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Military History: Interview with Colonel Lewis L. Millett
In the course of his 35-year military career, Lewis L. Millett received the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, three Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts, three Air Medals, the Army Commendation Medal and numerous foreign awards -- until he stopped accepting them.
Interview by John M. Glenn
Army Captain Reginald B. Desiderio, who commanded E Company, 27th Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, was killed in battle near Ipsok, Korea, on November 27, 1950, and subsequently awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. A forward observer with the 8th Field Artillery Battalion supporting that company, Captain Lewis L. Millett, volunteered to transfer to the infantry and take over the company. Millett earned the Medal of Honor while leading E Company a short time later.
Today a retired colonel, Millett lives in the Southern California mountain community of Idyllwild, far from Mechanic Falls, Maine, where he was born on December 15, 1920. His wife, Winona, died in 1993. Surrounded by mementos of a 35-year military career, during which he also received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, three Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts, three Air Medals, the Army Commendation Medal and many foreign awards, Millett reminisced about serving in two armies in three wars in an interview for Military History.
Military History: I understand that your military career began with the Massachusetts National Guard in 1938.
Millett: Yes, I was in the National Guard for 12 years before I went into the Regular Army. When I got the Medal of Honor, I was a Guardsman on extended active duty.
MH: Then you joined the Army Air Corps. Why?
Millett: I was vice president of my high school senior class and was invited to make a speech on Memorial Day, 1940. I put on my National Guard uniform for the occasion. Adolf Hitler had overrun Europe, and I warned my classmates that we would soon be in a war. I told them that it was better to go prepared. So I joined the Army Air Corps. I was sent to Lowry Field near Denver, where I learned about machine guns.
MH: And then you deserted?
Millett: Yes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in a speech that we were not going to war against Hitler, so I deserted and joined the Canadian army.
MH: What did you do in Canada?
Millett: I joined the Royal Canadian Artillery Regiment. But another American and myself were sent to Ottawa for top-secret training in something called radio location; we [Americans] called it radar. I have to laugh now when I think about it. Two Americans, one a deserter from the U.S. Army and the other with a bad conduct discharge from the Marine Corps, selected for top-secret training.
MH: So you became a radar operator?
Millett: No. By the time we arrived in England, the United States was in the war and I was allowed to transfer to the U.S. Army. In August 1942, I went to Ireland and was assigned to the 27th Armored Field Artillery, 1st Armored Division.
MH: When did you see your first action?
Millett: On November 8, we invaded North Africa. We landed at a place called St. Leu, north of Oran. The outfit that was going into Oran, the 6th Armored Infantry, I believe, had a battalion aboard a destroyer that was sunk by French naval gunfire. The French fired a few rounds at us. In fact, they killed a couple of our guys. A 75mm shell hit one of our halftracks and killed two or three of our people. But otherwise we didn't run into much. [The British cutter Hartland was crippled by the French destroyer Typhon before Typhon was hit by cruiser fire. Both ships were scuttled in Oran Harbor.]
MH: Then where did you go?
Millett: About a week later, they sent a combat command of the 1st Armored to try and take Tunis. They didn't have enough gas and so forth to send the whole division. So we went piecemeal and we got defeated piecemeal. We made our first contact near a place called Medjez-el-Bab in Tunisia. I was an anti-tank gunner at that time, on the 37mm, which was worthless. Twenty tanks went through our position to attack the Germans. Every single one of them was left burning. They were Lees [called Grants by the British], the two-deckers, with a gun on top and another on the side. It was a good indoctrination in how good we weren't. Our 37mm was mounted on the back of a three-quarter-ton truck, and we fired six rounds at the German tanks as they rolled through our position. The shells just bounced off and the Germans didn't even notice them!
MH: You got a Silver Star in that action?
Millett: Yes. There was a burning halftrack loaded with ammunition right in the middle of our position. I drove the halftrack away from our troops and jumped out just before it exploded. They gave me a Silver Star for that. We lost everything there, except for one vehicle, an ammo track. The track driver, another guy and myself jumped into it. Everyone else tried driving down the road to escape, but the road was muddy and they stuck. We went over a mountain back to Medjez-el-Bab. The men walked out, but ours was the only vehicle in the battalion to make it.
MH: Where did you go after Medjez-el-Bab?
Millett: First, we went to a place to rest and get new equipment, weapons and trucks and stuff from the 2nd Armored Division. We called the place Stuka Valley because the German air force would pound us every day. But I never saw anyone killed. We were always in our foxholes, scattered all over the sides of the valley. Then, in January or February 1943 -- February seems to stick in my mind -- we went up to be part of the counterattack at Kasserine Pass. It was at Tebessa that my machine-gun training at Lowry Field paid off. My halftrack had twin .50-caliber machine guns mounted on it and was parked by the side of the road. During an attack I shot down a Messershmitt Me-109. It was a perfect shot. The plane was strafing down the road and I shot right through the windshield, hitting the pilot. He went straight into the ground. I was promoted to corporal for that.
