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Ed Willits: ‘I looked out and saw sparks’

As a teenager, Ed Willits was part of the Ground Observer Corps, a Civil Defense organization formed to spot low-flying aircraft.

His affiliation with the group, which numbered some 750,000 volunteers nationwide during the height of the Cold War, helped spark an interest in the military and particularly the U.S. Air Force.

“We had a shack on the top of a hill,” he said.

The shack, manned by Willits or other members, was located near Locust and Howard streets.

Shortly after graduating from Jersey Shore Joint Area High School in 1954, Willits joined the Air Force.

“I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.

The Korean War had unofficially ended the previous year and the Air Force was reducing its numbers of pilots.

And so, following basic training in Sampson, N.Y., Willits was sent to Chanute, Illinois, to learn electronics and navigation.

By 1955, he was stationed in Long Beach, California, to put that education to use.

“Weekend warriors came in every other weekend,” he said. “They had to get certifications in navigation and flying. We gave them tests. I was a trainer.”

Less than a year later, Willits was sent overseas to Osan, Korea, where things got more interesting.

Japan had occupied the area during World War II, leaving it, in his words, “kind of destitute.”

Loss of power and brownouts were common.

Not long after he arrived there, Egypt seized the Suez Canal, resulting in the invasion of Egypt by United Kingdom, French and Israeli forces.

“We were put on worldwide alert,” he said.

Willits found himself pulling security duty, often prowling perimeter fence lines. He recalled the cold nights of winter when the temperatures would plunge below zero.

Beyond the cold, it was dangerous duty.

“There was quite a bit going on over there,” he said.

One night, a sniper fired upon the base. A few pilots from the base ended up going missing.

Willits said it’s difficult to know exactly what was happening.

It was a time when the Soviets and the U.S. were in the midst of the Cold War.

Willits recalled a weeklong R&R (rest and recuperation) to Japan when the C-47 plane in which he was a passenger caught fire.

“I looked out and saw sparks,” he said. “They were coming out of the engine.”

Luckily, the pilot was able to safely land the plane.

Willits spent his final months of military service at Bolling AFB, Washington, D.C.

His commanding officer was none other than Virgil “Gus” Grissom.

Grissom would later gain fame as an astronaut, flying twice in space and commanding the first Apollo-manned mission. In 1967, he died along with two crewmates in a spacecraft fire.

Grissom, Willits recalled, was “a really nice person.”

“He signed my leave to allow me to come home and get married,” he said.

While in the service, Willits had began corresponding with his wife Jean, who grew up on a farm near Salladasburg.

The couple would have four children, three of whom would serve in the military.

After getting out of the Air Force in 1957, Willits went to work for Piper Aircraft in Lock Haven, where he held various jobs, including in assembly, welding and aviation electronics.

He later worked for Lunaire and Alcan.

These days, Willits remains active.

In his spare time, he likes to hunt and play with his ham radio.

He and his wife live in Antes Fort.

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