Attended Knoxville High School
Enlisted on June 27, 1941 in Fort Oglethorpe, GA
Buried in Knoxville National Cemetery on November 21, 1947 (Section X, Plot 41-B). He was initially buried at the American War Cemetery Henri-Chapelle in Belgium.
Willis Tucker was killed in action in the Hürtgen Forest on 28 Nov 1944 by a booby trap. At the time of his death he was assigned to B Company, 12th Infantry Rgt. 4th Infantry Division. Tucker was a graduate of the University Tennessee and played football for General Neyland.
Son excited to honor father he never knew
Dad is 1 of 4 UT football players killed in WWII being memorialized
FRED BROWN, Saturday, September 9, 2006
Mike Sanders arrived in Knoxville on Friday to pay tribute to a father he never knew.
Sanders and his mother, Hazel Hicks, will join other families whose relatives played football at the University of Tennessee in the 1940s and who died in combat during World War II.
Tonight, in pre-game ceremonies before the Vols take on Air Force, the four families will be recognized with a sign inside Neyland Stadium and a banner in the north concourse.
The four players — Clyde “Ig” Fuson, Rudy Klarer, Bill Nowling and Willis Tucker — were killed as World War II was coming to its violent end in Europe. All four were in the U.S. Army, and all four were in combat in France and Germany.
Sanders, a successful Cleveland, Miss., businessman, was 2 years old when his father, Willis Tucker, was killed. Through the years growing up in Mississippi, his mother never told her son about the Knoxville man she married until he was a grown man with a family of his own.
“Back then, they wanted to protect you,” says Sanders. “I didn’t get to see a photo album until my other father (Jimmy Sanders) died not too long ago,” he says.
Neither Sanders nor his mother knows where his father is buried and whether he’s in an American cemetery in Germany or France.
Tucker was killed in action Nov. 28, 1944, in Germany just before the Battle of the Bulge, says Sanders. He also believes his father was in the 97th Infantry Division, but there are problems with that information as well, because the 97th did not arrive in France until 1945.
Tucker and the other three UT football players who died were all top athletes and even reached stardom under iconic UT football coach Gen. Robert “Bob” Neyland.
Tucker, a graduate of Knoxville High School, wore jersey No. 61; Fuson, a native of Middlesboro, Ky., wore No. 62; Klarer, of Louisville, Ky., wore No. 49; and Nowling, from St. Petersburg, Fla., wore No. 32.
During the war, after the four UT players died in action, the university retired the four jersey numbers. In later years, the numbers returned to the jersey rotation. In the 1980s, the UT Athletic Department permanently retired them.
Tucker was one of the finest track stars of that era and became a lineman with UT in 1940.
Fuson was a fullback on the 1942 team that was 8-1-1 and went on to beat Tulsa 14-7 in the Jan. 1, 1943, Sugar Bowl. He was killed Dec. 4, 1944.
Nowling was a three-year starter for Neyland and Coach John Barnhill from 1940-42. He was a member of Company K, 10th Infantry, 5th Infantry Division in England, and was killed Aug. 9, 1944. Nowling and Fuson shared fullback duties on that famed ’42 team.
Klarer, just 20 years old when he was killed during the Battle of the Bulge, which went on from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, was a reserve lineman until he became a starter on the ’42 team. He was a second lieutenant and platoon leader.
During the day, family members attended several functions to honor the former UT stars including a special gathering at Tom Black Track.
In addition, the four players join other UT greats pictured on this year’s home game season tickets. The first three home games portray Peyton Manning, Reggie White and Doug Atkins.
Home game ticket No. 4 against Marshall shows the stalwart Fuson with the ball and his jersey No. 62, with a Purple Heart draped in the center of the T. The other home game tickets with the WWII heroes also have the Purple Heart on the T. The university received special permission from the Pentagon to use the symbol of the Purple Heart.
Home ticket No. 5 against Alabama is the guard Klarer, Nowling is in full stride with the ball on ticket No. 6 against LSU, and Tucker is centering the ball on ticket No. 7 against Kentucky.
“This is just a first-class act by UT,” says Sanders, adopted by his stepfather, Jimmy Sanders. Jimmy Sanders opened a seed store in Cleveland, Miss., after the war, sent his stepson to Mississippi State, where he starred in football and track, and studied physical education and business.
He returned to Cleveland to help with the family business, taking it from one store with three employees to 50 stores and 406 employees in five cities.
His son, Michael Willis Sanders Jr., is also a Mississippi State graduate and joined his father in the seed, fertilizer and chemical business.
“This is my first visit to Knoxville,” says Sanders. “And we are excited about this and these guys,” he says.
And, it gives him a chance to possibly learn more about the father he never knew, No. 61.
The Knoxville Journal, July 28, 1942
Willis Tucker was one of the fastest runners ever to cavort on U-T athletic outfits. He continued showing speed after enlisting in the Army. Going in as a Private, Tucker is now a lieutenant. He is in charge of athletics and entertainment for the 827th Tank Destroyer Battalion at Camp Forrest, tenn. The officer was in town yesterday asking that those who could, contribute baseball material to his battalion.
- Rank: First Lieutenant
- Date of birth: 10 May 1918
- Date of death: 28 November 1944
- County: Knox
- Hometown: Knoxville
- Service Branch: Army/Army Air Forces
- Division/Assignment: 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division
- Theater: Europe
- Conflict: World War II
- Burial/Memorial Location: Knoxville National Cemetery, Knoxville, TN
- Location In Memorial: Pillar XIII, Bottom Panel
- Contact us to sponsor Willis N. Tucker
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