Skip Navigation
Willard Earnest Collett
The Tiger (Elkins High School
yearbook), 1941

West Virginia Veterans Memorial


Willard Earnest Collett

"The truly heroic figure of this war. . . is G.I. Joe, and his counterpart in the Air, the Navy, and the Merchant Marine of every one of the United Nations."

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Willard Earnest Collett was born on April 24, 1920, to Thomas Jefferson Collett and Dolly Schoonover Collett in Manheim, West Virginia. According to the 1930 Federal Census, the family was then living in or near Elkins in Randolph County. Mr. Collett was a house painter. Mrs. Collett and he were the parents of Alba, Ollie, Albert, Irene, and Willard, all at home. In the 1940 census records, Mr. Collett was not recorded to have an occupation at the age of 66. Albert, a laborer at a planing mill, Ollie, and Willard were still living at home, along with another Collett son, Howard. Mrs. Collett's mother, Judith, and Ollie's husband, Ralph Lunsford, also lived in the same house, in Elkins.

Willard Collett attended Elkins High School. Entries in the school's yearbook - The Tiger - document the high school career of a promising young athlete. He was the captain of the basketball team and played all four years. The 1938 yearbook noted that Willard Collett was a main scorer on the team, making the first team as a freshman. He also played football and played all four years, 1938-1941. The 1941 yearbook noted that though his performance was hampered by injuries, he'd played the best game of his career. He ran on the track team for three years, 1938-1940.

The 1941 yearbook noted that Willard Collett graduated mid-semester, with his last basketball game played against a Morgantown team. Willard scored twenty-eight points in the 67-32 victory. The 6'2" young man, whose nickname was "Babe," said he aspired to become a coach. Instead, he married Creta Currence in April 1940 in Richmond, moved to Warren, Ohio, and became a locomotive fireman for Copperweld Steel.

On July 1, 1941, Willard Collett registered for military service. He enlisted in the military on August 24, 1943. Willard Collett was placed with the Army Transportation Corps, presumably with the Military Railway Service (MRS). He rose to the rank of T4 (sergeant).

No records were found that describe the details of Sgt. Collett's military career, such as where he trained and in which campaigns he fought. Following the general history of the Transportation Corps, it's obvious that the training was very physical and difficult. According to the article "Railroaders in Olive Drab: The Military Railway Service During World War II,"

On 18 June 1941, the Army organized the 711th Railway Operating Battalion, the first of its kind, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Unlike other railway operating battalions, it did not have a civilian company sponsoring it. The intent was to rotate officers and enlisted men through the battalion for short tours of duty for training. Officers from ten different American railroads staffed the battalion, and a cadre of twenty-eight enlisted men came from the Engineer School Detachment at Fort Belvoir. Several hundred men with railroad experience were also assigned from the Engineer Replacement Center on the post. Within forty-eight days of activation, the battalion had rehabilitated the long-neglected four-and-a-half mile Quartermaster railroad that served the post. The work included replacing thousands of ties, repairing several bridges, and installing twenty culverts. Its next assignment was a bit more challenging.

The battalion moved to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, in August 1941, where it began work on a training facility for railway operating battalions as they were called to active duty. Work began using rented earthmoving equipment operated by soldiers in the 711th until Army equipment became available. The first track was laid in September, and in October, the 91st and 93d Engineer Battalions, both manned by African American soldiers, arrived to assist with the construction. More than 6,000 troops worked on the line. During the course of building the railroad, the 98th, 383d, and 331st Engineer Battalions, as well as several dump truck companies, worked on the project. On 11 July 1942, a "golden spike" ceremony marked the completion of fifty miles of grading and track laying between Camp Claiborne and Fort Polk. Known as the C&P Railroad for Claiborne and Polk, trainees called it the "Crime and Punishment" or the "Worst Railroad on Earth" because it was built on unstable ground, making derailments common. To make the training more realistic, the twenty-five bridges along the line were periodically blown up so maintenance teams from the battalions in training could rebuild them. The C&P included rail yards at each end of the line and engine-house facilities at Camp Claiborne. The telegraph and telephone line used to dispatch trains was erected by the 26th Signal Construction Battalion. Rolling stock included nine oil burning locomotives and almost 100 cars, including coaches, gondolas, boxcars, flatcars, refrigerator cars, and cabooses. (The Army Historical Foundation, accessed 22 April 2021,

The Transportation Corps delivered supplies to the men who did the fighting and so railway men are found in all the major campaigns. The Transportation Corps was present in North Africa, and then Sicily and on to Germany. Part of the Corps served within the United States, delivering soldiers to training camps and eventually to ports from which they'd travel overseas. According to a Military wikia, "By the end of the war the Transportation Corps had moved more than 30 million soldiers within the continental United States; and 7 million soldiers plus 126 million tons of supplies overseas." ("Transportation Corps," accessed 14 May 2021, These statistics were reiterated in "Railroaders in Olive Drab":

In May 1945, when the war in Europe ended, the MRS included seven grand divisions, twenty-four operating battalions, seven shop battalions, and a variety of depot and maintenance units as well as eight battalions and two separate companies of military police. Between D-Day at Normandy and V-E Day, MRS loaded and moved more than eighteen million tons of military freight. On 7 June 1945, American railroaders were operating 1,937 locomotives, 34,588 freight cars, and 25,150 miles of track in western Europe. Demobilization of railway units began shortly after V-E Day. The largest contingent of American soldier railroaders was in western Europe with more than 26,600 officers and enlisted men serving there by the end of the war. The last MRS unit, the 716th Railway Operating Battalion (Southern Pacific Company) left Europe in February 1946.

Records do not indicate in which unit of the Transportation Corps Sgt. Collett served, but according to a newspaper article, his unit was awarded the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque. Sgt. Collett was awarded a Bronze Star but the actions that earned it were not described. He participated in four campaigns and "escaped death many times." ("Bodies of Randolph County Boys Are Returned Here for Final Rites," Randolph Enterprise, 9 December 1948.)

In July 1945, he was in Bonn, Germany, instructing a German crew on the operation of trains, when a terrible accident happened. Sgt. Collett was caught between an engine and the caboose and suffered crushing injuries to his abdomen and chest. He was admitted to a hospital for surgery, but he died of his injuries on July 13, 1945. He was buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery (Margraten) in Holland and returned to the United States in 1948. He is buried in Elkins Memorial Gardens, which is also known as the Elkins International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Cemetery.
Gravestone for Willard E. Collett in Elkins Memorial Gardens. Courtesy Cynthia Mullens

Gravestone for Willard E. Collett in Elkins Memorial Gardens. Courtesy Cynthia Mullens

Willard Collett's father also served in the Army. He passed away in West Virginia in 1944 and is buried in the Elkins Memorial Gardens. All of Willard Collett's brothers served during World War II. His brother Howard was awarded a Bronze Star and three Bronze Service Stars. All returned home.

Article prepared by Cynthia Mullens
April 2021


Willard Earnest Collett

West Virginia Archives and History welcomes any additional information that can be provided about these veterans, including photographs, family names, letters and other relevant personal history.

Veterans Memorial Database

West Virginia Veterans Memorial

West Virginia Archives and History

West Virginia Archives and History