Missing La Plata soldier honored at ceremony
Francis DeSales Wills went MIA in Vietnam in 1966
Just over 50 years ago, Army Pfc. Francis DeSales Wills was declared missing in action in Vietnam. On Saturday, several generations of Wills’ family joined military veterans to honor his memory, and the memories of all servicemen and women missing in action, at a ceremony at the American Legion Randolph Furey Post 170 in Indian Head.
The ceremony culminated in the raising of the POW/MIA flag at the post.
The color guard from the Air Force JROTC
program at Henry E. Lackey High School in Indian Head opened the ceremony. Following an opening prayer by the post’s chaplain, Doris Mason, Adjutant Billy Hill dedicated a table on which was set items symbolizing the plight of missing soldiers.
“Those who have served and those currently serving in the uniformed services of the United States are forever mindful that the sweetness of enduring peace always has been tainted by the bitterness of personal sacrifice,” Hill said. “Let us remember and never forget their sacrifice.”
Following a reading of resolutions and citations presented by the Charles County Board of Commissioners, the Maryland General Assembly, and the U.S. Congress, Brie O’Neal, president of the American Legion Auxiliary 259 in Clinton, spoke about her efforts to commemorate Maryland’s missing soldiers.
“It is important now more than ever for the American Legion family, especially in the Southern Maryland region, to be gatekeepers for the missing in action,” she said. “Awareness matters. There’s work to be done.”
O’Neal noted that 23 soldiers from Maryland are still unaccounted for and listed as missing in action from all wars. Forty-five soldiers from Virginia and eight from Washington, D.C., are likewise unaccounted for.
More than 1,600 people are listed as missing in action from the Vietnam war, 31 of whom are civilians.
O’Neal discussed some of the recent successes of the military’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in identifying and repatriating the remains of service members in Laos. She also encouraged the Maryland House of Delegates to pass House Bill 664, which would require state buildings to fly the POW/MIA flag whenever the U.S. flag is flown.
O’Neal said that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has expressed his support for the bill.
La Plata Mayor Jeannine James said that being from a military family in which all her relatives came home from their service, she can only begin to guess what the Wills’ experience has been for the past 50 years.
“It’s difficult to speak about one of our soldiers who hasn’t come home,” she said. “Let’s keep the search going until he’s home.”
Charles County NAACP president Janice Wilson expressed her gratitude for everyone who has served their country in uniform and offered her sympathy to the Wills family on behalf of the NAACP.
“We are with you, we want to stay connected with you, and we applaud your strength in going on in the face of not knowing,” Wilson said.
“It’s torturous to not know. The Wills family does not have closure,” she said.
Wanda Wills Woodland, a vice president of the Charles County NAACP chapter and a niece of Wills, recounted how he had helped his mother raise his five siblings.
“Sales was a man at a very young age,” she said.
Wills was the first president of the youth chapter of the Charles County NAACP and participated in local sit-ins. When he did, Woodland recalled, his mother would take his shift as a dishwasher at a local restaurant because the family needed his wages.
“Sales believed in equality,” Woodland said. “He worked for equality.”
“Sales was not drafted,” Woodland said. “He signed up. He served his country. He believed that it was the best way to, and I hate to say it this way, make America great.”
“We still to this day believe that our uncle will, in some form or fashion, return to us.”
Wills’ daughter Jocelyn and firstborn son Francis DeSales Clark also spoke at the event, and Wills’ sisters, nephews and nieces, cousins, and grand-nephew were also in attendance.
Paul Melvin Wills, Wills’ younger brother, sang a song in his memory. He recalled how he couldn’t wait to tell his older brother that he had successfully auditioned as a drummer for a band.
“But he never came back, so I could never show him what I could do,” recalled Wills.
Following the presentation of a resolution in Wills’ honor by Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D), the ceremony moved outside to raise the POW/MIA flag on the post’s flagpole. The flag will be flown there until all the nation’s missing and captured service personnel have been accounted for.
Attendance was high for the POW/MIA recognition ceremony at the American Legion Randolph Furey Post 170 in Indian Head on Saturday.
The POW/MIA recognition ceremony at the American Legion Post 170 in Indian Head was in honor of Pfc. Francis DeSales Wills, a La Plata resident and civil rights activist who was declared missing in action in Vietnam in February 1966.
Above left, the color guard from the Air Force JROTC program at Henry E. Lackey High School in Indian Head opened Saturday’s POW/MIA recognition ceremony. Above center, veterans salute as the POW/ MIA flag is raised at the conclusion of Saturday’s POW/MIA recognition ceremony at the American Legion Randolph Furey Post 170 in Indian Head. Above right, Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, center, joined Francis DeSales Wills’ neice Wanda Wills Woodland, left, and his nephew Matt Nolan Wills following the flag-raising ceremony.