William “Bill” Willuweit

The journey to William “Bill” Willuweit’s birthplace on this small homestead in Quinn, South Dakota, began in Europe, near the very countries he would one day return, laced in combat boots.1

His father, Gustav Willuweit, was a German who lived in the Ukraine. Around 1900, Gustav traveled across the Atlantic to Ellis Island. An ordained Lutheran minister, Gustav was an incredibly educated man. Even after he had left the libraries of the East Coast for the homestead in Quinn, he collected newspapers from across the globe, maintaining a stack of international headlines. He could read and write in seven different languages, including Hebrew. At the homestead in Quinn, Gustav chose to stay inside on the farm, letting his sons become acquainted with the butchering and hard labor.

Bill’s mother was Rosina Herman. As a young German girl, she spent her elementary years in Crimea. She recalled crawling into the sooty fireplace, lips sealed in silence, as the Cossacks and the Turks often raided her family’s village. She soon traveled to the United States, traveling west to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There, she met and married a man named Baer. The two bore a son, but before he turned one, both Baer and the child became ill and passed away. After this, Rosina met Gustav and the two settled in the agricultural community of Quinn, South Dakota.

The second-youngest of nine, Bill Willuweit was born to Gustav and Rosina in 1916. Bill had seven brothers: Arthur, Berthod, Christian, Ferdinand, Gherhart, Harold, and Alvin. Bill also had one sister, Delilah, whom the clan of boys nicknamed “Lila.”

An outgoing young man, Bill joined his brothers in creating a wild reputation for the Willuweit brothers. Once, Bill was riding his horse down the main street of Quinn when a friend peeked out of the bar and yelled “Come in for a drink!” Bill rode his horse straight through the swinging doors, clomping onto the creaking bar floor. He was promptly herded out by a red-faced bartender hollering, “You’ll break straight through the floorboards!”

Bill grew up in an age of transformation. Flying machines were being created around the world, and headlines in his father’s newspapers boasted of these soaring inventions. One day, having created a flying contraption of his own, Bill brazenly hooked the device up to a team of horses. A neighbor reportedly saw Bill on a high ridge, galloping his horses, anticipating flight. Once Bill disappeared over the ridgeline, the neighbor rushed to the scene and helped a disillusioned boy pick up the pieces of his dashed flying machine.

Despite his vast education, Gustav refused to allow Bill to continue his education into high school. Still a year or two shy of eighteen, Bill lied about his age, joined the Army Air Corps, and was stationed in Hawaii.

There, his antics continued. Once, Bill jumped a fence to steal pineapples. For this, he was nearly arrested, but undeterred. He and his friend picked a camera off an army reconnaissance plane. The pair made pocket change by photographing tourists around Hawaii and selling the visitors prints. In Bill’s hands, however, the camera began to capture the essence of the decade. He had a snapshot of Shirley Temple performing on stage, and another of Amelia Earhart stepping off her skipper plane. As tensions across the globe thickened, his lens would soon focus on European countryside, snapping astonishing photographs of the second worldwide war.

After his active service in Hawaii was completed, Bill spent time in the reserves in Colorado and began a business hauling “hot mix.” This asphalt was used for one of the first roads that trailed its way into the Colorado mountains to Central City. When the second World War began, Bill was called back into the service. As he put it, “Uncle Sam decided he needed my services more than I did.”

Bill didn’t speak much about his time during WWII, and his exact trail is uncertain, but from the photographs now in his children’s possession, he made stops in Gibraltar, North Africa, Tunisia, Sicily and Gibraltar. His photographs detail moments of soldiers at rest, using their helmets as pillows or playing poker and laughing in their tents. One shot even captures Mt. Vesuvius erupting in March of 1944.

The stories he did tell linked his military career with monumental moments in World War II.

