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Oldest of West Tampa's band of military brothers dies

TAMPA — The horrors of war made Joe Vila appreciate the comforts of home.

Mr. Vila returned to West Tampa after being injured in World War II, and began courting a girl from his neighborhood who had written to him while he was in the Marine Corps.

After 66 years of marriage, Olga Quelle Vila lost her husband Wednesday following his long battle with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. He was 88.

"He was always very aware of the horrors active duty inflicts on those who serve," Olga Vila, 84, said Thursday.

It was Mr. Vila's wish to serve his country after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that began the wave of Vila brothers joining the military, said his daughter, Elaine Vila, 62, of Ruskin.

All six of his younger brothers also served in the military, spanning seven decades from World War II to the first Gulf War. Tampa named a neighborhood park at 700 N Armenia Ave. after the brothers in 2005.

Mr. Vila was 18 when he enlisted in the Marines along with his younger brother, Willie, who had lied about his age.

"They thought they were the Vila twins," Olga Vila remembered. "But Willie was really a year younger."

The two were shipped to the South Pacific and Guadalcanal, where they were wounded in combat.

Mr. Vila sometimes spoke of the terrible things he had to do, like burying his best friends in the jungle and removing their dog tags to be shipped home.

All the while, Olga Quelle was writing letters to Mr. Vila and his brother as her personal form of patriotism.

"It was my way to help alleviate what these two men I knew must have been going through," she said.

During the invasion of Guadalcanal, Mr. Vila suffered spinal injuries, a leg wound and a dislocated right shoulder in an explosion. He spent a year in the hospital and doctors couldn't remove a piece of shrapnel lodged in his hand. He left the Marines in 1944 with a Purple Heart.

Olga Quelle got off the streetcar on her way home one day in 1944, and a dashing Mr. Vila was sitting there waiting for her.

"He asked if he could walk me home," she said. She obliged and after she finished high school, they were married.

The Vilas had three daughters — and Mr. Vila was grateful. He adored his girls. He never wanted to have a son to experience what he did in battle, his wife said.

Not long after returning to West Tampa, Mr. Vila took a job at Tampa's Drew Field — now Tampa International Airport — operating heavy equipment that extinguished military airplane fires.

He stayed in the job after it moved to MacDill Air Force Base and retired in the 1980s after 36 years of civilian service.

"He always had the military in the back of his mind," she said. "He used to say he was helping the planes fly who were protecting the country."

On Thursday, Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez took a few moments at the end of the council's meeting to tell the "sad news" of Vila's death.

"He is going to be greatly missed," Suarez said. "He's a West Tampa icon."

A memorial service is scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Boza & Roel Funeral Home at 4730 N Armenia Ave. Mr. Vila will have a military honors funeral at 11 a.m. Monday at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Haley's Cove Community Living Center, or any verified veterans' organization.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

>>BIOGRAPHY

Joe Vila

Born: July 11, 1923

Died: March 14, 2012

Survivors: wife Olga Quelle Vila; daughters Elaine Vila, Lorain Murias and Susan Vila; six grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; and two great-great grandchildren.

Oldest of West Tampa's band of military brothers dies 03/15/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 16, 2012 1:19am]

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