GIRARD — Bill Lileas and his closest friend, Joseph Angelo Siciliano, enlisted into the Marine Corps together, attended boot camp together and were stationed so close to each other in Vietnam they were able to meet before heading into the same battle on May 25, 1967.
One of the men was wounded, but survived Operation Hickory. The other man did not.
“He said to me, ‘You never walk alone. Remember that.’ And I said that’s it Joe, you never walk alone. I said I’ll see you when we get back. He never came back and I didn’t know it for a couple of weeks,” said Lileas, who received the Purple Heart for injuries he sustained in the fight.
Word of Siciliano’s death came in a letter from home. A family friend wrote of the ordination of Lileas’ brother into the priesthood before delivering the devastating news.
“I read the letter and she was telling me about the ordination and how beautiful it was and all of the people that were there, but she says, the day was marred, and I’ll never forget that. She said the day was marred by the fact that your very best friend Joe Siciliano was killed,” Lileas said. “I must have read that thing 100 times to let it sink in.”
Lileas of Girard, enlisted in the Marines in 1966, a year after graduating from Ursuline High School. He was 18 when he enlisted and 19 when fighting in Vietnam.
Some of his C-rations were older than he was.
It’s really funny, it said it was produced in 1945, I’m thinking I was produced in 1947,” Lileas said.
He said he felt compelled to join the military.
“I thought it was our turn, our generation,” said Lileas, 72. “It seemed like every generation did their job — World War II, Korea — and then ours and we had a lot of veterans in our family … I know a lot of people used to say, ‘Vietnam, let them fight their own battles,’ but I didn’t believe like that. Somebody always needs help. Didn’t we get help when we fought the English in the Revolutionary War?”
His reasoning to become a Marine was simple: “The best, go with the best.”
Lileas remembers with great clarity the day he was injured. The story begins the night of May 24, 1967, when U.S. soldiers were engaged in a firefight with the enemy.
The shooting stopped and all was quiet through the night. When the sun rose, his squad was ordered to go search for dead Viet Cong in an area Lileas said was perfect for an ambush — laden with tall elephant grass.
“As soon as we hit that tree line, we were ambushed. Go figure,” he said.
He was hit in the eye with a grenade, but he and a corpsman, who pulled metal shrapnel from Lileas’ eye, were able to get rid of the device before it exploded.
“I was lucky that I still have my eye,” Lileas said.
He returned home in 1968 and married his high school sweetheart, Mary, in 1969.
He worked at the former Ravenna Arsenal near Newton Falls right out of the service and then took a job at the General Motors facility in Lordstown, where he worked “for 30 years and for 30 seconds.”
Afterward, he was a social worker for a local hospice for 10 years.