The words come slowly at first, and then in a rush as 88-year-old Willis Prather started to recall memories long ago forgotten and buried.
BENTLEY – The words come slowly at first, and then in a rush as 88-year-old Willis Prather started to recall memories long ago forgotten and buried.
Sitting at his kitchen table in front of a stack of old pictures, it is hard to tell by his voice, still strong and vibrant, what he is feeling as he relives his experiences in World War II.
His hands, though, finally give him away.
“You know, I saw some terrible things back then that I don’t want to ever see again. I have done my best to block them from my memories,” Prather said, as every so often he would wring his hands. “As hard as I try, though, I can’t forget them – the images, sounds and smells. I believe the good Lord just doesn’t want me to forget them.”
As a member of the famed 82nd Airborne, Prather, along with millions of fellow U.S. servicemen, fought their way across Europe and the Pacific during the dark and bloody days of World War II.
He was part of a generation that helped to shape the modern world and paved the way for freedom. His generation has been hailed as America’s greatest generation, a title many, including Prather, accept humbly.
His career in the 82nd – the same division that produced Medal of Honor winner Alvin York in World War I – began in a roundabout way as the 23-year-old transplant from Mowata, a small Cajun community between Crowley and Eunice, joined the division as a replacement in the field artillery at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla.
“I went from the 320th Field Artillery Battalion to the 319th Field Artillery and then to the 407th Quartermaster Company,” Prather said. “I landed in Normandy on D-Day, not by parachute, but in a glider, which was pretty rough for some of us.”
On D-Day the 407th Airborne QM Company went into Normandy in two echelons, the first in gliders and the remaining contingent by ship. The glider-borne contingent landed in the early morning hours on June 6th and set up a temporary base on the outskirts of Blosville, a short distance from Ste. Mere Eglise.
The 82nd saw extensive action in the coming months, but it was on the evening of Dec. 17th they would receive their greatest challenge of the war. The day before the Germans had launched a surprise attack through the Ardennes forest that caught everyone off guard.
“I had just gone to bed when they got us up around 11, and told us we had to drive 30 miles to a place called Camp Suippes in Sissone, France to get supplies,” Prather said. “They didn’t tell us much except the Germans had broken through our lines. We were up all night driving, loading and unloading.”
“The 101st were already in Camp Suippes and left immediately for Bastogne (Belgium) where they immediately became encircled. We followed and went into the lines close by them,” Prather said. “We didn’t leave those line until six weeks later. I went two weeks without taking a bath, and when I did it was water from my helmet.”
They had hurriedly been thrown into the line to stem the German advance in what quickly became known as the Battle of the Bulge. They very little winter clothing, ammunition or equipment. About all they did have were guts and their faith.
“There was no such thing as ‘quiet time’ in the line,” Prather said. “We had chaplains, not many of whom were Baptist, and we tried to attend services every chance we could, but it was difficult.
“The cold was terrible. The snow was up to a man’s waist, and higher in the ditches. We were constantly shelled, and we lost a lot of good men during that time,” Prather said. “Despite all of that no one ever seemed to lose faith or give up hope. We knew God was behind us and he would take care of us.”
On Christmas morning, the weather finally broke, the sun came out, and the planes, grounded because of the weather, were able to deliver much-needed supplies to those on the ground. The allies counterattacked shortly afterwards, and they were soon able to turn the tables on the Germans, which effectively broke the German army’s back and hastened the end of the war.
“Looking back on that time, I was scared, but I didn’t fear death, because I knew I was saved, and I would be going to heaven. I was saved when I was 11-years-old at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church.” Prather said. “He built up my faith. I knew He was with me, and that brought me peace in the midst of war. And there were many times I needed that inner peace.”
The 82nd continued to push the Germans back into Germany. As a matter of fact, they made history when they captured a whole German army – the 21st Army Group – in their push into Germany.
“We were moving so fast – sometimes 50 miles a day – that we didn’t have time to clear the mines left in the road,” Prather said. “The closest I came to injury or death was during this time. The first was on a mountain road when the truck (a 6X6) got into some bad ruts, slid off the road, and came to rest in a curve leaning up against two trees. I looked out and it was a half-mile down.”
The second experience came as he was part of a convoy carrying supplies to the front lines.
“This large German truck loaded with men, women and children was on the road ahead of us when it hit a land mine,” Prather said. “I was in the truck behind the Lieutenant’s jeep. The blast buried his jeep in dirt, but fortunately he wasn’t hurt. The truck loaded with all those people, though, was an awful sight. The blast created this huge hole and you couldn’t even see the truck in it. When we finally cleared the road, we found nine more land mines in the curve.
“As he had the entire war, God had his hand on my shoulder,” Prather said. “The good Lord had to be with me or else we would have run over one of those mines ourselves. I came through the war without a scratch. I know a lot of guys who didn’t make it, and a lot more who were wounded. But the good Lord carried me through, he had to be holding my hand.”
The most disturbing memories for Prather came when the 82nd began stumbling on the concentration camps. It is those memories of those concentration camps that he struggles the most with.
“It was the most horrendous thing I had ever seen. The camps had people lined up in rows so weak they could barely hold their eyes open. We would pass by and they would watch us with their eyes, and when we returned they were dead,” Prather said. “There was one man that when he died weighed just 26 pounds.”
The war, though, finally ended and Prather returned to his wife and young son, who was born while Prather had to stand guard duty at Fort Sill. He returned on Christmas Day 1945.
He brought his family to Colfax, bought the house he still lives in on Jan. 6, 1946, and settled into raising his family. Shortly after moving into his new house, he joined Bethel Baptist Church of Bentley, and became a deacon in 1952.
He did a little truck farming and then went to work for E.S. Voelker Company in Alexandria fixing hay balers and retired in 1981 after 31 years. Retirement is just a word for Prather, who stays busy fixing balers on the side or working in the hay business. He’s also very active with his church.
“I made a promise to the Lord that if I got out of there in one piece I would get someplace and never leave there again and I would devote my life to lifting him up to others,” Prather said.
Prather has been a man of his word as he has taught a men’s adult Sunday school class since the late 40s at Bethel and for more than seven years spent time on the local radio station spreading the Word.
“I have been truly blessed,” Prather said. “All of my children are Christians and are active in church. I have been a deacon and a Sunday school teacher in the same church for 61 years. I’ve also been a part of a group of men who have gone to the radio station where we held prayer meetings on the air.
“I put my trust in the Lord when I was 11 years old,” Prather said. “And he has never left my side. When people ask me how I made it through the war without a scratch? I tell them God, because through him all things are possible.”