ONE MORE STANDING OVATION
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 20 November 2009
I had not planned to write about Colonel Lewis Lee Millett, U. S. Army (Retired) for today's Commentary. But the colonel, born Wednesday, 15 December 1920 in Mechanic Falls, Maine, and after one hell of a long, rich, and fascinating life, died on Saturday, 14 November 2009 at the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA Medical Center in Loma Linda, CA. No ordinary Soldier, his death is news. And therefore Colonel Millett, one of America's true warriors, deserves whatever time it required of me to craft this Commentary and a moment or two of your time to read it; I trust you will. In fact, this remarkable man who called Idyllwild, CA--a charming artsy town nestled in the San Jacinto mountains--home, and whom I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with on a handful of occasions, merits our appreciation; one more standing ovation.
I first met Colonel Millett six years ago at a patriotic concert hosted by the city of Palm Springs, CA. As he had been for years and years, Colonel Millett was a distinguished guest of the Coachella Valley's signature city--a desert oasis once called home by the likes of Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Gene Autry, and Dinah Shore just to name a few. My wife and I were guests representing the commanding general of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. Newly assigned to the Combat Center, the concert, our first, was one of my initial community-related social "duties" on behalf of the general. Colonel Millett's party and my wife and I were seated next to each other in the front row. Recalling the 'you have two ears and one mouth for a reason' axiom, I thankfully had the smarts to listen and only inject attentive exclamations during a 15 to 20 minute pre-concert chat with the colonel.
Though not a big man, Colonel Millett cut quite a figure. In his eighties, he had a full crop of white hair and a matching moustache--perhaps slightly outside today's Army grooming standards. Who cares. And frankly, what dope would point it out to him? His dress uniform still fit and he wore it with great pride. Among his chest-full of decorations was ribbon after ribbon awarded only for combat heroism or superior performance of duty. They included the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart. Several were adorned with devices signifying multiple awards. But most striking was the light blue ribbon adorned with a medal in the shape of a five-pointed star--Medal of Honor--he wore around his neck.
Colonel Millett rather nonchalantly told me he enlisted in the U. S. Army, deserted, joined the Canadian Army, rejoined the U. S. Army and was promoted to Sergeant, was court-martialed and convicted of desertion (by the U. S. Army), received a battlefield commission in the U. S. Army and eventually achieved the rank of colonel before retiring in 1973 partly due to disgust with U. S. policy fighting the Vietnam war. My thought while listening--remarkable; he had managed to accomplish all this in one lifetime.
Waste words Colonel Millett did not. And, as I recall, he touched on politics commenting on the resolve of President Bush fighting the war on terror. And he also offered a thought or two about our 42nd president. Putting it kindly, he was not impressed. To my disappointment, I did not have opportunity to visit with him after the 2008 presidential election. But I have a pretty good idea what he must have thought of 44. Considering the colonel's achievements and sacrifices--to include spilling blood for his country on foreign battlefields--use your imagination. And then liberally douse with some straight-talking colorful language.
During his career--serving with two armies and in three wars--Colonel Millett had clearly distinguished himself a time or two in battle. I will get to the Medal of Honor in a moment. I can't help but wonder if this warrior at heart was frustrated his advanced years prevented him from fighting terrorists. I believe I know the answer. In some respects, it's a shame he lived to see the terrorist attack at Fort Hood. Undoubtedly it sickened him--not only the attack but the complacency and dereliction of gutless senior officers and stupid, mindless politics.
Anyway, prior to the concert, the emcee quieted the audience--numbering thousands--welcomed all and introduced a smattering of dignitaries. The local politicians, business leaders, and event coordinators each had a moment in the spotlight and received the crowd's obligatory polite applause--the kind usually heard at sparsely attended golf tournaments, polo matches or the ladies auxiliary annual awards luncheon. On the other hand Colonel Millett, when introduced, received a thunderous, standing ovation--the kind reserved for rock stars. Needing a cane to assist with rising and maintaining his balance, he humbly stood for a few moments to acknowledge the appreciative crowd.
And then the music started. The band played for a couple of hours and accompanied a couple of vocalists on several numbers. I noticed the colonel got a bit choked up and teary when a young Marine captain belted out a spine-tingling rendition of "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables. I couldn't help but wonder. My answer would come later. As you'd expect, the old colonel was most animated during the traditional military numbers and stood as ramrod straight as possible during the concluding medley of service hymns.
After the concert I learned from Colonel Millett that his son, John, an Army Staff Sergeant, was a member of the 101st Airborne Division's 187th Infantry Regiment and among the 256 soldiers killed when their charter aircraft crashed in Gander, Newfoundland. Readers old enough to remember that crash, in mid-December 1985, will recall the Soldiers were returning home after a stint of peacekeeping duty in the Sinai. The battle-hardened colonel still took a hard swallow and his eyes watered when talking about the tragic death of his son. And he confessed the Marine officer's powerful voice triggered strong feelings of how much he missed John. Even tough old Soldiers never get over some things. You'd think this man had endured enough pain--but to lose his son. A reminder life is not fair.
We bade farewell to Colonel Millett and his family, made the 40 minute trip home and walking through the door, and though late, I went directly to the computer to learn more about the colonel. What an incredible story. He accumulated 34 years of military service beginning in 1937 with a two-year break between 1940-1942. And what a career it was. Following is the citation for his Medal of Honor earned while serving as an infantry company commander leading his men during "Operation Punch" against Chinese forces in the vicinity of Hill 180, Soam-Ni, Korea on 07 February 1951:
"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."
As is custom, the President of the United States--Harry S. Truman--draped the medal around Captain Millett's neck at a White House ceremony on 05 July 1951.
Now if that toned down summary of courageous leadership during brutal combat does not send a chill through you something is definitely wrong. Seek professional help. Proceed immediately to the nearest emergency room or urgent care clinic. Start with a request for a pulse check. If a pulse is detected, go home and reread the history of the United States of America--from founding, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights and Amendments, to present and focus on the incredible bravery and sacrifices of ordinary citizens that created and have sustained the greatest country in the history of civilized man. Then, pause and think and try not to shudder at our present waywardness. If that remedy does not correct the physiological deficiency, speak up. Without question there are many who will gladly contribute towards relocating the "sick" to a more fitting homeland. And just think of it as a form of "healthcare reform"--for the good of the country. My bet is Colonel Millett would concur. And, likely add a thought or two.
Anyway, back to our hero. I recall shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with Colonel Millett five or six more times; each time an honor. Unknowingly for the last time at the annual Palms Springs Christmas Concert performed by Marine Corps Band, Twentynine Palms, in December 2007. My wife snapped the photo (posted left) of Colonel Millett when he rose after being introduced to the packed concert hall. Like all previous times, the applause escalated into a roaring standing ovation--a fitting gesture indeed for a rare breed of American.
I intentionally kept today's Commentary short opting not to recap details of Colonel Millett's life and military service--especially about his desertion, court-martial, and some battlefield action fittingly omitted from his Medal of Honor citation. For that I urge you to read Colonel Millet's remarks offered during an interview with Korean War veteran, John M. Glenn. Mr. Glenn's article, "Military History: Interview with Colonel Lewis L. Millett", was first published in the February 2002 issue of 'Military History Magazine'. Take 10 or 15 minutes to read the article--one awarded the Medal of Honor deserves at least that much time from a fellow citizen. It is an interesting reflective account by a selfless man, Soldier, and American hero. Your time will be well spent.
So, one more roaring, standing ovation for you, Colonel Millett. Rest In Peace. Taps.