Unless you knew Willie Castillo really well, you’d be hard pressed to make sense of what he did on a gloomy February day in the jungles of Vietnam.
Castillo, who grew up in Albuquerque’s hardscrabble South Broadway neighborhood, was a 19-year-old Marine assigned to Fire Support Base Russell – one link in a chain of small hilltop base camps that ran from the South China Sea to the Laotian border.
The “McNamara Line,” as it was known, was designed to disrupt enemy supply lines along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail.
On Feb. 25, 1969, FSB Russell suffered a vicious attack led by a regiment of North Vietnamese soldiers.
During the initial attack, a mortar blast caved in an underground bunker inside the base, trapping several of Pfc. Castillo’s comrades. After feverishly helping to dig the men out, Castillo dove into his mortar pit and began launching mortar rounds at the swarming Vietnamese.
Though blown out of the pit twice by the concussion of incoming rounds, Castillo kept returning fire until some of the men he had freed from the bunker came to relieve him.
But seeing thick smoke coming from another bunker, Castillo rushed inside and found five Marines blinded by smoke and gasping for air. He led the men to safety, and then dodged his way across the fire-swept base to the command post, from which he made repeated runs to carry messages from his commander to the base’s defenders.
Later in the battle, Castillo grabbed a machine gun and helped secure a landing zone for medevac helicopters. As the choppers arrived, Castillo carried casualties to the waiting Hueys, stopping only when he collapsed from exhaustion, according to the citation accompanying his Navy Cross, the military’s second-highest award for combat and surpassed only by the Medal of Honor.
William “Willie” Castillo, who helped raise his three sisters and five brothers – all of whom still live in Albuquerque – suffered a fatal heart attack on March 31 at his South Broadway neighborhood home. He was just four days shy of his 65th birthday.
“Willie was a very generous man. … Loving, kind and caring,” his sister, Edna Cisneros y Luna, said earlier this week.
“We had an absentee father, so Willie (being the oldest child) took on that role,” she said. It was a role the lifelong bachelor would graciously play throughout his life, always putting others ahead of himself – just as he did that day in Vietnam.
Growing up in South Broadway
Eddie Garcia, Willie’s longtime friend, said the two met about the time they started grade school at St. Francis Xavier Parochial School on South Broadway.
Garcia said the two took an immediate dislike to one another and were often in the principal’s office for fighting.
“After a while we got tired of fighting each other, so we became friends,” Garcia said. “And we’ve been friends – well, really like brothers – ever since.”
They weren’t mischievous, Garcia insists, they were “adventurous.”
He recalled one adventure in which the duo commandeered an unattended hand car they found on the rails. The boys started pumping the handles as hard as they could. After a few minutes they realized they had traveled a long way from their neighborhood, but the car was now going too fast to jump off.
“By the time it slowed down enough for us to jump off, we were miles from home,” Garcia said with a laugh. “We had to walk all the way back home.”
“I think Willie would like to be remembered as a good man with a big heart,” Garcia said. “There wasn’t anybody he wouldn’t help.”
Just weeks before graduating from Albuquerque High School, Willie, then 17, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and soon found himself in Vietnam with the 3rd Marine Division. He received an honorable discharge in October 1969 and quickly returned to his childhood neighborhood. Not long afterward, he became a heavy-equipment operator for the University of New Mexico – a job he kept for more than 25 years. He retired in 2000.
Generous to a fault
“Later in life, Willie had the means to help others financially, and that’s what he did,” said his brother-in-law, Max Luna.
But Willie refused to loan people money, preferring instead to give them the money they needed with no expectation of being paid back.
When his 16-year-old niece was hit and killed by a car, Willie paid the funeral expenses, realizing her family couldn’t afford it.
“We grew up really poor, and Willie never forgot his roots,” his sister said, recalling the time a veteran friend of Willie’s needed $2,000 to fix his car. Knowing his friend couldn’t afford the repairs, Willie insisted on paying the tab.
“That’s just how he always was,” she said. “He was generous to a fault.”
Castillo was buried Tuesday at Santa Fe National Cemetery.