Roy Willis Humphreys (his army enlistment did not use the “s”) was born on February 27, 1922 in Morristown, Tennessee to Zetta Ray (Greene) Humphreys and Roger Theodore Humphreys. Willis, as his family and friends called him, had an older brother, James Dewitt Humphreys, born in 1919. In 1924, a sister, Winifred Lucille Humphreys, was born. Roger was employed as a laborer in a public works factory. By 1930, the family had relocated north to Toledo, Ohio in search of employment. Roger abandoned the family, leaving Zetta to care for her three children while working in a laundry. By 1935 the family moved to a house at 211 Beacon Street in Toledo, and Zetta was working in a factory. During the war she contributed to the effort by working at the Electric Auto-Lite Company.
Willis attended Robinson Junior High School in Toledo and then Macomber Vocational High School. He graduated from Macomber in June of 1941 after studying welding. He was employed by the Iron & Wire Co. in Toledo and Detroit as a welder and had a pretty girlfriend whom he liked to take out in his red roadster convertible. Willis’ older brother James enlisted in the army in June of 1941, joining the 148th Infantry Regiment of the 37th Infantry Division. James would go on to serve in the Pacific in the Northern Solomons and Philippines campaigns through 1945. A year later, on June 9, 1942, Willis followed suit and enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. He did his basic training at Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells, Texas at the same time as Audie Murphy, who would also go on to serve with the 3rd Division in Sicily and become one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War II. Initially hoping to become a paratrooper, Willis was later transferred to the infantry. As a private in Company G of the Second Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division he went overseas in January 1943, arriving in North Africa in February.
On July 10, 1943, Willis participated in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, at the time the largest amphibious invasion in history. He landed with the 2nd Battalion west of Licata. Heading north, Company G captured Favara on July 15. On July 22, the 2nd Battalion entered Palermo, remaining there on guard duty until July 26. Pushing forward along the northern coast in the race to Messina, Willis was wounded by shrapnel about four miles east of Sant’Agata near the Rosmarino River and San Marco D’Alunzio on August 9, 1943. Willis, along with several other wounded men, was taken to the battalion aid station in Sant’Agata for treatment. The aid station was set up in an alleyway in front of the home of the family of Tindara Cusmà. Signora Cusmà was the mother of 6 children: 5 daughters and a son.
At the aid station, Willis was given a blood plasma transfusion by Private First Class Harvey Wilfred White of the 3rd Medical Battalion of the 3rd Division. Pfc. White was a 32-year-old former baker from St. Paul, Minnesota who was drafted in January of 1942. As Pfc. White administered the life-saving plasma to the gravely wounded American, Signora Cusmà and two of her daughters, 15-year-old Maria and 5-year-old Pina, watched the tragic scene from the doorway of their home. This must have been especially difficult to witness because her only son, Calogero Giammò, had been conscripted into the Italian Army, but had fallen ill and was sent home. The young man had died at home the prior year at the age of 21, the same age as Willis. This poignant scene was captured by U.S. Army Signal Corps photographer Lieutenant John Stephen Wever of the 196th Signal Photo Company.
After Willis was treated at the aid station in Sant’Agata by Pfc. White, he was transferred to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital in San Stefano. He died there the next day, August 10, 1943, while undergoing a surgery on his spine for the wounds caused by the shrapnel the previous day. Coincidentally, this was the same day as what became known as General Patton’s second slapping incident. Patton was at the 93rd Evacuation Hospital to visit patients and award Purple Heart medals to the wounded. Among Willis’s personal effects when he died was a Purple Heart, most likely awarded to him by General Patton himself earlier that day; his family still treasures the medal.
Willis was buried at U.S. Military Cemetery No. 3, one mile east of Caronia, Sicily. In 1947 he, along with all the dead from Cemetery No. 3, was disinterred and reburied at the Mount Soprano Military Cemetery on mainland Italy. In 1948, his body was returned to Toledo at his family’s request and buried in Toledo Memorial Park Cemetery.
