The survivors who weren’t at Pearl Harbor

On this 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I want to tell you about two people who were at the other end of that story.

In 1974, I met an old man who ran a sandwich shop and pinball arcade in Jefferson City.  He had been the first news director of the local radio station I was working for then (just before the creation of The Missourinet) and I had gone to interview him about the days when the station went on the air twenty years earlier.  After we talked about those times, I asked him how he wound up in Jefferson City and for the better part of an hour, Bud Wills and his wife, Phyllis, told me life stories that were jaw-dropping.

Phyllis was born in Canada, raised Japan by English missionary parents, and returned to what was then called Formosa when it was in Japanese hands in the early 1930s.  Bud had gone to Japan about 1928 to work for an English-language newspaper for three years and had stayed after the contract ran out.  In 1938 he and an unidentified American “with money” founded another English-language newspaper, Japan News Week, about the time the increasingly nationalistic Japanese government was putting other English-language newspapers out of business.  About the same time, Bud became the CBS correspondent in the Far East.

In that role, he covered the Japanese war with China, which many consider the real beginning of World War II when it started with the Japanese invasion in 1932. The same year that Bud founded his newspaper, CBS began its World News Roundup program that is best known for building the reputations of the Murrow Boys because of their reports as Europe disintegrated into war.   Forgotten in the telling of the story of the Murrow Boys is the non-Murrow Boy who often concluded the Roundup with his report “from halfway around the world” describing Japan’s increasing threat to peace in the Pacific, W. R. Wills.

Bud and Phyllis were at the home of a Tokyo friend, as usual, on Sunday night, December 7 (Tokyo time) for dinner and evening card-playing.  But instead of card-playing that night the group of people sat around the fire and somberly discussed when they thought war would begin with the United States.

A month, two months, said the others.  “Sooner than you think,” forecast Bud.

A heavy knock on his door at 5:30 next morning awakened him. He found officers of the Kempeitai, the Japanese Gestapo, there to arrest him.  As the bombs were falling at Pearl Harbor, Bud, Phyllis, and about sixty other American and British citizens were being arrested.  Bud and Phyllis were among those taken to the high-security Sugamo Prison (those who have read the Louis Zamperini story, Unbroken, will recognize the place).

They were held in small cells where they had to sleep on mats that would be rolled to the side during the day so they had some small space in which to pace.  They were forced to be in a squatting position for hours each day during interrogation.  Bud lost some teeth from being slapped repeatedly.  Phyllis suffered eye problem to her dying days because of the lights that were always on.  Both suffered from the cold in their unheated cells during the Japanese winter.

She didn’t learn about Pearl Harbor until about Christmas.  He didn’t learn about it until later.

Finally, in June, they were convicted of espionage—Phyllis being the first white woman convicted in a Japanese court of that charge.  He faced two years of hard labor; she, one.  But the sentences were stayed because the Swiss government at last had arranged an exchange of Japanese diplomats for American and British prisoners.  They left Tokyo by ship in June and didn’t land in New Jersey until August. They were married in Canada in September.


A few years later they wound up in Steeleville, Missouri running a weekly newspaper. In 1954, they came to Jefferson City where Bud worked in radio for a brief time and eventually ran his sandwich and arcade shop. Phyllis became a journalism teacher at Lincoln University, and the foreign student advisor.

I interviewed them in 1974, the year Bud turned 81.  Phyllis, more than fifteen years younger, still spoke with her English accent.

Both died in 1977. Few people, if any, in Jefferson City remember Bud and Phyllis Wills today.  Fewer, perhaps nobody, ever heard them tell their story about being some of the first American POWs of World War II.  They were at the other end of the geography of the Pearl Harbor story.   And the interview that day in that little cubbyhole business at 626 East High Street in Jefferson City is the only recording ever made of them relating their experiences.

When I left the radio station to put a news department together for the Missourinet, I left that interview and many others I had done for the station’s 20th anniversary in one of two boxes of material gathered for a series of commemorative programs that were never produced because of my exit.  As the years went by and the station moved a few times and was sold a few times, old files and old boxes of recordings went into dumpsters.  The Bud and Phyllis interview is in a landfill somewhere now.

BUT:  Not long after I did that interview, their son, Bill, asked for a copy of  the recording and a few months later as I was passing through Indianapolis on a trip, I stopped by his house and gave it to him.  Shortly before my retirement two years and five days ago, a friend—Steve Morse, the chief engineer at Missourinet affiliate KWOS—dropped by my newsroom with a manila folder that had the typed transcripts I had made of all the interviews I had done more than forty years earlier.  The transcript of the Bud and Phyllis interview was in it. Steve and a friend had rescued one of the boxes from the dumpster but the other was gone before they got there.

I wondered if Bill Wills was still around and if he still had the dub of that lost interview.  I tracked him down through the internet, dropped by his home in Carmel, Indiana a few weeks later, and he arranged to provide a copy of the interview.  And he has provided me with a lot more.  I’ve been digging around since then for even more of their story. Someday I’ll be able to tell it to you, I hope.

The CBS World News Roundup is America’s longest-running network newscast. The Murrow Boys are legends in broadcast journalism history.  But there was somebody else who was there at the beginning.  And he and his wife told me their story that day long, long ago.

Bud & Phyllis, taken mid 70's

(Thanks to Bill Wills for the clipping and for the photograph of Bud and Phyllis about the time they told me their stories)


3 thoughts on “The survivors who weren’t at Pearl Harbor

  1. As Administrator of a veterans nursing home I met some very special, heroic people including two who were sailors at Pearl Harbor that day. Both are still alive. Between that experience and when I lived in Florida where there are scads of retired folks, I came to realize that so many of those old people dawdling around had done some amazing things in their youth. Rarely did they brag about it. The “Greatest Generation” was exactly that. Wonderful story. Thanks Bob.

  2. Very interesting. There are average people out there who do, and go through, things you would never expect. It’s good some of those stories are documented. Of course, it can be a lot of work.

Let me know what you think......