W. Wyeth Willard, who was credited with serving more consecutive days under constant enemy fire than any chaplain in the history of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, died Nov. 16. He was ninety-four and lived in Sandwich, Mass.
Willard landed with the Marines during the World War II battle at Guadalcanal, and of the eight chaplains who served the Marines there, he was the only survivor. In 1944, he was awarded the Legion of Merit, the Navy’s highest honor, for his service with the 2nd Marine division during the 1943 battle at Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. After seeking special permission to go ashore with his men, Willard, despite heavy enemy fire, evacuated the wounded and gave spiritual comfort to the dying. He paced the beach in full view, chanting “I’m Chaplain Willard and you can’t shoot me!” reported Leatherneck, the magazine of the U.S. Marines, in November 1980.
Willard, known for holding baptisms and conducting religious classes aboard ship, also received two Presidential citations for meritorious service under fire. In a letter to his family published on Oct. 18, 1942, in the Boston Globe, he wrote about helping doctors at a clinic in the Solomon Islands: “At night I held the dim blue flashlight for them at the operating table, where they removed shrapnel and bullets... I am glad the good Lord could use me in this service, also that He placed me here to preach the gospel, to give out pocket testaments to each man and tell them individually the story of Christ.” At Tarawa, those pocket testaments possibly saved lives – they were said to deflect bullets from the bodies of four men who carried them.
During his long career in the ministry, Willard was pastor of Forestdale Baptist Church in Sandwich, Mass.; Federated Church in Kingston, Mass.; Third Baptist Church in Barnstable, Mass.; and First Presbyterian Church in Waltham, Mass. He founded and directed Camp Good News, which aimed to win young people to Christ. The former moderator of the Boston Presbytery, he was also the author of several books, including The Leathernecks Come Through, which was quoted in Random House’s A History of the Marine Corps in World War II. He served for twenty years as a chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserve, retiring with the rank of commander.
Willard is survived by two daughters, including Faith, P.O. Box 74, Forestdale, Mass., 02644; and two sons.