MH: Eventually your past caught up with you and you were court-martialed for desertion. When did that happen?
Millett: It was in Italy and I had already been in combat for a year. We were in Naples. They had pulled us back to be reorganized from a square to a triangular division. I was walking by our pup tents when Lieutenant George Crick, the battery executive officer, told me: "Sergeant Millett, yesterday you were court-martialed for desertion. You were found guilty, fined $52 and sentenced to 30 days' hard labor." But I was a sergeant, so I didn't have to do the hard labor. Being court-martialed made me angry and I wrote a letter home cussing the officers up one side and down the other. Letters were censored in World War II, and the next thing I knew I was standing before the battery commander. He told me that the War Department had ordered three times that I be court-martialed. They finally did it to prevent someone from really throwing the book at me later. Then a few weeks later they made me a second lieutenant! I must be the only Regular Army colonel who has ever been court-martialed and convicted of desertion.
MH: How did you get your field commission?
Millett: When I was in Japan, an officer I knew as a lieutenant in Italy, Bob Schoos, told me that they had saved up documentation on things I'd done and used it to justify making me an officer. I was commissioned in November 1944, but I've never seen the backup paperwork on it.
MH: What was your job in Italy?
Millett: I was an artillery forward observer. I fought with all the outfits over there. If you saw the film San Pietro, the WP [white phosphorus] rounds you saw hitting the olive grove were mine. I was working with the 36th Division then. I was with the 1st Special Service Force and British outfits, too, the Irish and Scots guards, the Coldstream Guards. I once had a discussion with an English captain about the officer's role. He said it was to show the men how to die. I said I thought it was to show the men how to fight.
MH: Where did you go from Italy?
Millett: I went home. The war ended in Italy on April 29, 1945, and by June I was home. Shortly after the atomic bombs went off in Japan, I was discharged from the Army and became an officer in the Army Reserve in Maine. They weren't doing anything so I joined the Maine National Guard -- I had to take a bust to second lieutenant -- and joined the same regiment my uncle had been in.
MH: How did you come to return to the Army?
Millett: I was attending Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, when the Army called for volunteers to return to active duty. I was supposed to graduate in June 1949, and I volunteered for June, but they called me back in January, so I didn't get my degree. But later I got a degree in political science from Park College in Missouri and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Emerson College in Massachusetts.
MH: Where did you go from there?
Millett: Osaka, Japan, where I was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, and then to the 8th Field Artillery. I was service battery commander and I got the E Flag [for excellence] three times in a row for the best unit in all "divarty" [division artillery]. And I was the only officer! One third of our unit was missing, you know. We only had two firing batteries instead of three. We were short-handed as hell.
MH: What roles did you play after the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950?
Millett: Sometimes I was a forward observer and sometimes I was a liaison officer.
MH: You are probably best known for earning the Medal of Honor near Soam-Ni, but you also were given a bottle of Scotch by No. 2 Squadron of the South African air force. What was that about?
Millett: I was wounded in the battle in which Desiderio was killed. I couldn't walk, so I was flying in a Stinson L-5 observation plane with Captain James Lawrence of Pittsburgh -- a fearless pilot -- when we saw a South African fighter plane make a crash landing on a frozen rice paddy behind enemy lines. Lawrence landed the L-5 next to the downed plane and I gave the pilot, Captain John Davis of Pretoria, my seat. I stayed behind, and Lawrence returned for me after flying Davis to safety. He got back just in time. We took off in a hail of bullets from a Chinese patrol. The South Africans gave me a bottle of whiskey for that. It is ironic, when you consider the later battles over apartheid in South Africa, that Davis, who was white, was flying in support of the 24th Regiment, which at that time was a black outfit, when he was killed a couple of months later.
MH: After you transferred to the infantry and became commander of E Company, did you make any changes?
Millett: A few. I put two BARs [Browning Automatic Rifles] in each squad. And I loaded each man with four to six hand grenades, instead of the two they had been carrying. That was not a complete success, as some of the men felt they were already carrying too much. We compromised. Those who could carry more than two hand grenades did so. Those who couldn't didn't have to.
MH: And you introduced bayonet training?
