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Division volunteer saves World War II photo collection


In 2012, Carolyn Apple, a Dover-area emergency medicine physician, was involved in a casual conversation with George Nicholson, one of her patients, when the subject turned to a large collection of World-War-II-era photographs that Nicholson’s wife was preparing to throw in the trash. A history buff, Apple agreed to temporarily take the collection until a proper home could be found for it. While reviewing the photographs, Apple realized that they were not simply soldier’s snapshots, but rather, high-quality documentary photographs taken by a talented photographer or group of photographers. Thus began Apple’s passionate stewardship of the William D. Willis World War II Photographic Collection.

Carolyn Apple in front of the display, “World War II Through the Lens of William D. Willis.”
Carolyn Apple in front of the display, “World War II Through the Lens of William D. Willis.”

In searching for a home for the photographs, Apple approached the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs which agreed to accept them into the collections of the state of Delaware. Apple then volunteered to process the collection, documenting and preparing each photo for safe storage and unraveling its subject matter through painstaking Internet research. Working eight to 10 volunteer hours per week for 18 months, Apple gradually began piecing together the collection’s history. What she found was the story of an ordinary soldier who had done extraordinary things with a camera and developing equipment. It turned out that the collection contained over 650 photographs taken by Dover, Del. native William D. Willis and his colleagues who served as official military photographers during service in Western Europe between 1943 and 1945. The collection includes images of crash scenes and battle-damaged military aircraft, photos of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp and aerial views of villages in Normandy, France. Willis and his colleagues also photographed the daily procedures of base life as well as United Service Organizations (USO) shows featuring celebrities such as Jack Benny and Ingrid Bergman and a concert by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra.

Photograph of two P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft from the William D. Willis World War II Photographic Collection.
Photograph of two P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft from the William D. Willis World War II Photographic Collection.

Apple also learned the personal history of Willis who was born on June 14, 1919. After graduating from Dover High School in 1939, he worked as a mechanic in an automobile-repair shop in his home town. On May 16, 1941, he entered active duty in the U.S. Army where he received training in Army Air Forces motor mechanics at Fort Devens, Mass. Pfc. Willis served as a mechanic for a year after completing his training and was then transferred to the position of photographic technician with the 9th Photo Technician Unit, taking pictures and handling various phases of laboratory work pertaining to negative processing. He departed for the European Theater of Operations on Aug. 9, 1943 and served there until Sept. 26, 1945. For most of his service, he was attached to the 20th Fighter Group at Kings Cliffe, England.

William D. Willis during service in World War II.
William D. Willis during service in World War II.

Willis arrived back in the United States on Oct. 3, 1945. Initially, he continued taking photographs after returning to Dover and his job as a mechanic. However, as he became increasingly involved in his father’s automotive-repair shop, he dismantled and sold his photographic equipment and went to work in the family business. Willis was married but had no children. He died in 2001. After his passing, his collection of World War II photographs came into the possession of his sister, Mrs. George Nicholson. It was through Mrs. Nicholson that the collection passed to Apple and then to the state of Delaware.

Once the Willis photographs had been safely accessioned into the collections of the state of Delaware, Apple was determined that a sampling be put on display for the enjoyment of the people of Delaware. Working with the division’s Collections, Affiliates, Research and Exhibits (CARE) Team, she took the lead in developing “World War II Through the Lens of William D. Willis,” a display that was on view from March 4, 2015 to Feb. 21, 2016 at Legislative Hall, located at 411 Legislative Ave., in Dover, Del. Because of the large number of photographs in the collection, the display will be presented in three succeeding segments, each featuring a selection of images that document different aspects of military life as seen by Willis and his colleagues. An online display covering different aspects of the collection is also available by going to the division’s Exhibits and Displays page.

According to Marian Carpenter, the division’s curator of collections management, the Willis display—and the collection itself—would not exist had it not been for the extraordinary efforts of Carolyn Apple. As Carpenter noted, Apple was “deeply involved in every aspect of the project from processing the initial donation of the collection to researching, documenting and curating photos; writing exhibit text; and assisting in the installation of the exhibit in Legislative Hall. … During the whole process, she never said that she couldn’t do something. Instead she said, ‘What do you want me to do.’ Her energy helped to make this display what it is today.” On March 30, 2015, division director Tim Slavin recognized Apple’s contributions when he presented her with the agency’s Extra Mile Award.

Carolyn Apple accepting the Extra Mile Award. (Form left) Delaware Secretary of State Jeffrey W. Bullock, Apple and Tim Slavin, director of the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. Photo by Howard Fulcher.
Carolyn Apple accepting the Extra Mile Award. (From left) Delaware Secretary of State Jeffrey W. Bullock, Apple and Tim Slavin, director of the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. Photo by Howard Fulcher.

 


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