Lewis Lee Millett: “I’ve Fought When Others Feared to Serve.”

Medal of Honor Recipient Lewis Millett

On Feb. 7, 1951, North Korean troops had taken hold of a hill near the village of Soam-Ni. Similar in terrain to other strategic hills during the Korean War, this one was named Hill 180 and it was a position that the United States military forces had to reclaim. Entrenched at the base of the hill was Company E of the U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry led by a 31-year-old captain from Mechanic Falls, Maine. By the end of the day, the hill was re-taken and the captain’s actions would earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor. President Harry Truman presented the award to him later that summer. It was noted that he was one of only a handful of recipients who actually accepted the honor in person, since most were usually killed performing the type of action that Millett had completed.

Lewis Lee Millett was born on Dec. 15, 1920 in Mechanic Falls, Maine. Throughout his childhood, his admiration for military service was strong and he was proud to share the fact that both an uncle had fought in World War I (with the 101st Field Artillery Regiment of the Massachusetts Army National Guard) and a great-grandfather had served in the American Civil War. While still in high school, he enlisted in the Massachusetts National Guard (the same regiment that his uncle had served in) but dreamed of traveling abroad to fight for the country that he was so proud of. By the time he was 20 years old, the war in Europe had escalated and with much anticipation, he had joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and entered gunnery school with hopes of fulfilling his dream. By 1940, the U.S. had still not officially entered the war and according to his brother in a 2009 “Boston Globe” interview, “He was mad because it didn’t look like the United States was going to go…he wanted to fight against Hitler.” Sensing that it would not change; he deserted and made a run for the Canadian border.

After hitchhiking to Canada, Millett enlisted in the Canadian Army and was assigned to the Royal Canadian Artillery Regiment. After training, his wishes were answered and he was deployed to London, England, where he manned an anti-aircraft gun during the Blitz. But by the time he had arrived in England, the U.S. had officially entered the war. Not one to sit on the sidelines of battle, Millett transferred to the U.S Army in 1942 for ground action on the European front as an anti-tank gunner. With the growing use of German tanks in North Africa and the need for strong anti-tank gunners, he was assigned to the 27th Armored Field Artillery Regiment of the 1st Armored Division in Tunisia.

His service during World War II would be exemplary and his actions were ones that began to resemble scenes from a movie. During one engagement, Millett drove a burning half-track vehicle filled with ammunition away from a group of Allied soldiers and jumped to safety just seconds before it exploded. That brave action earned him a Silver Star, one of the U.S. Army’s highest decorations.

A Me-109 (Courtesy of Kogo)

In another engagement, he fired machine guns mounted on a half-track and shot down a Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter plane who had been strafing Allied soldiers. Subsequently, he joined the battles on the Italian front at Salerno as well as Anzio. It was during the Italian campaign when the U.S. Army discovered information about Millett’s past and 1941 desertion. He was immediately court-martialed, fined $52 and stripped of his privileges. As his brother remembered, “He didn’t give a hoot about the leave privileges because he wasn’t going anywhere anyway, but he was a little annoyed about the 52 bucks.” A few weeks later, in a reversal of fortune, former sergeant Millett was awarded a battlefield commission with a rank of second lieutenant.

After World War II, Millett returned home to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, but only completed three years before the Korean War called him back into service. In 1951, Millett (a U.S. Army Captain) was assigned to command Company E of the 27th Infantry Regiment. On February 7, his company was entrenched at the base of an enemy-controlled hill known as Hill 180. As one platoon became pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire, Millett recalled in a 2006 interview with the Journal of Military History, “I saw Chinese propaganda flyers saying that Americans were afraid of hand-to-hand combat.  When I read that, I thought, I’ll show you.”  He immediately ordered his men to fix bayonets and despite being wounded in the leg, he led another platoon in a direct bayonet-assault up the intimidating hill. With a bayoneted rifle in one hand and hand grenades in the other, Millett screamed encouragement at his soldiers as they valiantly pushed toward the summit.

The U.S. Army's Medal of Honor

As his Medal of Honor citation states, “Despite vicious opposing fire…His dauntless leadership and personal courage so inspired his men that they stormed into the hostile position and used their bayonets with such lethal effect that the enemy fled in wild disorder.” Even though his actions at Hill 180 had earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, he actually participated in yet another bayonet charge during the same month that earned him a Distinguished Service Cross (the military’s second-highest decoration).

At that point, when other highly decorated soldiers might have retired and moved into civilian life, Millett did the opposite. He attended Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia, and was subsequently assigned to the 101st Airborne Division as an intelligence officer. During the 1960s, he commanded the Army Security Agency training center at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. The position would eventually lead to his role as a military “advisor” in the Vietnam War where he also established a Reconnaissance-Commando training program that would train small units for covert operations. By 1973, Millett finally retired from the U.S. Army at the rank of full colonel (although he later stated that he retired because he felt that the U.S. had “quit” in Vietnam).

During retirement, according to a “Washington Post” article about Millett, “He championed the return of U.S. prisoners of war from Vietnam and then worked as a deputy sheriff in Trenton, Tennessee, before settling in the San Jacinto Mountains resort village of Idyllwild, California, across the street from an American Legion post.” Things seemed relatively quiet in his retirement years. But that changed in 1985, when his son (Army Staff Sergeant John Millett) was one of 240 soldiers killed in an airplane crash in Newfoundland. The plane was returning home from a peacekeeping mission in the Middle East. The tragedy inspired the retired Millett to compose a poem entitled, “A Soldier’s Prayer.” Throughout the rest of his life he proudly appeared at events honoring veterans and often recited the poem that began with the opening: “I’ve fought when others feared to serve.”

On Nov. 14, 2009, Lewis Millett died of heart failure at the Jerry L Pettis Memorial V.A. Medical Center in Loma Linda, California. He was buried at the Riverside National Cemetery in California and his grave is located in Section 2, No. 1910. It was the end of an illustrious career and life that can be best summed up in using one of his quotes, “I believe in freedom, I believe deeply in it. I’ve fought in three wars, and volunteered for all of them, because I believed as a free man, that it was my duty to help those under the attack of tyranny. Just as simple as that.”

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~ by JHN Writer on March 7, 2011.

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