The Cost of Korea for William F. Lillis Was 34 Months in a POW Camp

Amid the current talk about finally closing the book on the Korean War, much of it buoyant and self-congratulatory, I can’t help thinking about the smaller picture and Sergeant Major William F. Lillis.

The present conversation, not for the first time, tends to frame both the execution and the resolution of war as a complex web of grand strategies, with a certain subtext of nobility.

Sgt. Major Lillis, a career military man, may have shared that view. He died in 1985 and I would hardly presume to speak for him.

I just know war ripped a chunk out of his life, as it has out of many lives, and rarely for the better. It takes nothing from the sacrifice and valor of soldiers to point out that as the most corrosive and destructive of human activities, war does that.

It takes lives. Or, sometimes, pieces of lives.

Pauline, Lynne and William Lillis, mid-1960s.

I met Sgt. Major Lillis briefly, some 50 years ago, because for a time in college I dated his daughter Lynne.

She was the one who told me that for almost three years he had been a prisoner of war in North Korea.

He was captured near Unsan, North Korea, on Nov. 5, 1950, and released on Aug. 31, 1953, in “Operation Big Switch,” the massive prisoner exchange that signaled active combat was over.

Only thing is, centuries of evidence suggest that for soldiers, “over” can be a relative concept.

William Lillis was born in Milwaukee in April 1922. In November 1942, a few months after he turned 20, he enlisted in the Navy, where he served until Oct. 18, 1945.

He was discharged in San Francisco and in 1947 married Pauline Bernice Smith, who had an 8-year-old daughter, Judy, from a previous marriage. Lynne was born in Oakland on St. Patrick’s Day 1948.

When the Korean War broke out William Lillis re-enlisted, this time joining the Army on Jan. 9, 1950. He was assigned to the Headquarter Battery, 99th Field Artillery Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division in Japan, and he landed in Korea on Aug. 11, 1950.

The only detail I know about his time as a prisoner is Lynne telling me that for some period he was kept in a cage. That would seem to be enough information to get a sense of what the experience was like.

He came home with a Purple Heart, among numerous other decorations. Lynne said he didn’t talk much about them, which seems to be a widespread response among veterans. I grew up in the 1950s, when almost every adult male was a World War II veteran, and the only one I remember telling “war stories” was my scoutmaster, William Tetlow. Thinking back, the tales he told us around the campfire go a long way toward explaining why so many other veterans locked those stories away, or only revived them inside the fraternity.

But if William Lillis didn’t talk about his experiences in Korea, Lynne recalled them as a regular presence in everyone’s life — his, hers, Judy’s and her mother’s.

After William Lillis was repatriated, he stayed in the military — though Lynne said he always felt the aftereffects on his physical and psychological health were a main reason he never became an officer.

I met him in late 1967, about six months before he would retire from the military for good. By then he was a recruiter, which was increasingly challenging at a time when national divisions over another Asian war, Vietnam, split the generation he was recruiting.

While I wasn’t particularly political, I did have the long hair that often characterized those who were. I don’t remember our discussing politics. I remember him as civil and perhaps a bit wary, which have been standard reactions for millennia among fathers meeting anyone dating their daughters.

I remember he didn’t think it was proper for me to go into Lynne’s room, which annoyed Lynne and disappointed me because she had been a crazy Beatles fan and her room had the trappings of that obsession. She had spent some time in a wheelchair a couple of years earlier, the result of a serious operation, and she was one of the handicapped kids who were “special guests” at Beatles concerts, rolled into a spot where the Beatles themselves would pass by and say hello. While John Lennon later remembered meeting “the cripples” as rather grotesque, Lynne said it was pretty cool.

In any case, I was fascinated with at least one of Sgt. Major Lillis’s military habits. Before we turned in, Lynne told me to leave my shoes outside the door to my room, because he woke up early every morning and shined all the shoes.

In my brief encounters with Lynne’s family, the main thing that suggested struggles was her mother, a woman whose polite manner was matched by a painful fragility.

She was tense, seemingly on constant guard against something unseen. Whatever William Lillis brought back from Korea, Lynne said, it shaped the home. It was the unseen spectre always in the air, a force everyone learned to do everything possible not to disturb.

Lynne said alcohol was involved. More generally, she said, everyone worked not to rattle the demons, because that’s when things could turn dark, tense and unpleasant.

The family tried to keep life as simple, safe and contained as possible. The first time Lynne and I went to a shopping mall, she refused to ride the escalator. She was terrified because she’d never seen one before.

As Lynne described it, William Lillis’s fight to keep the demons at bay wore everyone down — and no one, surely, more than himself. Lynne didn’t dislike her father beyond the normal friction between any teenager and a parent. She just wished the family had a chance to live without that shadow.

College for Lynne was an exit. She never went back home. Long after she and I broke up and she married someone else, she maintained a regular correspondence with my mother — who mused to me years later that Lynne just seemed to like the idea of talking to a parent without having to tiptoe.

I’m sure William Lillis didn’t want his family feeling like they had to do that, either — and years later, his own life had a second, perhaps somewhat different act.

By 1977, almost a decade after he retired, he was living in the small town of Waynesville, Mo., close to the Fort Leonard Wood Army base.

He joined the Jim Arnold Agency as a real estate agent and became quite active in the community.

He was a member of the Board of Realtors, as well as the local VFW post, and he became president of the Kiwanis Club. In 1980 he was named Waynesville Citizen of the Year.

Pauline died in 1981 and in October 1982 he married Bonnie Lea Eads, a divorcee with whom he hit it off when he was showing her a piece of property. In Bonnie’s obituary, some 22 years later, her daughter wrote that William Lillis “was a nice asset to our family!”

Problem was, by now the long-time health problems had caught up with him and he was suffering from cancer. He left Jim Arnold and joined the Retirees Council, which didn’t stop him from running for and winning a seat on the Waynesville City Council in May 1984.

He served until August 1985, when health again forced him to step down. He died on Nov. 16, 1985, age 63, a well-respected member of his last community.

It would have been interesting to hear him reflect on his middle years. My guess: I’m pretty sure he’d like to have had some of them back.

While people in suits win prizes and take credit for starting and stopping wars, the consequences are different for those who fight them.

The following is a short item from the Oct. 29, 1953, edition of Pacific Stars and Stripes.

SEOUL, Oct. 28 — A repatriated American prisoner of war has presented the Korean Christmas fund with $10 to help purchase food and clothing for orphans because: “I have a pretty good idea of what it means to be without either proper clothing or food.”

M/Sgt. William F. Lillis, a POW for 34 months, said in his letter to the fund he was helped by a 12 or 13 year old boy while in North Korea. Lillis, from Oakland, Cal., wrote: “These kids are the future citizens of a free Korea and we may someday need them as friends. Try to do everything you can to help them.”

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”