John Nelson Willis, 80, veteran firefighter and Air Force vet

Posted: February 28, 2014

JOHN WILLIS got to see what few Americans have ever seen - the explosion of a hydrogen bomb.

He was an Air Force enlisted man stationed on the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific in the 1950s when the United States conducted a series of nuclear tests there.

Enewetak and nearby Bikini Atoll were hammered by a total of 43 nuclear explosions between 1948 and 1958.

John Willis was stationed on Enewetak after his enlistment in 1953. He was discharged in 1957.

"He often talked about the experience," said his wife, Wilhelmena. "He believed the radiation caused a lot of his physical problems and he put in paperwork to receive compensation. Nothing came of it.

"He said it was very hot there."

John Nelson Willis, a 35-year member of the Philadelphia Fire Department who rose to the rank of lieutenant, a civic leader and father figure to many children, to whom he gave sage advice about their lives, died Feb. 20. He was 80 and lived in Plymouth Meeting, but had lived many years in West Oak Lane.

Like all Philadelphia firefighters, John was involved in a number of high-profile blazes, as well as the ordinary day-to-day neighborhood fires that keep big-city firefighters jumping.

One of the high-profile fires he was involved in was the horrendous Gulf Oil refinery blaze in August 1975, which went to 11 alarms and resulted in the deaths of eight firefighters and serious injury to 14 others.

"He didn't know whether he'd come home from that one," his wife said.

John was born in Philadelphia to Jacob Thornton Willis and the former Lydia Nelson. He graduated with honors from Benjamin Franklin High School in 1952 and joined the Air Force.

After he left the Fire Department, he had several business ventures and invested in real estate. He was also active in community affairs in West Oak Lane.

He and Wilhelmena were married in 1985.

John had a special fondness for children and was a mentor who listened to their laments and dreams and encouraged them.

"He always had kids around him," his wife said. "His son's friends came to the house. He also mentored neighborhood children and his own nieces and nephews."

"He was like a father figure to them," said his daughter, Denise Wright. "He would take the time to listen to them and offer his opinions. He wanted them to pick the right course for their lives."

John liked to read poetry, and wrote some of his own. He also indulged his love of photography, chess and checkers. He enjoyed all word games, at which he excelled.

After he left the Fire Department, John and Wilhelmena moved to Winter Park, Fla. And even though it was close to Disney World and the sunny beaches, he missed Philadelphia and moved back after a year.

"He spent his days relaxing, listening to music and nurturing his relationships with family and friends," his wife said.

Besides his wife and daughter, he is survived by a son, Darnell Barnes; three brothers, Joseph, Donald and Reginald Willis; a sister, Dolores Jones; and four grandchildren.

Services: 11 a.m. today at Pinn Memorial Baptist Church, 2251 N. 54th St. Friends may call at 9 a.m.

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