Veteran: Friend's death in Korea shaped his life forever

2013-11-10T22:45:00Z 2013-11-17T20:52:58Z Veteran: Friend's death in Korea shaped his life foreverLauri Harvey Keagle lauri.keagle@nwi.com, (219) 852-4311 nwitimes.com

Joe Pupillo made a promise to God on a frigid battlefield in Korea 63 years ago that he believes saved his life and brought peace to the family of a fallen comrade.

"It was the best three years and three and a half months of my life to help me form and guide my direction and my place in the world," the 82-year-old Dyer man said of his Korean War service.

Pupillo, a Bishop Noll Institute graduate, grew up in Gary's Kirk Yard neighborhood where his father, an Italian immigrant, owned a shoe repair shop.

Pupillo worked to help the family, running paper routes and setting pins in a bowling alley. He forged his birth certificate to get a job working in the steel mill when he was 16.

Pupillo figured he would continue working at the mill after high school graduation, but a strike changed his plans.

Pupillo's friend had a brother in the Marines, and he decided to follow suit, enlisting on Oct. 14, 1949.

"I joined to do a man's job," he said. "What are you afraid of? Sure, you're apprehensive, but you can't afford to be afraid."

Pupillo befriended Minnesota brothers Ron and Bill Lilledahl on the ship to Korea. He chose his unit assignment on board and went into the machine gun squad with his new friends.

Pupillo, who described himself as "a 109-pound weakling," carried the heaviest part of the gun up and down Korea's hills.

"I had a lot of strength and stamina," he said, crediting his hard work as a kid in Gary.

The unit gathered on Thanksgiving 1950 near the edge of the Chosin Reservoir for a holiday meal on a spot the men dubbed "Turkey Hill."

"They cleared out the area and brought in hot turkey dinners," he said. "I never cared for turkey, but it was good, a change from C-rations."

His unit returned to Turkey Hill two days later to relieve a company in distress. 

Pupillo and friend Ron Lilledahl settled down in a foxhole when an officer said one needed to go along the flank.

Pupillo volunteered.

"I was always taught, when my father told me to do something, you do it now," he said. "I jumped up and was handed a rifle."

He was stationed with a dozen Marines behind a rock wall overnight. When the sun rose, Pupillo heard gunfire in the distance, but his post was quiet.

"All of a sudden, I heard two Chinese voices," Pupillo said. "Then I became afraid.

"I made a vow to my God that if you save me from this, I would do nothing but good things for the rest of my life."

He grabbed his rifle, jumped up, and saw two young enemy soldiers standing in front of him. He emptied the eight-round clip, and the men dropped to the ground.

"I ran like hell ... I went to the foxhole where Ron was, and I observed he had been shot in the jaw or face," he said.

Pupillo had to tell Ron's brother, Bill, about his death.

"I saw Ron put on the truck, and he had his dog tags and everything," Pupillo said, saying that was key to ensuring bodies were identified and returned home.

Pupillo was discharged in 1953 and soon got a job as a door-to-door salesman.

"I didn't want to go into the open hearth furnace (at the steel mill)," he said.

Pupillo worked a host of sales jobs, married, had children and lived around the country before returning to Northwest Indiana, where he settled in Dyer in the 1980s.

In 2002, Pupillo got a call from Ron Lilledahl's niece saying his body was never returned to his family for a military burial.

Pupillo was able to provide key information about the location and circumstances of Lilledahl's death that led to his body being positively identified at the military morgue in Hawaii and returned to his family.

"They had a big funeral in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and I went there," Pupillo said. "They flew his body in at the airport. They had the honor guard. The place was mobbed with people."

Pupillo said he takes great pride in his military service, and now has a closer relationship with God.

"I've always gone to bed at night saying, 'Thank you, God, for giving me another day,'" he said.

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