This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in New York.
Sam Gordon Wills was born on 5 March 1887, the second of the six children of Francis and Harriet Wills, at South Town, Kenton, near Dawlish in Devon, where his father was a farm labourer. By 1901 he was working as a yard boy for a family in Dawlish.
He enlisted into the Royal Navy at Devonport on 18 April 1906 and was numbered SS/1368—during his service he was known as ‘Gordon’. After a short period of training ashore, he joined the crew of the battleship HMS Vengeance in the Channel Fleet. His second ship was another pre-dreadnought battleship, HMS Caesar, from June 1908 to May 1909, and he then joined the dreadnought HMS Temeraire. He was transferred to the Royal Naval Reserve on 29 April 1911.
In the summer of 1912 Wills married Ethel May Gilpin and the couple set up home in Dawlish, where they had two children. First was a daughter, Phyllis, born in June 1913, and she was followed by a son, Francis, born in the summer of 1914. Sadly, their son died the following year.
Able Seaman Wills was mobilised in July 1914 and joined the armoured cruiser HMS Drake, the flagship of Rear Admiral William Grant, commanding 2nd Cruiser Squadron in the Grand Fleet (see also Peter Beatty, who joined the same day).
On 8 April, Able Seamen Wills and Beatty reported to Portsmouth, for training as gunners on defensively armed merchant ships. Wills was promoted to Leading Seaman on 16 January 1916. The detail of his service in 1916 is not known but he joined the crew of the SS Belgic in June or July 1917 for her maiden voyage with the White Star Line.
SS Belgic IV was built in 1914 at the Harland and Wolff yard in Belfast as a replacement for the RMS Titanic and to be named Ceric. War intervened, however, and she remained in Belfast incomplete until being delivered to the White Star Line in the late spring of 1917, when she was renamed Belgic IV. She was still not fully built, having only two funnels and no superstructure other than her bridge, and was destined to be used as a general cargo ship. Her first voyage was from Belfast to New York, where she arrived on 29 July.
During 1917 she, with Leading Seaman Wills as one of her gunners, made three more crossings as a cargo ship but in 1918 she was converted to be a troop ship, with accommodation for 3,000 personnel. That year she survived an attack by U-155 on 11 August. In 1919, SS Belgic was used to repatriate soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force.
Leading Seaman Wills’ last voyage on the Belgic began in Liverpool on 16 April 1919, arriving at New York on 25 April. Tragically, on 27 April he fell into one of the holds and was killed. He was buried in the Nazareth Section of the Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn. The gravestone records the shore station on the establishment of which he was held, HMS President III.
He is commemorated on the Dawlish war memorial.
His medals group comprises the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal 1914-20 and the Victory Medal.
Sonia Clatworthy for the photographs of her great-grandfather, his memorial scroll and the Dawlish war memorial.
The Dartmoor Trust for the photograph of the dedication of Dawlish War Memorial.
1. (Back) Francis Wills (1848-1922) married Harriet Rugg (1857-NK) in 1882: Bertha (1882-NK); Francis (1884-NK); Ellen (1890-NK); George (1894-NK); and Elizabeth M. (1896-NK).
2. (Back) His service record shows his birth date as 5 March 1888 but his birth certificate shows his birth as being on 5 March 1887.
3. (Back) Ethel May Gilpin (2 May 1887-1970); Phyllis May (later Harris) (4 June 1913-2 July 2000); Francis F. G. (1914-1915).
4. (Back) Until recently, Leading Seaman Wills was incorrectly commemorated by the CWGC as ‘Leading Seaman Gordon Willis’ His records now reflect his correct name and his gravestone has been replaced.