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First Name: William

Last Name: Gillis

Birthplace: Cameron, TX, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Home of Record: Cameron, TX
Middle Name: Graham

Date of Birth: 07 October 1917

Date of Death: 01 October 1944

Rank: Major

Years Served: 1941 - 1944
William Graham Gillis, Jr.

Graduate, U.S. Military Academy, Class of 1941

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


William Graham Gillis, Jr.
Major, U.S. Army

[There are discrepancies in MAJ Gillis' date of death. The information from the 35th Division Hall of Fame says he died on 1 October 1944. (See photo with info in the Photos section). However, a photo of his grave marker on Findagrave shows the date of death as 30 September 1944. Yet information from his Texas Death Certificate, also shown on Findagrave, shows the date of death as 1 October 1944. MHOH is using the 1 October 1944 date.]

William Graham Gillis, Jr. entered the U.S. Military Academy in July 1937. In 1940, Gillis was Captain of the Army Football team. In Track, during the spring of 1941, he set two new Academy records in the high and low hurdles.

Upon graduation, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry and then attended the Infantry School at Fort Benning, GA. After a short assignment with the Second Division at Fort Sam Houston, TX, he was assigned to the Infantry Training Center at Camp Roberts, CA. Following his assignment to the 35th Infantry Division, he did such a good job as Assistant S-3 of the 320th Infantry Regiment that the Division Commander made him Assistant G-3 of the Division Staff.

In early August 1944 Major William Graham Gillis, Jr. was serving as Assistant G-3 at Division Headquarters, 35th Infantry Division, Third U.S. Army. Although he was a good staff officer, his desire was to command an infantry battalion. On 10 August 1944, Major Gillis was appointed as Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 320th Infantry Regiment.

German forces suddenly launched a great counterattack in the area of Mortain-Avranches, France. The purpose was the splitting of the First and Third American Armies and throwing the highly-successful Operation Cobra into confusion. The Germans attacked at Mortain, the key road junction. The 30th Infantry Division temporarily fought them to a standstill but, as Hitler’s Legions inched forward and occupied Mortain, an infantry battalion of the 30th Division was surrounded on high ground, Hill 317, just east of this vital town. The 35th Division suddenly found itself committed to assist the 30th Division. As the 35th Division advanced, it not only stopped the German attack on its front, it forced the crack S.S. troops back to the Mortain-Barenton Highway. Then came the order for the 35th Division to make a frontal assault on Hill 317 and relieve the stranded battalion of the 30th. To accomplish this herculean task, Major General Paul W. Baade, 35th Division Commander, had only one remaining fresh battalion: the 1st Battalion, 320th Infantry Regiment, commanded by one of the youngest battalion commanders in the United States Army—Major William Gillis.

From 10-12 August, MAJ Gillis’ 1st Battalion was in action against German forces in the Mortain-Avranches area of France. The mission of the 1st Battalion was to take the high ground near Hill 317, and make contact with an infantry battalion of the 30th Infantry Division that had been isolated in that area for 5 days. As his Battalion began the assault on Hill 317, the 35th Artillery filled the air with shells and P-47s bombed and strafed only 400 yards ahead of them as they fought their way forward. By nightfall of the 10th, he had led the 1st Battalion to the base of Hill 317 and, although cut off by strong pockets of enemy resistance, got supplies and equipment to his troops by infiltration. After reorganizing 1st Battalion, he led an assault that took the objective on 12 August against very strong German resistance, including tanks. After making contact with the isolated battalion, 1st Battalion rendered medical aid and supplied such food as was available, and brought under American control all of the high ground east of Hill 317. During this rescue action, MAJ Gillis, although wounded in the hand, remained with the leading elements of his Battalion and inspired the troops under his command with his skillful leadership, tenacity, and courage. Those actions earned him the U.S. Army's third highest award for valor, the Silver Star Medal.

For their courageous achievement, the 1st Battalion and his attached Tank Battalion, received the Distinguished Unit Citation (now known as Presidential Unit Citation).

[After Victory in Europe Day, certain members of the German General Staff stated that the war was lost when the counterattack at Mortain failed.]

For the remainder of August 1944, MAJ Gillis led his 1st Battalion as the 35th Division spearheaded General Patton’s Third Army sweep through Central France. On 15 September 1944, MAJ Gillis' 1st Battalion was in action against the Germans while crossing the Rhine-Marne Canal and the Sanon River at Dombasle, France, below Nancy. The Germans opposed the crossing with strong infantry forces dug in at close range, and by mortar and machine-gun fire from commanding positions on the hills. During the crossing, which was made by direct assault over improvised bridging constructed under intense direct enemy fire, MAJ Gillis was constantly with the leading elements of his troops, moving freely among them to direct the attack. He also waded and swam across the Canal and River several times under heavy enemy fire. His courageous leadership and exemplary conduct under fire so inspired his men that they were able to force the crossing successfully against heavy odds. This helped enable the 320th to meet its objective, capturing the town of Nancy. MAJ Gillis’ leadership, courageous actions and extraordinary heroism that day earned him the U.S. Army's second highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross.

On 27 September 1944, the Germans led a counterattack in the Foret de Gremecey-Forest in France. On the morning of 30 September, MAJ Gillis went forward to the very front lines to provide leadership, and to make sure they kept their courage. There, among his men, MAJ Gillis was hit by a tree burst from an enemy mortar that mortally wounded him. On 1 October, he died on the field of battle.

The citation for his Bronze Star Medal read, in part:

For heroic service...in the vicinity of the Foret de Gremecey, France, on 27, 28 and 29 September 1944...For a period of two days until he was killed by enemy mortar fire while in the area of one of his front line companies, Major Gillis led the attack of his battalion with tireless energy, inspiring his troops by his constant presence at the front, and displaying sound tactical judgment which resulted in repulsing numerous German counterattacks...

Medals, Awards and Badges

Distinguished Service Cross
Silver Star Medal
Bronze Star Medal
Purple Heart with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 3 Bronze Stars
World War II Victory Medal
Presidential Unit Citation
Combat Infantryman Badge

He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order by the British Government, and the Croix de Guerre with Silver Gilt Star and the Croix de Guerre with Vermillion Star, by France.

Distinguished Service Cross Citation (Synopsis)

Major (Infantry) William Graham Gillis, Jr. (ASN: 0-23909), United States Army, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 320th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces on 15 September 1944. Major Gillis' intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty at the cost of his life, exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 35th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.

General Orders: Headquarters, Third U.S. Army, General Orders No. 114 (1944)


Major William Graham Gillis, Jr. was in Class I of Inductees into the 35th Division Hall of Fame in 2009.


Major William Graham Gillis, Jr. is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Cameron, Milam County, TX.


[Among the several sources used to compile this biography, excerpts were made from a memorial by the West Point Association of Graduates. The author of the memorial used only the initials M. A. S. The entire memorial which contains more personal information can be read at http://apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/12468/.]

Honoree ID: 313212   Created by: MHOH




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