Fight For Freedom:  The Life & Times of James Henry Willlis


IN THE THIRD WEEK of May in 1942, Civil War Veteran James Henry Willis lay blind and bedridden in his home at 119 Lincoln Street in Montclair, New Jersey. Having surpassed the age of 102 just the week prior, Mr. Willis - formerly Sergeant Willis of Company C, 127th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops - was among the last 500 or so surviving combat veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic; by 1950, less than a dozen would remain. 


For Sergeant James H. Willis, however, this most recent birthday would be his last. Nine days later on May 19th, Mr. Willis died, and so ended the valorous life of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania's last surviving Civil War Veteran. His life is remarkable not only because this last of Williamsport’s Defenders of the Union in the bloody struggle against Southern slavery was an African-American, but also because at the time of the Civil War’s opening salvos at Fort Sumter in 1861, James Henry Willis was a slave, the property of a Southern plantation owner in the heart of the Confederacy....

   Featured in the  2020-2021 Winter Edition of the

Journal of the Lycoming County Historial Society 

Copyright © 2021 by Michael A Luna

Courtesy of Ringling Museum

 Image used by permission of: Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Tibbals Collection 

Itaro Kono:  Setting of a Rising Son

FOR TEN DAYS each year, citizens of Japan and residents of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania bridge the nearly seven thousand miles of land and ocean between them to share in the experience of the Little League World Series, a momentary merging of cultures within the beloved pastime of both nations. Although their shared experiences at the annual event began in 1964, another connection- unknown to either the Japanese or the Americans - has long joined them together, Japan to Williamsport, one to the other, for more than a century. The fascinating story of this singular, long-forgotten bond between the Land of the Rising Sun and the one-time Lumber Capital of the World begins one hundred fifteen years ago in a harbor in Tokyo Bay.


On the 14th of November in 1905, the Japanese cargo steamer Iyo-Maru cast off her lines and eased away from her mooring in Yokohama Harbor on the western shore of Japan’s Tokyo Bay. The propellers visibly churned the brackish water in her wake as the ship’s coal-fired boilers fed steam to her twin three-cylinder engines, straining to push the 135-meter-long vessel through the choppy waves. Fully loaded, every available space within the Iyo-Maru’s 632,000 cubic feet of gross tonnage was packed with cargo bound for America, including tea, matting, exotic woods, camphor wax, and silk.

Though primarily a voyage of trade, the steamer also carried more than one hundred Japanese citizens, mostly young men, destined for the Pacific Northwest of the United States. As the Iyo-Maru steamed south out of Tokyo Bay and into the open waters of the Pacific Ocean, the helmsmen brought her left to a north-by-northeast heading. The young emigrants, after stowing their baggage in the open-berth steerage accommodations below, lined the deck’s portside railing for a long and perhaps final look at their ancient homeland. Among them was 25-year-old Itaro Kono.



Copyright © 2021 by Michael A Luna


Williamsport's Lost Children

ON TEPID AUTUMN afternoons in Williamsport’s Wildwood Cemetery, cool breezes rustle the old-growth oak and maple trees that line the winding pathways, the knurled branches adorned in a rich canopy of amber, bronze, and mulberry. Across the three hundred-forty acres that make up Wildwood, transected by an approaching roadway into its eastern and western halves, polished blocks of carved granite push upward to mark the solemn places where more than fifty-seven thousand of Williamsport’s former residents lie at rest. From modest tablets to soaring monuments, remembrances of the city’s ancestors are etched into the visible history of this hallowed ground.

On an unnoticed slope on the fringe of East Wildwood, however, at a place where the shoulder of the narrow car path drops away suddenly, a few dozen weathered headstones lie scattered along an otherwise barren ground, the sharp incline of the hardened terrain in places seemingly unsuited for a proper interment. Wedged between the roadway and the encroaching woods that surround the cemetery, this swath of ground, roughly one hundred yards long and a third as wide, sweeps unnoticeably around the base of a knoll that is itself covered in regimented lines of chiseled grave markers. From this knoll, however, where occasional visitors stroll reflectively between the rows of headstones in search of familiar names, the lower slope below is all but invisible, unseen and forgotten.

Forgotten also is what, or rather whom, lies beneath this isolated hillside. This nondescript piece of seemingly unused ground is Wildwood’s ‘Poor Ground’ cemetery, where in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries the city of Williamsport deposited the remains of its poor and indigent citizens, its paupers and vagabonds. Cemetery records indicate that, almost incomprehensibly, 882 bodies were interred here in this seemingly inadequate space. The actual number, however, is probably closer to a thousand. Though Wildwood was founded in 1863, burial records prior to 1877 are non-existent, according to Wildwood administrators, inexplicably lost to the passage of time. The records that are available, however, tell a unique story of life in Williamsport in the decades following the Civil War, a chronicle of society in the late 1800s and early 1900s that few today are aware of...

   Featured in the  2020-2021 Winter Edition of the

Journal of the Lycoming County Historial Society 

Copyright © 2021 by Michael A Luna

Read an abridged story about 'The Life & Times of James Henry Willis' entitled 

Williamsport's Last Civil War Soldier 

in the November, 2020 edition of


Community Theatre League determined to offer a diversion from COVID-19

Emma Downy for NCPA.