WWII veteran reflects on a century of life

Darlene M. Johnson | 11/9/2023, 6 p.m.
A life that spans a century is a milestone few are privileged to celebrate. Welford Williams of Glen Allen was ...
Welford Williams recently celebrated his 100th birthday with family and friends. Photos courtesy of Welford Williams Family

A life that spans a century is a milestone few are privileged to celebrate. Welford Williams of Glen Allen was “blessed” to become a centenarian on Oct. 25.

Formerly one of the youngest members of his family, the World War II veteran is now the oldest person in his family.

“I’m kind of lucky to be able to do it,” Mr. Williams said several days before celebrating his 100th birthday on Oct. 21 at Virginia Crossings.

Along with dozens of greetings and well wishes from family members and friends were words from Daniel Gade, Ph.D., commissioner of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services.

“Our best wishes to U.S. Army veteran Welford Williams upon his 100th birthday,” Commissioner Gade said. “Mr. Williams is one the few remaining World War II veterans who answered the call to serve our Nation. Men and women such as Mr. Williams were truly members of “The Greatest Generation.” We are proud that Virginia is home to nearly 700,000 veterans like him who unselfishly gave of themselves to protect our freedoms. To Mr. Williams, we say, “Happy Birthday” and “Thank You For Your Service.”

Mr. Williams is shown during his days as a private first class in the Army.

Mr. Williams is shown during his days as a private first class in the Army.

To further recognize and honor Mr. Williams, the VDVS will present Mr. Williams with a special DVS WWII Veteran Challenge Coin. A military tradition, challenge coins are meant to instill unit pride, improve esprit de corps and reward hard work and excellence.

Overcoming obstacles

Growing up in Church Hill in the 1920s and 1930s was not easy, Mr. Williams said during a recent interview. Four of his siblings died as babies and he was the third youngest out of eight surviving siblings. His father, Willie Williams, died in 1933, and Mr. Williams dropped out of Maggie L. Walker High School to help his mother, Pearl Elora Williams take care of his younger siblings.

“He learned how to provide for a family at an early age,” said Mr. Williams’ daughter, Valeta Williams, 66.

In April 1943, Mr. Williams, at age 19, was drafted into World War II and served as a private first class. He was sent to Fort Meade in Maryland for induction and Fort Dix in New Jersey for basic training, Mr. Williams recalled in “Black Warriors: The Legacy,” a book by Albert E. Williams. Mr.

Williams was later sent to Camp Maxey in Texas where he was one of 120-150 mostly Black men assigned to the 3393 Quartermaster Truck Company.

In May 1944, the group was sent to Camp Shank in New York to prepare to go overseas. They then were dispatched to the European Theater of Operation in England the same month, about two weeks before D-Day on June 6, 1944, Mr. Williams recalled.

The D-Day operation of June 6, 1944, brought together the land, air, and sea forces of the allied armies in what became known as the largest amphibious invasion in military history. The operation, given the codename OVERLORD, delivered five naval assault divisions to the beaches of Normandy, France, according to the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

On July 6, 1944, Mr. Williams’ unit landed on Omaha Beach in France with the duty to supply combat units with armor, rations and other needs. Mr. Williams occasionally served as a guard for military police and prisoners.

Mr. Williams’ unit also was part of the Red Ball Express, named after the strategically placed red balls the truck drivers followed along the route taken to supply combat units. The destination was not always known, Mr. Williams said. The unit traveled through Europe and Trévières, France, was the first town where he saw the “true devastation of war.”

Mr. Williams was involved in five battle campaigns and was discharged Dec. 26, 1945. He was awarded five bronze medals and received recognition during the discharge process, Ms. Williams said.

Returning to Richmond

Mr. Williams went on to have a daughter and later married, Willie Mae Williams, with whom he had seven children. The couple was married for 67 years until Mrs. Williams’ death in February 2022.

His most fulfilling position was working at the U.S. Post Office, he said, noting that he retired from both the post office and the Henrico County Historical Society for the Brookland District.

Mr. Williams regretted dropping out of high school, and always wanted to go back to school and earn his high school diploma, Ms. Williams said. He filled the gap with a lifelong focus on learning by taking correspondence courses in photography and music.

“We’ve heard this a lot in the years; that he felt like he was too old to go to school with the younger kids at that point,” she explained.

“So that’s why he would start buying books and reading a lot. It’s how he started to pick up on what he missed out on.”

In 2002, Mr. Williams’ desire for a high school diploma was granted when he received an honorary high school diploma from the Virginia Board of Education.

Family ties

Mr. Williams since has spent years at the Library of Virginia researching his family’s roots, viewing films, birth certificates, marriage licenses and other family records, Ms. Williams said. He traced his family’s roots as far back as the 1700s, something he considers as one of his greatest achievements.

Today, Ms. Williams and her sister, Winifred Williams, 68, are caretakers for their father. Mr. Williams enjoys sleeping in late until the afternoon, watching television, doing crossword puzzles or word searches and looking through his “100s of photo albums,” Ms. Williams said.

Mr. Williams’ advice on how to become a centenarian?

“Take care of yourself, eat well and rest a lot,” he said.