Aug 1, 2022
Correspondent photo / Bill Koch Willie Lewis, a Youngstown native who now lives in Austintown, served in the Marine Corps, National Guard and Army Reserve, totaling 20 years of military service. He earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam.
AUSTINTOWN — Willie Lewis joined the Marine Corps in 1966 and ended up staying in the military as a National Guardsman and an Army Reservist.
He graduated from East High School and the next year, he was sent to Vietnam. He was stationed at Camp Carroll, known as the Rock Pile, where he saw his first combat with the 2nd Battalion Ninth Marines.
Although his military occupational specialty was 81 mm mortar, one of his duties included stretcher bearer. Whenever someone shouted, “Medic!” he had to retrieve the soldier, no matter how heavy the action.
His first pickup was already dead. He spent the rest of the day crawling to each site. After the fighting was concluded, he had to help recover the remaining bodies.
His next job was to transport 60 mm mortars.
“Because I was lowest man on the totem pole, guess who had to carry the ammo?” It was 50 pounds added to an already unwieldy pack.
He fought the North Vietnamese, who, unlike the Viet Cong, were disciplined troops. The action was furious, and the terrain was foreboding.
“The elephant grass was as high as this room, and it was razor sharp. It was so dense it was almost like night. Everything in there would cut you, stick you or bite you,” Lewis said.
On his second day, the troops jumped into holes to avoid incoming fire. Later, as they were cleaning mud from their rifles, his buddies asked why his pants were torn. They said, “You’ve been hit,” and they started cheering because it meant he would get out. However, he wasn’t celebrating.
“Guys lost their hands and were shot in the head. This is nothing compared to what these other guys went through. It bothered me,” he said.
After his leg healed, he was about to be transferred. It happened to be the first day of the Tet Offensive.
“Chaos broke loose all over the country. All the bases were under attack, and here I am going around with another unit trying to catch up so I could be with someone other than being a lone traveler.”
His assignment was the combined action unit, comprised of smaller forces defending bridges and river crossings. He lived among the villagers. It was an eye opener that they were “dirt poor” but decent people trying to survive.
In 1969, with less than a month before his enlistment was up, there was a freak accident. He was on the back of a truck when the driver popped a clutch, the truck lurched, and several soldiers were flipped out.
He thought he was fine until a week later when he couldn’t move because of fluid around his spine. Instead of letting him go home, he spent almost three months at a hospital in Japan.
He returned to Youngstown and his job at General Motors, where he worked until 2006. In 1974, someone approached him about the National Guard. At first he resisted being a “weekend warrior,” but he considered the extra pay and decided to sign on for a year or two. This turned into 13 years and he became a staff sergeant.
After the National Guard, he joined the Army Reserve. He was an instructor at the USAR School in Cleveland and was promoted to master sergeant. He taught infantry and combat engineering at various armories and academies throughout the Midwest and South. He said he was proud watching those he taught rise to positions of authority.
In 1991, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, his school was activated for Operation Desert Storm. He was deployed to Fort Gordon in Georgia as an instructor.
He retired from the Reserve in 1994, but his military involvement has continued. For the past decade, he has volunteered with Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR). As a military outreach representative, he recognizes businesses who are supportive of their workers in the Guard and Reserve. When employers do not allow time off, he refers them to the ombudsmen who ensure they follow the law.
Lewis empathizes with those currently in uniform. He knows how excruciating it is to carry heavy packs in hot weather. He has witnessed soldiers being killed and losing limbs. He knows what it feels like to come home and readjust to a society that doesn’t always understand.
But he said other than the fighting, he loved most of his time in the military. It reinforced his confidence that he could get through just about anything, from surviving dangerous missions to living on C-rations for a month.
“We take a lot for granted. People say, ‘You’re a black man, and this is how you’re treated,’ and I realize that and don’t care for it. We shouldn’t have any problems in this country. Everybody should be able to live a good life.”
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