The Korean War featured some heroes that had colorful life stories such as the Frenchman Ralph Monclar & the Turk Tashin Yazici before finding themselves in the frozen rice paddies of the Korean peninsula. However, probably no American combat hero from the war had as unconventional military career as the legendary Lewis L. Millett.
Millett was born in Mechanic Falls, Maine, on December 15, 1920, but spent the majority of his childhood growing up in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He left high school at Dartmouth after his junior year in 1938 to enlist in the state’s National Guard. Millett wanted to fight the fascism he saw threatening the world that was rising from Nazi Germany and thus left his National Guard unit and joined the Army Air Corps in 1940. However, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that he United States would not enter the war against the Nazis, Millett deserted the US Army and hitchhiked to Canada where he enlisted in the Canadian military. How times have since changed when US Army deserters today flee to Canada to hide from going to war instead of going to Canada like Millett did to fight in one.
In the Canadian Army Millett was selected with one other American to attend “Top Secret” training in radio location in what later became known as radar. It was a bit ironic that one US Army deserter and the other American a Marine that was released from service for a bad conduct discharge were now receiving “Top Secret” training in Canada. However, Millett would never serve as a radar operator because of the aerial gunnery training he had received in the Army Air Corps. The Canadian Army decided to put these skills to use by deploying him to England to man an anti-aircraft artillery gun during the bombing blitz of London.
Service During World War II
In the aftermath of the bombing at Pearl Harbor, the United States entered the war against Nazi Germany. In early 1942 as US troops began to flow into England, Millett took this opportunity to leave the Canadian Army and re-enlist in the US Army. In August 1942 Millet was deployed to North Africa where his first combat action ironically enough involved fighting not the Germans, but the French. The Vichy Regime forces that were allied with the Nazis were guarding the French colonial possessions in North Africa. When Millett’s unit conducted an amphibious landing at Oran, Algeria his unit suffered a number of casualties from the fight against the French forces.
Millet would go on in North Africa to be awarded the Silver Star for driving a burning half track filled with ammunition away from his unit and bailing out just before it exploded. Millet would later go on to serve in the invasion of Italy to include the Battle of Anzio. It was here that his prior desertion caught up to him and the then Sergeant Millett was court martial by his command. He was found guilty and ordered to pay a $52 fine. He was angry about the court martial, but his command told him that they conducted the court martial now in order to prevent him from receiving great punishment in the future. A few weeks later Millet was awarded a battlefield promotion to 2nd Lieutenant.
Combat Actions In Korea
When the war ended Millet left active duty, joined the Maine National Guard, and eventually enrolled at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He attended school for three years before being called up for duty in Japan in January 1949. The now Captain Millet was assigned as a battery commander in a field artillery battalion that was part of the 25th Infantry Division.
The 25ID saw heavy combat during the Korean War and Millet was of course in the thick of it. When the company commander of the E company, 27th Infantry Regiment Captain Reginald B. Desiderio was killed on November 27, 1950 he would posthumously be awarded the nation’s highest award for combat valor, the Medal of Honor. The regimental commander needed a new commander to replace the heroic CPT Desiderio and the person he recommended wasn’t even an infantryman, it was the unit’s forward observer, CPT Lewis Millett.
However, Millett couldn’t immediately take command because he had been wounded in the same battle that CPT Desidero had been killed. While he was recovering from his wounds Millett was assigned to fly as an observer in an L-5 observation plane. It was during this time that Millett was awarded his most unusual combat award. The plane was flown by a fearless pilot by the name of Captain James Lawrence who witnessed a South African fighter plane make a crash landing behind enemy lines. Lawrence skillfully landed his plane to evacuate the injured South African pilot by the name of John Davis. The L-5 was only a two seat aircraft and Lawrence asked Millett if he wouldn’t mind jumping out of the plane while he evacuated Davis back to the rear. Most people probably would have minded being left behind enemy lines especially when injured yourself, but Millett jumped out of the plane while Lawrence loaded up Davis and evacuated him to the rear. Lawrence flew back and picked up Millett just in time because they flew out in a hail of bullets from a Chinese patrol that detected his landing. For volunteering to jump out of the plane while Davis was evacuated, the South African Air Force awarded Millett a bottle of scotch. Millett would remember years later how ironic it was that Davis a white man of apartheid South Africa would ultimately give his life a few months later flying air support for the all-black US 24th Infantry Regiment.
After recovering from his injuries Millett then took command of E Company. Millett knew he had a tough task on his hand trying to live up to the Medal of Honor bravery of his predecessor, but it didn’t take long for him to prove he was up to the task. On February 7, 1951 Millett’s undersized company of about 100 men were traveling north up an ice covered road near the small hamlet of Soam-ni supported by two tanks. While advancing up the road his unit was engaged by a patrol of Chinese infantrymen located on Hill 180 overlooking the road. One of Millett’s platoons was penned down by automatic weapons fire and Millett could not extract them. This is when Millett made the decision that became one of the most recognized combat actions of the Korean War, he told his men to fix bayonets.
