Willie Vila

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Interviewed by
Dulcinea Cuellar
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By Lindsay Stafford

For Marine sniper Willie Vila, the only way to make it through World War II alive was to kill or be killed.

Vila used this advice, which he recalls getting from Lieutenant General Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, to keep him going through four years in World War II with the United States Marine Corps.

“I had a telescope on my rifle and a single shot,” he said. “And then I got a tommy gun, a [45] caliber with 50 rounds, a hundred [rounds of extra ammunition] in my back and my canteen of water. I survived.”

Vila, who was 83 years old at the time of his interview, began his military service a month after Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. He and his older brother, Joe, went to the local recruiter in West Tampa, Fla., to volunteer for the Marines.

The recruiter told Vila he couldn’t join because he was only 16 years old, but Joe was allowed to enlist since he was one year older.

“I told them, ‘he goes, I go. But if I don’t go, he won’t go,’” Vila recalled.

The recruiter promptly told him to return in two weeks and lie about his age.

When Vila joined the Marines with Joe in January of 1942, he says they each gave $17 to their parents from their paychecks, as their family didn’t have any money. Then they went to Washington, D.C., where they became part of the newly formed First Marine Division.

In D.C., Vila met Puller, who’d become a significant part of his war experience, telling him time and time again to “kill or be killed,” recalled Vila.

According to Vila, Puller would call him “Pancho,” even though his last name only has one L, whereas the last name of Mexican Revolution General Pancho Villa has two.

“I’d say, ‘Chesty, for goodness sake, one L,’” Vila said.

When the First Division went into training, Vila learned to be a sniper by smelling and hearing the enemy. He says he was chosen to be a sniper because, being from swampy West Tampa, he was a good swimmer and could handle island landscapes in the Pacific.

In August of 1942, he experienced his first WWII combat at the Battle of Guadalcanal, which was the first major fight between the Allied forces and Japan and lasted six months. The U.S. needed to secure a Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal, a part of the Solomon Islands.

As a sniper, Vila waited for Puller’s orders, and then headed off to crawl through the jungle looking for Japanese soldiers.

After Guadalcanal, Vila fought in six more battles, including the Battle of Okinawa, the last and most deadly major Pacific campaign of WWII. The Allies needed to capture Okinawa in order to disrupt Japan’s sea lines of communication and vital sources.

When Vila and his division arrived at Okinawa, they expected an easy battle.

“We thought we were going to have a field day – you know, field day good. But they started coming out at night,” he said.

As in Guadalcanal, Vila went into Okinawa’s jungles to snipe. When he got malaria and suffered from appendicitis in the jungle, he thought he might have to return to the U.S., however, doctors were able to remove his appendix. He stayed in the hospital until he and his division left for Japan, which was his last stop before returning home.

Many American soldiers Vila fought with became ill from drinking the water in the jungle, but Vila chose to drink water from coconuts, an indulgence in which he continued partaking long after the war ended.

Vila was discharged in January of 1946 at the rank of Corporal. When he found out he was returning home, he decided to surprise his family. He recalls encountering an ecstatic group, which included three new siblings, upon arriving unannounced at his house on Cherry Street.

Vila was married for almost 60 years to his wife Dora, who passed away in 2006. He has two daughters, Nancy and Denise, who found and framed all of his WWII medals, awards and patches, including his three American Purple Hearts, a Navy Cross and the French Purple Heart. The city of West Tampa dedicated a park to Vila and his six brothers, all of whom served in the military over a 50 year span.

“That feels good. They remember something,” said Vila of the recognition.

Though Vila enjoyed his time in the Pacific, and missed being in the service, he vividly remembered that “war is hell.”

“I went because I had to do a job,” he said. “And I came back, and thank God I came back and [am] able to talk about it.”

Mr. Vila was interviewed by Dulcinea Cuellar on November 11, 2006, in Tampa, Florida.