Jess Willard was one of that select band who survived the Second World War and became an Albion footballer.

Not a day goes by when Jess doesn't offer a silent prayer for returning to his native Sussex sound in wind and limb after flying a series of perilous missions against the Japanese in Burma.

Warrant Officer Willard was a wireless operator/air gunner in B24 Liberator bombers with a crew of three Aussies and three Brits. Each raid must have seemed like the last for any crash in the jungle could only end with either a mercifully quick death or mutilation if found by the enemy.

Today, aged 77, Jess is one of the longest surviving Albion players of that immediate post-war period. Des Broomfield, who lives in Hove, is senior by, I believe, three years and even older is Harry Baldwin, the renowned penalty king goalkeeper.

Jess, born and bred in Chichester, left the Lancastrian senior boys' school at 14 and went to work for Shippams, filling jars with various pastes. The hands that fed the pots were employed in more violent moments at the local boys' club when Cecil Willard was soon dubbed Jess as recognition of his fistic prowess.

What more natural than the bearer of the surname Willard to be called after the world champion? The nickname stuck and Jess harboured dreams of being a professional boxer.

Although unbeaten in all his youthful encounters as a light-heavyweight, and also in RAF bouts, other matters overtook Jess who, as a member of the ATC, hankered after graduating to air crew on call-up.

He admits with a grin that maybe it was also the uniform. At any rate he was called to the colours, minus some teeth plus a better-than-average soccer pedigree. He played for Sussex and South of England Boys and had the odd representative match for the RAF during training.

A wing half or inside forward with a huge capacity for non-stop running, Jess had no difficulty on demob in captaining Chichester to victory in the Sussex Senior Cup. He soon gained a full county cap and late in 1946 was asked to the Goldstone for a trial with the reserves.

"I remember well Charlie Webb signing me. Everybody called him Mr Webb because he was a perfect gentleman. I had half a dozen games or so in the first team as an amateur and then Mr Webb put me on professional forms. After my first game I reported back to him in the office and he asked what expenses I had incurred. I had just scored a goal and was feeling pretty pleased.

"I told Mr Webb the truth that it had cost me three shillings to get to and from the ground and he gave me six. I thought this is a bit of all right. I was later approached by Portsmouth but I had to turn them down as Brighton had got in first."

Despite the harrowing experiences and responsibilities of senior non-commissioned rank, Jess was still a very young man, albeit a married one.

He and Kay, who had served in the WAAF, set up home in a club flat in Sackville Road. But all the time Jess commuted from Chichester he felt acutely aware of his rookie status.

"I was on the bus travelling to my first game and I overheard two chaps discussing the team and saying there was an amateur named Willard playing. I just sat there cringing."

Before putting his name to the dotted line, Jess was "looked over" by the directors. I wonder if they realised that they were treating an ex-serviceman with less respect than he deserved. I also wonder if they thought that Jess Willard would play more than 200 games in his seven years at the club.

Very shortly Charlie Webb, and Tommy Cook, his right hand man, departed from the Goldstone and Don Welsh took over as manager.

Slowly but surely, Albion extricated themselves from a series of tricky situations and Jess settled down as a key player.

The most Jess received in wages was £12 a week and £2 win bonus. He and Kay got by and during the summer he and other players did odd jobs around the ground.

Jess also made models at a local shop and the extra money was put by for holidays.

Jess hasn't too many outstanding memories of his Goldstone career. The best goal he scored was a volley from Billy Reed's cross but he cannot remember the match.

Not long after his testimonial he, Reed and Jack Ball were all placed on the transfer list and Jess joined Crystal Palace. He believes the fee was around £1,000.

"They signed me with a gammy leg and I had 18 months before giving up. George Smith was the manager and he asked me to take the youth team and shortly after I was made first team coach. I got on well with him as I had with Don Welsh.

"George was a real man and once whacked one of his players who was asking for it and he went on to manage Portsmouth. I had 20 years at Palace but I always regard Brighton as my club. It is the first result I look for."

I asked Jess who was the best player he had seen at Albion and Palace.

"Johnny McNichol was outstanding at Brighton among a host of very good players indeed. As for Palace, I'd say Budgie Byrne."

After a lifetime in football Jess joined Securicor and in happy retirement has lived in Turners Hill Park for 11 years. Before the Goldstone was demolished he and Kay went for a last look.

"It was a terrible feeling knowing that the old place would be turned into something else. Us wives used to have a tea room in the South Stand and the friendships we built up will never be forgotten," said Kay.