Millett: Yes. We had acquired some Chinese documents stating that Americans were afraid of hand-to-hand fighting and cold steel. When I read that, I thought, "I'll show you, you sons of bitches!" So I had every rifleman in the company fix his bayonet to his rifle and leave it fixed, 24 hours a day. I fixed my bayonet to my M1 and left it there. We had bayonet drill when we could. Now I had never had bayonet practice in the U.S. Army, so I had to recall my training with the Canadians to get any kind of technique at all. On the march, we'd attack bundles of straw in the fields; we'd practice thrusts into mud banks.
MH: Soon after taking command of E Company, you were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. What were the circumstances?
Millett: Three days before my Medal of Honor action, I led a bayonet assault against another hill. The enemy ran away before we got into their holes. We took the hill, though we had casualties. One of my lieutenants, Don Wilson -- who now lives in upstate New York, I believe -- was wounded in the chest. We went out under fire with a litter to evacuate him. One funny incident: A Stars and Stripes photographer with a movie camera was behind the tank where the aid station was. I asked him if he got any good pictures, but he said he had dropped his can of film and exposed it all. The guys on the tank told me he had done it deliberately so he wouldn't have to go out. Later I heard that he was awarded a Bronze Star for helping save Wilson's life.
MH: What happened on Hill 180 three days after that, on February 7, 1951?
Millett: E Company, numbering about 100 men supported by two tanks, was moving cautiously up the road trying to locate the enemy. G Company was supposed to be on my left flank, but they were slow. I had my 3rd Platoon in reserve -- actually it was protecting my left as I did not want to be enveloped. It was the 3rd Platoon that spotted activity on Hill 180. Then all hell broke loose. First I ran to the tanks and put their .50-caliber machine guns to firing at the top of the hill. "Keep it there," I said, "until we are halfway up the hill." I ran over to the platoon on the road and told them to marry up with the left flank of the platoon in the rice paddy. Then I went in front of the platoon in the rice paddy and yelled, "Follow me!" Our bayonets were already fixed and we ran across the rice paddy, which had ice on it and was slick, but nobody fell down. We ran to the foot of the hill, where there was an embankment that gave us cover. From the embankment, we ran up the hill. I was about halfway up the hill when I turned around and saw that the line was ragged.
Some had slowed down. Others had stopped to fire their weapons. That's when I yelled, "C'mon you sons of bitches and fight!" [Those words were not put in the citation.] Jim Chung, a Korean soldier in our company, was the second man behind me. He saw some Chinese off to the left and he yelled, "Captain, Chinese, me shoot?" I hollered back, "Hell yes!" and he shot 'em up. I assaulted an anti-tank rifle crew. With all the shooting and yelling, I had not noticed them. But someone called out to me and I moved to take the position in the flank. It was V-shaped, with the point of the V facing me. There was a man at the point and two others, one at each end of the V. The man at the point was the gunner. I bayoneted him. I guess the other two didn't realize I was that close. The next man reached for something, I think it was a machine pistol, but I bayoneted him -- got him in the throat. At about that time the third man turned and -- I was straddling a very narrow trench -- he froze. He had a submachine gun but I guess the sight of me, red-faced and screaming, made him freeze. Otherwise he would have killed me. I lunged forward and the bayonet went into his forehead. What surprised me was that it went in so easy. But you know, with the adrenaline flowing you're strong as a bull. It was like going into a watermelon. In the back of my mind I thought, "Gee, I thought they were harder than that." This proved to me that when you get fired up, you have tremendous strength. But when it's over you are really weak. That's why when a hill is taken the Army trains you to reorganize and have leadership up there; it's up to the leader to make them do it. Of course it's tough, but you have to do it.
MH: Did the adrenaline start flowing as soon as you started up the hill?
Millett: I think it did, but I was in good shape, too. Now I can barely walk up a hill. But I was never tired in combat.
MH: Army historian S.L.A. Marshall, in his account of the battle, says there were some casualties at the beginning of the charge but only four Americans were killed on the hill where the fighting was the thickest. How do you account for that?
Millett: We had cover when we reached the bottom of the hill. The Chinese started throwing hand grenades and that's what they did throughout the battle. Their grenades were not very effective. I was wounded in the shin by fragments -- it hurt like hell, being the shin, but I wasn't seriously hurt. The men who were killed, Sergeant Robert E. Blair, Corporals Joseph E. Cyr and Marshall E. Fletcher and Pfc John W. Lescallet, were all from the 3rd Platoon, which had come up on the right. Sniper fire from another hill killed them all.
MH: You never ran into final protective fires or anything like that?
Millett: That's right. All they did was throw grenades.
MH: Marshall also wrote that it was a mixed North Korean and Chinese force on the hill. Is that correct?
