When Willie James Lewis was drafted by the U.S. Army on Oct. 25, 1951 for the Korean War he was happy.
“I heard many say they were fearful of being drafted, but I was not,” he said. “I was glad and felt I should serve my country when called upon,” Lewis said.
Lewis grew up in Logan County and graduated from Buffalo High School in Accoville in 1948.
“It was up Buffalo Creek, near Amherstdale,” he said. “My old high school building is still there, but is not being used for anything.”
After getting drafted into the Army, Lewis completed his basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., and then was sent to Korea as part of the 92nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion.
“Around 2 a.m., on July 14, 1953, we were moving artillery units, tanks and half tracks when a guard heard small arms fire close to our position,” Lewis recalled. “The enemy had made a big push and were right on top of us.”
Lewis said the battle with the enemy led to hand-to-hand combat. Lewis was wounded in the leg, but he could still walk.
“My weapon of choice was a .45 and I used it to escape, but I was soon recaptured by the enemy and then found myself a prisoner of war,” he said.
Lewis remained a prisoner until the end of the war and was repatriated and then returned home in September 1953.
Amazingly, Lewis reenlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey in January 1954 and married Della Reese Powell. The couple had three sons: Gregory, Steven, and Philip.
Lewis served 23 years in the U.S. Army, mostly as a medic.
“I had been inspired by a hospital worker, so I always wanted to be a military medic,” he said.
After the Army, Lewis worked for 11 years as a Civil Service worker at a hospital, then worked another 11 years in the public school system.
Lewis also attended Philadelphia College of Bible and became a licensed and ordained minister.
“I always wanted to come back to West Virginia to serve the people of my home state,” he said.
Today, the 85-year-old Rev. Lewis is pastor at Greater Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Holden. He and his 81-year-old wife live in Boone County.
“I am also Chaplain of the West Virginia Veterans Coalition, Chaplain for the 92nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion and Chaplain of the Aracoma High School Association,” he said.
Lewis said he never talked much to anyone about his experience as a prisoner of war.
“I had to go the the VA hospital and found out there was no evidence at that time that I had been a P.O.W.,” he said. “When they looked me up in the system, there was an asterisk by my name saying I was deceased.”
A correction was made to note Lewis was still living and he was given P.O.W. status.
It had been 62 years and Lewis had never received the “Purple Heart” medal that he rightly deserved.
U.S. Senator Joe Machin (D-W.Va.) got involved and soon a ceremony was planned to honor Lewis.
“I appreciate everyone that worked on this,” Lewis said.
Sergeant Lewis received his medal a month later and more than 150 attended a ceremony that saw Lewis get his medal pinned on him by Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams. Williams is a retired U.S. Marine who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II. He is also the last surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor from that battle.
Today, Lewis serves as state Commander of the West Virginia ex-POW’s.
He will also be participating in a Veterans’ Day parade in Charleston.
“I am so happy to be in West Virginia,” Lewis said. “I have travelled all over the country and the world and the people of West Virginia are great people.”
Fred Pace is an editor for Civitas Media. He can be reached at 304-369-1165, ext. 1661, in Madison; at 304-752-6950, ext. 1729 in Logan; by email at [email protected] or @fcpace62 on Twitter.