As a young boy, Derrell Willson knew that he wanted to serve his country.
In fact, during World War II, an Army convoy visited the local school and he couldn’t resist scoping it out, even though he was too young at the time. The soldiers took him home and talked with his mother. The experience solidified his decision to join and Willson enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1952.
At the time, Willson had no idea just how much of a positive impact his decision to serve 26 years in the Air Force would have on his family. In 1972, 20 years after Willson enlisted, his son, Derrell Willson II decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enlisted in the Air Force.
“Having my dad in the military exposed me to travel. I really enjoyed travelling and meeting new people,” said Willson II. “Seeing him go to work, being on Air Force bases, and growing up so close to the flightline, it seemed like a good idea to join. Plus, I was young and wanted to marry my high school sweetheart. Familiar with that kind of lifestyle, it just made sense.”
The dynamic father and son duo served in the Air Force together for six years before Willson retired as a master sergeant. In 1992, as Willson II was wrapping up a successful 20-year career in the Air Force as a master sergeant, his son, Derrell Willson III was getting ready to make a big decision.
“Joining the Air Force just came natural,” said Willson III, 412th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.
Continuing the family tradition of exceptional military service, he was notified May 17 that he would join his father and grandfather and become the third Master Sgt. Derrell Willson in the Air Force.
“For 19 years, I had been striving for this. This was the goal, this was the pinnacle. I had to have this,” said Willson III. “As soon as I found out, I called my dad to share the good news and he told me to call “Papaw” and tell him that I found another Master Sergeant ‘double-L’ Willson.”
Keeping with tradition, Willson III called his grandfather and let him know that there was another Master Sgt. Derrell Willson, same spelling and all – just like his father did nearly twenty years earlier.
Together, the three men have served more than 60 continuous years in the United States Air Force, which includes conflicts spanning from the Korean War to the War on Terror and monumental events from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“My son and grandson make me very proud. I had no idea what I started more than 60 years ago,” said the elder Willson. “This is a tradition that I am very proud of.”
It is a proud tradition of military service in the Willson family that at times comes with moments of humor. Early in the youngest Willson’s career, according to his medical records, his wife was married to his father, while he and his brother were their children. The matter was quickly resolved and the lesson learned was to always double check the date of birth.
Inspired to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, not only has Willson III achieved his longtime goal of becoming a master sergeant in the Air Force, but he spends his day working on electronics and communications systems to support the F-22 Raptor program. Interestingly enough, it’s a career path similar to his father’s, which was in the teletype communications field and not too different from his grandfather’s career in the Air Force as a radar technician.
“It is so wonderful to have this legacy, it sets an example. We love our country, we’re proud of it. It’s a legacy that stands for doing what’s right. The truth is, I’d rather us not be at war, but we need a strong military for war, peace and humanitarian efforts,” said Willson II “There is a rich military history from the Revolutionary War to the present and it’s one that I’m proud our family is a part of, dating all the way back to World War II.”
Derrell Willson tacked on the rank of master sergeant May 1, 1969, while it was April 1, 1988 for Derrell Willson II, known as “Cliff” to close friends and family, with the middle name Clifton.
Derrell Willson III, who goes by “D.C.,” will officially tack on the rank of master sergeant August 1, and at least for now, will be the last Derrell Willson to do so. His father and grandfather are making plans to show their love and support by attending the ceremony.
Now that Willson’s goal of becoming a master sergeant has come to fruition, there is always a possibility that he could surpass his father and grandfather in rank. If that happens, there would only be absolute pride and elation. Not to mention, they would be standing by for a phone call to inform them that the third Master Sgt. Derrell Clifton Willson has just found a Senior Master Sergeant “double-L” Willson.