RADM Willson returned in January 1941 as Superintendent of the Naval Academy, where his only son, Russell Willson, Jr., was commissioned with distinction in February 1941.
Russell Jr. then served on ships or ashore in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters during World War II. He earned his wings as a naval aviator with a top rating and by February 1944 was assigned the vital role of air combat instructor at Lee Field, Florida. Tragically, just as the war ended in 1945, his engine malfunctioned and the uncontrollable plane crashed while he was flying back to home base with his students who had just passed their carrier qualifications.
Three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, RADM Willson detached from the Naval Academy and reported for duty as Chief of Staff and Aide to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, Admiral Ernest J. King. A letter from family friend and Class of 1907 Naval Academy graduate Louis J. Gulliver noted that the entire COMINCH team available in January 1942 to begin planning for winning the war consisted of King and Willson. On 21 March, following Willson was commissioned Vice Admiral for temporary service with a date of rank of 10 March. On 1 September, he became Deputy Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet. Within months, however, failing health forced him to retire several days before his 59th birthday. Russell Willson’s days of duty at sea were over.
If he could never again command at sea or lead a staff, he was determined to continue serving the Navy and the country. Upon his initial retirement, VADM Willson was immediately recalled to active duty as a Navy member of the Joint Strategic Survey Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Subsequently, he was appointed a member of the American Delegation at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944. This impelled the Under Secretary (soon thereafter Secretary) of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. to send him a letter in October extolling his “great contributions toward the final results” at the Washington Conversations on International Peace and Security Organization. These meetings essentially established the framework for the United Nations. It comes as no surprise, then, that he also served as a military advisor at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in 1945. In February 1946, shortly after the war ended, VADM Willson was relieved of all active duty.
During retirement, VADM Willson contributed as an associate editor of World Report (since January 1948 known as U.S. News and World Report) and ghost-wrote at least one article for Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. He gained widespread respect for his knowledge of international relations, his clarity of thought, and his excellence in writing.
VADM Willson married the former Eunice M. Westcott of Baltimore, Maryland in 1911 and they raised three children. Their first-born daughter, Eunice, celebrated her 95th birthday in 2007. She married Robert Henry Rice (U.S. Naval Academy class of 1927) who went on to become a highly decorated World War II submarine officer and retired with the rank of Vice Admiral. The younger daughter, Mary, also married a Navy officer (USNA Class of 1937) – Thomas Donald Cunningham, who performed distinguished service on destroyers in the Pacific Theater retiring with the rank of Captain. Son Russell, Jr. is identified above. VADM Willson’s surviving descendants include five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. He died on 6 July 1948 and was buried on the grounds of the Naval Academy Cemetery.
Featured Image Above: Naval Delegation to United Nations Conference on International Organization Meeting in San Francisco, 1945. Willson at the left is flanked by VADM Thomas C. Kincaid (Commander, Seventh Fleet), The Honorable Artemus L. Gates (Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air), and ADM Royal E. Ingersoll (Commander, Western Sea Frontier). The UNCIO met from 25 April to 26 June when nations completed the Charter of the United Nations.
Source: NCVA Echoes of Our Past/Raymond P. Schmidt