EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was written Lt. John J. Stanley of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. It is reprinted here with permission.
The weather on the morning of Sunday April 14, 1957 was not very good for flying, but to avid airmen a little weather is often just a distraction. In this case, unfortunately, it proved fatal.
Fatal not only to five members of two planes of the Progressive Flying Club which made an abortive breakfast flight from the Hawthorne Airport to Santa Ynez, but also to two members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who participated in an aerial search for the second of the downed airplanes along the Malibu coast the following day.
That two LASD personnel died in a plane crash around 11 in the morning on April 15, 1957 has been known since the time of the crash. When the Los Angeles County Peace Officer’s Memorial was established in May 1971 and all the LASD deputies killed in the line of duty prior to that time were first honored, it was believed that Sgt. Vernon Corbeil, the pilot, was the only sworn peace officer who died that morning.
His passenger Raymond C. Willis was thought to be a civilian. He was not.
It turns out, when the Fairchild XNP airplane crashed 500 feet short of an emergency airstrip on the Debell Ranch in Puerco Canyon near the Malibu coast, the fiery crash that followed claimed the life of not one LASD sergeant, but two.
Ray Willis was also a sheriff’s department sergeant. The failure to recognize Sgt. Willis’s sworn status 14 years after the crash led to his omission from the county memorial in 1971 and then in subsequent years on the state and federal memorials when they were created.
That oversight will be corrected this May 2014 when Ray Willis receives the honor he is long overdue at all three memorial ceremonies.
Sgt. Raymond Willis was an LASD trailblazer. It is a sad irony that this very fact may have contributed to the failure to realize that he was a sworn peace officer.
Willis joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on Aug. 31, 1955. He was hired as a polygraph technician and was assigned to the Sheriff’s Department’s Crime Lab. Willis was a Los Angeles Police Officer prior to joining the LASD, hired by the LAPD in September 1948.
Following his graduation from the Academy he was assigned to LAPD Central Station and worked there until 1951, when he transferred to LAPD’s Crime Lab. Initially, Ray was a crime scene photographer, but later became a polygraph technician.
In mid-April 1955, the Los Angeles Times ran a three-day series of articles on the work of the LAPD and LASD Crime Labs. In one of these articles, there is a photograph of LAPD Officer Ray Willis demonstrating a polygraph examination.
The LAPD Crime Lab began using polygraph machines in the late 1920s. At the time the series was written in 1955, the LASD was still using polygraph technicians from other departments and did not have a polygraph unit of its own. Ray Willis was hired to start the Polygraph Unit of the Sheriff Department.
His Sheriff’s Department application and his death certificate list his job title as polygraph technician. This seemed to question his sworn status. By 1971, all Department polygraph technicians were civilians. In 1955, all personnel working in the Crime Lab were sworn.
Unfortunately, Ray Willis’s tenure on the LASD was brief. A mere 14 years after his death, it seems no one remembered him or that he was a peace officer.
The weight of evidence in Ray Willis’s personnel file of his peace officer status far outweighed the doubts on it cast by what was written on his job application. Ray was assigned badge number 452.
There was also a letter in his file removing his peace officer status after his death. This was a standard procedure when anyone left the department, for any reason. A similar letter was in Sgt. Corbeil’s file.
In addition to what was found in Ray’s personnel file, a Department Review Flier Volume 5, Number 10 was published four days after the crash “In Memory of Sergeant Ray Willis and Sergeant Vernon Corbeil.”
Several newspaper articles recounting the tragedy also refer to Ray as a sergeant. Only a peace officer has ever held that rank on the LASD.
But the most significant document in Ray’s file, if taken by itself, might call his sworn status into question. This document was the after-incident memorandum written by Aero Detail Captain Sewell Griggers to Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz. Throughout this correspondence Captain Griggers referred to Sergeant Corbeil by his rank but repeatedly described Ray Willis as a “Polygraph Operator.”
This memo also revealed that it was Captain Griggers decision to assign Sergeant Willis to fly with Sergeant Corbeil that morning. Griggers wrote, “Sgt. Corbeil was to fly the Fairchild and I suggested that he take an observer with him, as visibility from the Fairchild is poorer for searching. Therefore, Raymond Willis, Polygraph Operator, was assigned to accompany Sgt. Corbeil.”
Why Willis, a sergeant assigned to the Crime Lab, was selected to accompany Sgt. Corbeil as an observer was never explained. It is possible that it was his skills as a photographer that made him desirable as an observer.
Ray’s military service record also indicates that he had an interest in aviation. In March 1945, toward the end of his service in the Navy, he passed an exam that made him eligible for flight training as a naval aviator though there is no evidence that he ever pursued this farther. Perhaps he volunteered for the duty with Corbeil because of his interest in flying.
