William Jesse “Bill” Jolly of Denmark will go down in the record books as one of the best tennis players ever in South Carolina.
Jolly, who died Saturday at age 93, is a tennis legend, known for his 1,275 singles and doubles matches and his career 64 percent winning percentage. The City of Denmark’s tennis courts are named in honor of him.
Jolly began swinging a tennis racket at the age of 13. Into his late 80s, he was still playing the sport, with tennis being his lifelong passion. From 1980 to 2005, Jolly won 36 state competitions, including a record 32 straight; five southern championships and even a national competition. In 2005, Jolly became South Carolina’s oldest player to win a state championship.
He did more than play the game. In 2003, he was honored by the U.S. Tennis Association South Carolina for his work with the public tennis courts in Denmark after he became the first Adopt-A-Court grant recipient given in South Carolina to improve the facility.
According to the USTA South Carolina, “The Billy Jolly Tennis Courts stand today as an example of what one person can do to improve tennis in a local community.”
He fostered the game as a board member of the USTA in South Carolina and as chairman of the Denmark Tennis Association and the Denmark Dogwood Festival Tournament.
Yet as much as tennis was a big part of Jolly’s life, there is more to his story. As a high school coach, he guided South Carolina youth in football, basketball, baseball and golf – as well as tennis.
And as a young man, he was part of the three biggest invasions of World War II, driving a landing craft under enemy fire in both the European and the Pacific Theaters.
Jolly’s World War II story was one of those told by veterans and their family members in the fifth episode of the noted series, “A World War.” The episode is titled “South Carolinians in World War II.”
On June 6, 1944, D-Day, Allied forces invaded Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” at beaches called Omaha, Utah, Juno and Sword. Jolly was in the Normandy invasion, serving as the driver of a Navy landing craft that brought in troops and vehicles. He told The T&D in 2012 that his LST was the first on Omaha Beach.
His first three trips on and off the beach went without a hitch. But on the fourth trip, his craft attracted some unwanted attention from a German acoustic mine. The back half of his ship was blown off.
Jolly said for reasons unknown to him, the mangled vessel was taken to England, then back to the United States for repairs. As the ship’s driver, he went with it. Once the LST-133 was ship-shape again, Jolly and his landing craft were ordered to the Pacific, where he was part of the biggest operations of that theater.
“We were on the move all the time — Guam, Saipan,” he said. “We did two invasions, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.”
After the surrender of the Japanese, the South Carolinian said he found himself piloting the first LST into Tokyo Bay.
Ironically, after having seen the war’s three biggest invasions from the front row, Jolly said the most frightening event he experienced was a typhoon that struck Tokyo Bay during a supply trip.
Waves recorded at heights of up to 80 feet bore down on his convoy of four ships, Jolly said. The lead ship, which was carrying an admiral, raced for the harbor while Jolly turned his ship around to get out of the way. The two ships in the middle, along with their crews, were lost, he said.
As with so many from the Greatest Generation, such World War II service could have represented a lifetime of experiences and achievement. But there was no resting on laurels. The veterans returned to do great things in the United States in the post-war era. Count Bill Jolly among them. He will be remembered for his service and a lifetime of achievements -- and as a great tennis player.