very house. While I can say with great certainty that my dad will never live in that house, I know he has great pride in owning something that he was once denied access to.”

(Editors Notes)

A Snapshot in the Journey of Phillip Willis Jr.

(Phillip Willis Jr., the focus of this article, is the fourth of nine children born to Phillip and Pernola Willis Sr., now deceased. They were lifelong residents of a place once called Gowdy, MS. The family were members of College Hill Baptist Church in Jackson with many ties to the Jackson, MS community.  Willis graduated from Jim Hill High School in 1968 and then enrolled at Jackson State University. While at Jackson State, he became a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and experienced life on Jackson State’s campus during an attack on May 14, 1970 by local and state policemen where two students were killed on campus. Shortly afterwards, Willis received his draft notice and like so many others, decided to enlist as opposed to being drafted. The California Department of Veterans Affairs recognized Willis during their Black History Month Celebration and on February 26, 2021, Phillip Jr. will receive the Vietnam Service Medal and certificate and commemorative coin presented by California Congressman Josh Harder. From cutting grass in West Jackson to a successful real estate investor, Willis’ life journey has shown that something good can develop from the humble beginnings of people from a place once called Gowdy, now known as West Jackson, Washington Addition.)

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