Lt. Wever’s powerful photo of Willis receiving the plasma transfusion appeared in newspapers across the United States on September 2, 1943. Due to a recent change in the censorship policy by the Office of War Information, this was the first photograph the American public had seen of a critically wounded American soldier. Previously, only photographs of recovering Americans, smiling from their hospital beds, or enemy dead and wounded were released. Fearing complacency, the policy was changed, and this photo caused a sensation when it was published, as well as the desired effect: a surge in blood donation. Donors hoped their plasma would save the life of an American soldier, as the photo’s caption suggested. The Toledo Blade ran the photo with the caption, “Yank Holding Death at Bay with Plasma: Pvt. Harvey White, army hospital corpsman from Minneapolis, holds death at bay as he administers blood plasma to a wounded Yank in a street at San Agata, Sicily,” while the New York Times proclaimed, “You May be Playing a Part in this War Drama: Oblivious to all but the task of saving a comrade’s life, Private Harvey White administers life-giving blood plasma to a soldier wounded during the campaign in Sicily, from a blood bank furnished by Americans at home.”
The U.S. Army never released the identity of the wounded soldier or revealed that the plasma had not saved his life, and Willis’s family never knew he was the famous soldier in the photo during the war. It was only decades later when the photograph was published online by the U.S. National Archives with a full caption that his family came to know the truth.
The photograph was reprinted over and over during the war, appearing in Red Cross blood donation ads, photography magazines, books, and on war maps. The contribution this scene made to the war effort and blood donation program was undeniable. In fact, the photograph was even considered for a Pulitzer Prize in photography and was deemed by one judge as “already a classic.”
Lt. Wever also never learned that Pvt. Humphrey had not been saved by the plasma transfusion. It is unlikely that Pfc. Harvey White ever saw or heard of his patient again after that day, either. However, the services performed by both White and Wever in that street in Sant’Agata on September 9, 1943 had far-reaching effects: the surge in blood donation after the photo appeared in newspapers and its continued use in Red Cross ads ensured an ample supply of blood plasma from American donors on the home front. When Wever learned that his photograph was having such an impact, he wrote to his mother, “Glad to learn that some of my pictures are at least doing a little bit of good” (Armed with Cameras, Maslowski, 1993). This is perhaps an understatement. While Pfc. White and the miraculous blood plasma he administered could not save Pvt. Roy Willis Humphrey, they did, through the influence of this stirring photograph, undoubtedly save the lives of many wounded men.
On August 9th and 10th of 2018, Sicilian WWII researcher Ciro Artale organized a conference and ceremonies to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation Husky and the events at Acquedolci and Sant’Agata, Sicily, including the plasma photograph and death of Pvt. Roy Willis Humphreys. I was extremely honored to be there to share the story of Willis, Pfc. White, and Lt. Wever and learn the story behind the Sicilian family in the photo. Ciro Artale had found the location of the photograph and met with the family of Signora Cusmà. Two of Signora Cusmà’s daughters, who witnessed the scene 75 years earlier but were not in the photo, as well as other family members including the son and grandson of Pina, attended. It was extremely emotional to be in that very spot 75 years later, to pay tribute to Roy Willis Humphreys. He will not be forgotten.
Story by Donna Esposito
References and more information:
Acknowledgements: Ciro Artale; the family of Roy Willis Humphreys, especially Neil Weiser; the family of Pfc. Harvey W. White; the family of Lt. John S. Wever; the family of Signora Tindara Cusmà; the residents and mayors of Sant'Agata and Acquedolci, Sicily, U.S. National Archives
This story is part of the Stories Behind the Stars project (see www.storiesbehindthestars.org). This is a national effort of volunteers to write the stories of all 400,000+ of the US WWII fallen here on Fold3. Can you help write these stories? Related to this, there will be a smart phone app that will allow people to visit any war memorial or cemetery, scan the fallen's name and read his/her story.