James Willis tried to clear his name for more than half a century, telling his story to anyone who might listen and help.
The justice he sought finally came Wednesday when Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles pardoned him for a fatal stabbing that took place during what witnesses said was a racially motivated attack at the end of World War II.
“Many people have waited for this day. Nobody has waited longer than James Franklin Willis,” Knowles said.
Willis, now 72 and living in New York City, cried tears of joy as Knowles signed the pardon at a ceremony in Juneau, nearly 3,000 miles away.
“It’s enough to break any man, but he kept fighting,” Willis’ son, James, said after the pardon was signed. The elder Willis is now nearly deaf, suffering from colon cancer and losing his eyesight. His son listened to the ceremony by phone and relayed the details to his father.
James Willis’ story began in late October 1945 while he was serving as a Coast Guard engineer aboard the Sellstrom. The vessel docked at the southeast Alaska town of Wrangell for celebrations to mark the end of World War II, and Willis visited a dance hall packed with sailors on shore leave.
Several sailors took offense when Willis, who is black, danced with a woman who was either white or Native American, and a scuffle ensued, witnesses said. Willis made it back to his ship but the sailors came looking for him.
According to witnesses, Leonard Supernaw, a sailor from Oklahoma, threatened Willis, chased him through the Sellstrom and beat him.
“Supernaw was pounding Willis with his fists and was savagely beating him. Willis was no match for Supernaw. I feared for Willis’ life,” said Norman Smook of Wantagh, N.Y., who witnessed the attack. Smook’s sworn statements would eventually help lawyers win a pardon for Willis.
Willis managed to break away from Supernaw long enough to retrieve a knife from his locker. When Supernaw grabbed him, Willis reached behind the man and stabbed him in the back. Supernaw died a few minutes later.
Willis has maintained that he acted in self defense.
Witnesses said a near-riot broke out on the ship and Willis was badly beaten. He and the ship’s three other black crewmen were held at a jail for their safety while order was restored.
Willis was later indicted on a charge of second-degree murder for Supernaw’s death.
While in jail awaiting trial, he developed a spinal infection stemming from the injuries he suffered during the beating.