In 1944, Bill’s engineering company joined the Allied forces campaign on the shores of Anzio Beach in Italy. This campaign was originally intended to march inland, drawing German forces away from conflicts near Rome; however, Major General John Lucas made the controversial decision to entrench their forces and remain on the Anzio Beach.2 There, German battalions quickly surrounded them on a ring of high ground. The opposing forces were evenly matched and entered a deadlock; for months, neither was able to overpower the other.3 Bill was one of thousands of Allied soldiers pinned in marshy trenches, under heavy artillery fire from the Germans, until they were able to break out in May of 1944.4 By the end of the campaign, the Allies suffered 7,000 casualties, and had 36,000 wounded, missing, or captured of 150,000 troop. This made Bill witness to the Allies’ most costly campaign of World War II.5 For a decade after the war, bits of shrapnel dislodged from his face when he shaved, reminding him of those harrowing trenches.

Another story he told his children was having a front-row seat to the scandal that halted General Patton’s military career. Bill was there the day in early August 1943 the impulsive general an evacuation hospital in Sicily and happened upon a young man experiencing combat stress reaction, then simply termed “shell-shock.”6 The general couldn’t fathom someone being absent from the battle, without an apparent physical injury to blame. He slapped and berated the young man for his “cowardice.” The incident, and another like it, was reported to General Eisenhower, and changed Patton’s trajectory in the armed forces, and Bill was there to witness it.7

Once, as he was returning to camp, Bill drove a Jeep down a back road through the woods. He stumbled across a baker with hundreds of loaves set out. Returning to camp as proud as any victorious commander, Bill recalled, “I got enough from the whole battalion–and a pillowcase for me.”

Apart from photographs, Bill sent multiple souvenirs back to Quinn. Among those possessions were two Nazi flags and a Fascist Italian flag he had captured, an Italian tablecloth for his mother and two tickets to the opera in Naples he had planned to attend but missed when his battalion was called to another post.

As the German forces began to surrender, there was more than ground and prisoners to reclaim. The Axis powers had taken captive some of Europe’s most stunning cultural pieces, including the Lipizzaner stallions, horses of Austrian descent, famously bred and elegantly trained in dressage at the Spanish Riding School.8 When his regiment was tasked with the rescue of the stallions, this South Dakota soldier rose to the challenge in Czechoslovakia.9 Bill recalled galloping away from the camp on one of these legendary horses, with half a dozen others in tow. He recalled, “The guy from Brooklyn wasn’t much help,” and colorfully described setting a young man from a big city borough on a horse, tying a bridal of another horse to its tail, then slapping the horse’s rear and sending them on their way.

Bill was abroad, traversing northern Africa and Europe for four years before he was rotated out of the service and sent home–just months before the war ended. By the time he left, he had risen to the position of staff sergeant.

Back in the states, he returned to Quinn and began ranching. At community dances, Bill was a popular dance partner. Lines of young ladies formed as he pulled them—song after song—onto the dancefloor, flawlessly spinning to the tunes of Bing Crosby and Helen Forrest. At one of these dances, he met Mavis Martha Jones. Mavis was born in Deer’s Ears, just two miles from Bill’s family ranch. As an infant, her family moved to Milesville, where she grew up. She had married young and given birth to a daughter named Gail. After the marriage ended in divorce, Mavis went to school in Rapid City to become a stenographer. There was little work to be found in Sturgis, so Mavis returned to her family’s ranch.

Her disappointment was short lived. Shortly after returning home, she attended a country dance at Milesville Hall, where she reunited with an old friend—a strapping young army man with an adventurous smile and a camera roll of film from across Europe. They began dating and quickly fell in love, marrying in November of 1947.

The couple settled in Central City, between the gold-mining town of Lead and the historically rough-necked district of Deadwood. They bought a home with a large living room and filled it with four boys. Bill adopted Mavis’ daughter Gail as his own. They had another daughter, who died during childbirth.

In 1950, Bill began working in Lead at the Homestake Gold Mine, the largest, deepest gold mine in the United States. The shafts and winzes lowered down 3,800 feet below the surface of the Black Hills, and the drifts were daily scoured in pursuit of rich ore deposits.