Millett: I presumed they were Chinese. They wore the brown quilted uniforms that the Chinese wore. But one of the dead officers we found after the battle was wearing the uniform of a North Korean major.
MH: In Marshall's account, there were 47 Chinese and Korean dead on Hill 180. Is that an accurate count?
Millett: I'm sure there were more. When we took the hill we reorganized quickly, using the holes that were already there. If there was a dead man in the hole, we just shoveled dirt on top of him. We were relieved by the Turks that same day, and I'm sure they did the same. Marshall showed up two days later. He only saw the dead that were still unburied.
MH: You returned to the States to receive the Medal of Honor. What did you do after that?
Millett: I was an aide-de-camp to General John R. Hodge. Then I went to Greece as an adviser to the Greek army, where I was promoted to major. Now I had never been to an Army school as an officer, so on my return from Greece I attended the Infantry Advanced Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, a school usually attended by young captains. After that, I went to Ranger school at Fort Benning. That would be in 1958. I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division after Ranger school.
MH: What did you do there?
Millett: At first I was assigned to the 506th Battle Group as S-2 [intelligence officer]. During a maneuver I led the 506th I & R [intelligence and reconnaissance] Platoon and captured the headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division. This impressed the 101st commander, Maj. Gen. William Westmoreland, and he asked me to set up a school for small unit leaders. I formed the Recondo school based on what I had learned in Ranger school.
MH: You first went to Vietnam in 1960. What were your duties?
Millett: I set up Ranger schools in three areas. I started the Vietnamese Rangers with Vietnamese officers who had been through the American Ranger school. You know how I got things done? When I was running the Recondo school, 20th Century Fox made a 15-minute film, Rangers in the 101st. It showed the training, the death slide, all that stuff. When we started the Rangers in Vietnam, a Special Forces team was sent to set up the course. They weren't Ranger qualified. I was supposed to be the adviser, but they were setting up the course! They had a big reputation, but when I showed that film, they bought everything I said.
MH: You graduated from the Command and General Staff School and the Army War College. What did you do when you returned to Vietnam in 1970?
Millett: I had been in Laos in 1968 to 1970. My family was living in Bangkok, Thailand. Back in Vietnam, I was adviser to the II Corps Phoenix Program that was trying to disrupt Viet Cong infrastructure in towns and villages. You know the Phoenix Program got a lot of bad publicity about being murderers and so forth. I never saw any of that. We would get information about the comings and goings of Viet Cong leadership, and we would set up ambushes along routes to and from the villages. We were trying to capture Viet Cong leaders to find out more about them. But we did kill a lot of them when they wouldn't surrender. Because I volunteered for two years, my family could visit. All my kids have been there. My son Lee went on patrols with me. My youngest son, John, lived with a Vietnamese family for three months. My wife was part Cherokee, and she thought there might be a Montagnard relationship with American Indians because of the designs on their cloths and other things. Well, we went visiting Montagnard villages in the mountains, sometimes at night in a vehicle with our lights on. And we never got shot at! This was 1972. We had won the war! Then we turned it over to the Vietnamese, and we came home. That's when I got angry because we quit, and I got out of the Army.
MH: There was a period when you were held hostage by Montagnards. What was that all about?
Millett: They were 350 Montagnards who had been drafted by the Viet Cong. They wanted to quit fighting and came to negotiate with the Dalat province chief. They weren't changing sides; they just wanted to go home. Their commander, Ha Rat Sin, feared that he would be arrested if he went to negotiate. I told him they could hold me as a hostage for his safe return. They eventually came in and I was released. I heard later that they were all executed after the North Vietnamese took over the country. One time in my life I got people to stop fighting and be free -- if I'd let them keep on fighting, they'd still be alive today.
MH: Did you receive any awards in Vietnam?
Millett: I wouldn't accept any American decorations. I wasn't there for recognition for myself but to help win freedom for a people. I'm sorry it didn't work out.
MH: Are you still involved with the Army?
Millett: I have been the Honorary Colonel of the 27th Regiment since 1985, and I travel to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, at least once a year in that capacity. [Retired Lt. Gen. John Foley became the Honorary Colonel in January 2001, the 100th anniversary of the regiment.] Also, at the request of the Army chief of staff, I went to Germany to welcome Oregon National Guardsmen back from duty in Bosnia. And I've been to Korea many times. I'm on the Riverside County Veterans Affairs Committee that makes recommendations to the board of supervisors on actions that affect veterans. I'm a past national commander of the Legion of Valor, and a former district director of the Medal of Honor Society. And I belong to many veterans' organizations. I manage to keep busy.
This article was written by Korean War veteran John M. Glenn and originally published in the February 2002 issue of Military History
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