Millett had heard that the Chinese were passing around propaganda leaflets saying that the US soldiers were afraid to fight up close with bayonets and because of this Millett had begun training his men long and hard on close combat fighting. Ironically Millett being an artilleryman never received any bayonet training in the US Army, but during his time in the Canadian Army he did he receive this training and after all these years he was able to put those skills to use training his company.
This training ultimately paid off for Millett and his men because he felt that the only way to extract his trapped platoon was to lead the rest of his company up the hill with a bayonet charge that the Chinese would have never expected. Just three days before this engagement Millett had led another bayonet charge against a Chinese ambush that caused them to flee, which Millett was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for. Millett found himself now in almost the same identical situation and he was betting that the result would be same.
Millet ordered his men to run across a frozen rice paddy to the base of the hill. From here Millett with his big red handle bar mustache decided to lead the charge himself up the hill. Unlike the bayonet charge three days prior, these Chinese decided to stay and fight. Millett half way up the hill noticed that not everyone was advancing up the hill and that was when he made his now famous quote of, “C’mon you sons of bitches and fight!” Maybe not all of Millett’s American soldiers were following him up the hill, but at least one Korean Augmentee to the US Army (KATUSA) soldier did. Millett directed him to place covering fire at the Chinese while he advanced further up the hill and assaulted a foxhole that had an anti-tank team in it. Millett bayoneted and killed all three men in the foxhole who were so surprised to see him that they had no time to react. Millet continued to assault through the position and engage more Chinese infantrymen when he was wounded by shrapnel from a grenade blast, however Millett refused to be medically evacuated until his men had secured the hill top and defeated the Chinese attack.
A few weeks later Millett would be removed from his command, but it wasn’t from his grenade shrapnel injuries. His regimental commander told him he was being removed from command because he couldn’t afford to have him get killed when he was going to be awarded the nation’s highest award for gallantry, the Medal of Honor.
A few months later on July 5, 1951 Captain Lewis L. Millett was awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House by President Harry Truman. Here is the text of Millett’s Medal of Honor citation:
Capt. Millett, Company E, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action. While personally leading his company in an attack against a strongly held position he noted that the 1st Platoon was pinned down by small-arms, automatic, and antitank fire. Capt. Millett ordered the 3d Platoon forward, placed himself at the head of the 2 platoons, and, with fixed bayonet, led the assault up the fire-swept hill. In the fierce charge Capt. Millett bayoneted 2 enemy soldiers and boldly continued on, throwing grenades, clubbing and bayoneting the enemy, while urging his men forward by shouting encouragement. Despite vicious opposing fire, the whirlwind hand-to-hand assault carried to the crest of the hill. 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. During this fierce onslaught Capt. Millett was wounded by grenade fragments but refused evacuation until the objective was taken and firmly secured. The superb leadership, conspicuous courage, and consummate devotion to duty demonstrated by Capt. Millett were directly responsible for the successful accomplishment of a hazardous mission and reflect the highest credit on himself and the heroic traditions of the military service.
Post-Korean War Service
After returning from Korea Millett would go on to become an aide-de-camp to General John R. Hodge. Hodge used to be the commander of US forces in Korea prior to the Korean War before he was forced out due to his poor relationship with South Korean President Syngman Rhee as well as General Douglas McArthur. After completing his aide duties the now Major Millett was then sent to Greece as a military adviser to the Greek Army. Following his assignment in Greece Millett then attended the advanced infantry course at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Due to his battlefield commission and postings he had never attended this course that young captains are required to attend. I can only imagine what the captains in this course thought of having a veteran of two wars and a Medal of Honor awardee as well as a classmate?
In 1958 Millett would also attend and graduate from Ranger School where he would ultimately go on to establish the first Ranger school in Vietnam in 1960 as well as serving two years in Laos between 1968-1970. In 1970 he was transferred to Vietnam to work with the infamous Phoenix Program that was killing or capturing Vietcong leadership operating in various villages. Incredibly he was able to bring his wife and kids over to Vietnam and even had his kids participate in some patrols with him. By 1972 Millett had felt they had won the war and he and his family returned home. However, in 1973 Millett retired from the Army as Colonel because he felt that the US government had quit on the Vietnamese after what he felt was a US victory just a year earlier.
After retirement Millett worked as a deputy sheriff in Tennessee before moving out to California where he spent the rest of his life being active in various veterans groups. Millett was married for forty year to his wife Winona Williams who he met in 1951 at an event celebrating his awarding of the Medal of Honor. She died in 1993 after giving birth to four kids with Millett. Tragically one of Millett’s sons, John an Army Staff Sergeant, would die in the Arrow Air Flight 1285 crash in Gandar, Newfoundland that claimed the lives of 240 members of the 101st Airborne Division that were returning home from a peacekeeping mission in the Egyptian Sinai. Colonel Lewis Millett would eventually pass away himself on November 14, 2009 at the age of 88.
Though his bayonet charge up Hill 180 will always be the combat action that defines him, Colonel Millett should also be remembered for his bravery and leadership in all three wars he fought in and his efforts afterwards to promote veteran causes, which shows that he is much more than just a hero of the Korean War, but rather a true American hero we should all be proud of.