Bill worked amidst hundreds of miners; many were workers from other countries. For over twenty-eight years, Bill would don rugged coveralls, a weathered hardhat and heavy, dirt-crusted boots. He stepped onto the cage with thirty other miners at the beginning of their shift. Once the gate closed, they rode the cage down, being misted by water trickling down the timber shaft in utter darkness, save the glow of their headlamps.

The mine was continuously delving deeper, and in 1954, they reached the 4850 Level, nearly a mile underground. It was on this level that a chemist from Berkeley University named Ray Davis built large tank of perchloroethylene (a chemical frequently used in cleaning products) to detect neutrino particles from the sun.10 This experiment later earned Davis a Nobel Prize for physics, but Bill and his fellow miners referred to it as “the big vat of dry-cleaning fluid” just up the drift.

They spent long shifts in the sweltering drift, running jackleg drills, piling ore into train cars, and maintaining shaft walls and ground support. In 1972, the miners went on strike and their efforts were rewarded with a five-day work week.11 At the time, ear protection was whatever scraps of fabric they could find to stuff into their ears to make the jackleg work less jarring. Bill’s lunchbox always included aspirin for the “powder headaches” that became more and more frequent over time.

At the end of the shift, the men were often soaked with sweat, wringing out their shirts and tipping over their shoes to pour out the sweat that had accumulated. In the cold winter months, the cages would bring up the workers from their 100-degree workspace, releasing them into the frigid surface air.

Bill worked in the mine for twenty-eight years and earned the title of a “Homestake Veteran.” Two days before Bill’s retirement 1978, he looked around the drift and found that all the train cars were filled to the brim with ore—there was no more work to be done that shift. He and three other miners decided to take a break behind the mounds of rock until it was time for the cage to bring them up for the day. The foreman at the time, John Lipp, crawled over three full cars of rock to find them playing cards by the light of their headlamps.

Each man received a “slip” for “slacking off on the job.” Bill took one look at his slip, then, knowing he was leaving in two days, smiled and handed it back to the foreman, “Sorry, I ain’t going to be here for the drawing.”

In 1959, tragedy struck their family. Gail, who had married and moved to Europe with her husband, died in childbirth of an aortic aneurysm. She was twenty years old.

Bill and Mavis continued raising their other children and went dancing often. Once, the family took a long road trip in their station wagon, traversing western states. They visited family in Oregon and Washington, camped beside Flathead Lake in Montana, and drove Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Very early one morning in January of 1975, when their youngest child was 18 years old, Mavis complained of a deep pain in her back. Despite her pain, she wouldn’t allow her sons to take her to the hospital in her bathrobe. She painstakingly began changed her clothes, then let her sons take her to the hospital. Before they arrived in Lead, an aortic aneurysm took her life, and she died at 59 years old.

After her death, Bill continued to be an uplifting presence in his children’s lives. One day in 1976, their second-youngest son Bart came home from his job as a window clerk at the post office in Lead. He heard Big Band Music humming from oversized speakers his brother had bought for their large living room. Curious, he walked into the house, finding his father teaching his brother Mark how to foxtrot around the living room.

In the May of 1978, Bill’s son Bart took him on a cross-country tour. They drove through Colorado to the Great Sand Dunes, then on to New Mexico, becoming tourists in Albuquerque and Las Vegas. When they got home, Bill’s brother Ross found him a 1964 Chrysler. The car was dubbed the “beast,” and Bill drove it through the Black Hills, grinning all the while.

In summer of 1981, doctors discovered Bill had contracted pancreatic cancer. His last years were spent in his home in Central City, with sons nearby to drop in and take him for drives in the Chrysler. In the fall of 1982, Bill was taken to Fort Meade hospital, where he was visited often by family. There, on November 16, he passed away as a result of the cancer.

He was remembered at a funeral at the Bethel Lutheran church in Lead and buried at the Black Hills National Cemetery, where he was honored for his service. Bill is remembered by his family as a man with countless stories, a full life and dedicated love.

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