The real reason he was selected as Vernon Corbeil’s observer that day will probably never be known.
Ray Willis was a member of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” He served with honor and distinction in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was an American hero.
Although, like so many of the men who served in combat during that war, he did not talk about his time in the service with his family and probably would not have considered his actions worthy of any special accolades.
Ray was born on April 23, 1923 in Canton, Okla. On Sept. 1, 1942, he enlisted in the Navy. On his enlistment application he stated his interests were surveying, horseback riding, hunting and swimming.
It was the latter of these interests that he was unfortunately forced to put to use during his time in the service. He did his basic training in late 1942 in Southern California. It was here that he met his future wife Virginia “Jean” Fontaine. Following completion of basic training, he was sent to Motor Torpedo Boat Training School in Melville, Rhode Island.
At the beginning of 1943, Ray was sent to the Solomon Islands and was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Reconnaissance Squadron (MTBRS) #2 and was later also in its successor MTBRS #5. These were arguably the most active and famous PT Boat squadrons in World War II.
Ray’s brother-in-law, Ron Leggett, found documents belonging to Ray suggesting that he served on at least two different PT Boats, the 108 and the 125. PT 108 was the sister boat of PT 109, the vessel skippered by John F. Kennedy. PT 108 was in the engagement when PT 109 was sunk. It is not known whether Ray was on PT 108 at the time of this mission.
Ray’s Navy service record does indicate that during his 16 months of active sea duty, he was on one boat and one ship that were “sunk under him.” Neither PT 108 nor PT 125 was sunk during the war, so it appears Ray was on additional boats besides the ones referenced in the papers found by Mr. Leggett.
It was possible Ray was part of a replacement pool of sailors for his squadron. Following the sinking of one of the two vessels, Ray’s service record indicates he was adrift in the ocean for five hours before being rescued.
Ray completed 16 months of active sea duty before being sent back to the States in April 1944. Upon his return he married Jean Fontaine on May 13, 1944 and she accompanied him back to Melville, Rhode Island where he became an instructor in the PT Boat school until the summer of 1945.
On June 21, 1945, Ray was found qualified for transfer to a new assignment. He was sent to the U.S. Naval Training and Distribution Center at Shoemaker, Calif. near present-day Dublin and Pleasanton. The Shoemaker Facility was primarily a training site for the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalion, better known as the Seabees. There is nothing in Ray’s Navy file to indicate he ever attended flight training despite being deemed suited for it in March 1945. It is likely he was assigned to Shoemaker to be retrained as a Seabee.
Ray’s 16 months at sea and in combat apparently took their toll on him. On Aug. 9, 1945, he was diagnosed with combat fatigue. Today, this condition is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. According to the Navy doctor who made the entry in his medical file at that time, Ray “had feelings of uneasiness and tension for [the] past two years.”
This manifested itself in symptoms of tension, anxiety, tremor in his hands and he “constantly makes purposeless movements.” It seems apparent that the prospect of returning to active sea duty caused him great distress.
On Sept. 14, 1945, Ray received an honorable medical discharge from the Navy and left the service as a Quartermaster 2nd Class.
Following his discharge, Ray and Jean lived in Glendale. They dwelled in a number of different locations in and around Glendale and the San Fernando Valley area before buying a house in Pacoima. In July 1946, Ray got a job as an installer for the Seal Tight Weather Stripping Company in Burbank. He was with this firm until he joined the LAPD.
Ray and Jean were unable to have children of their own. Ron Leggett said that this was difficult for both of them so they adopted two young children in the early 1950s, Mark and Carol. Ron, now 74, was 17 years younger than his half-sister and 16 years younger than Ray. He said he regarded his brother-in-law as a father figure.
According to Ron, Ray cared about children and was very good with them. He did volunteer work with youth, including being a leader of a group called the Sea Explorers. Ron was only 18 when Ray died. He took it hard. Ray’s wife Jean died in 2001.
During Ray’s brief tenure with the LASD, he was praised by his superiors for his enthusiasm in his new assignment. He also received letters of thanks from the Burbank and Pomona Police Departments for his assistance as he conducted polygraph examinations that forwarded ongoing investigations.
It is clear that in Ray’s short career with the LASD he was quickly moving the Department Crime Lab’s polygraph unit to a position of leadership in the field in the local law enforcement community.
In addition to at last receiving recognition for his line of duty death, Ray Willis’s accomplishments as the LASD’s first polygraph technician can also be acknowledged. The men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department appreciate the sacrifice made by this trailblazer and are glad that he is at last receiving the praise he so richly deserves.