Friday, December 04, 2009

Fullbore Friday

We have lost an iconic figure - and a Salamander favorite. Those who know me well will know why. Not just for this,
Colonel Millett, a career Army officer who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1951 after leading a bayonet charge up a hill in Korea, said in a 2006 interview, “I must be the only regular Army colonel who has ever been court-martialed and convicted of desertion.’’
Yep - that is a man's man.
Retired Col. Lewis L. Millett, who received the Medal of Honor during the Korean War for leading what was reportedly the last major American bayonet charge, died Nov 14.

Millett, 88, died in Loma Linda, Calif., last weekend after serving for more than 15 years as the honorary colonel of the 27th Infantry Regiment Association.
I read about him a few years ago and his leadership style brought a nod and a smile to my face - and brought many of his men home.
On February 5, 1951, it was moving through a frozen rice paddy west of the road running south out of Osan. Suddenly, the crackle of enemy machine-gun fire broke the morning air. The first platoon found itself pinned down. Chinese were emplaced on two hills straddling the road. Their fire picked up. The bullets whistled through the air, slapping into the ice.

"Second platoon!" Millett hollered. "Fix bayonets--move to the left of the first." Then Millett was off, shouting, "C’mon with me!" He bounded to the base of the hill. There he waited for his platoons to form up. "We’ll kill‘m with the bayonet! Let’s go!" he yelled when they were ready. Up the hill the two platoons went, all the GIs yelling at the top of their voices. Above them, Millett appeared on the skyline, rifle in one hand, waving his men upward with the other. Even as he did so, Chinese soldiers scurried from their foxholes, skittering down the reverse slope helter-skelter.

By the time the two platoons joined Millett on the crest only a few enemy stragglers remained. They were quickly dispatched. To the rear, the rest of Millett’s battalion observed the audacious charge. The colonel quickly came forward to shake Millett’s hand and congratulate him for his courage. That night the colonel began the paperwork that would bring Millett the Distinguished Service Cross. Little did he know that Millett’s charge was but a rehearsal for what would come just forty-eight hours later.

At midday on February 7, Company E had the point for the battalion. Near the smoke-blackened village of Soam-ni, just west and south of Osan, they approached a ridge line. On military maps, it was designated Hill 180. To the men of Company E and the annals of U.S. military history it would forever be "Bayonet Hill."

Accompanied by two of his platoons astride tanks, Millett approached Hill 180, fully expecting to bypass it completely. Then one of his men noticed movement among the thick foliage near the top of the hill. It was crawling with Chinese. And Company E sat almost directly under their guns. Once apprised of the situation, Millett quickly ordered the tanks off the road. He got his two platoons deployed along a paddy dike.

By now the Chinese had opened fire. A number of Millett’s men fell, cut down by vicious machine-gun fire. Leaping aboard the nearest tank, Millett grabbed its .50-caliber machine gun. He sent a stream of tracers flying toward the enemy position. "Keep it going there," he told the gunner. Then he jumped off the tank and moved on. He knew from here on it was all a matter of timing. He had to get an attack under way quickly. He didn’t want these Chinese to get away like the others had two days earlier.

Millett called to one of his platoon leaders to get ready to move out. Seconds later, enfilading fire from a previously quiet Chinese machine gun tore into the first platoon. Casualties mounted. Then the .50-caliber machine gun supporting first platoon went silent--jammed with a ruptured cartridge. Millett swore under his breath. His attack was crumbling even before it started. He scrambled from his position and raced across the bullet-swept ground to the first platoon. Spotting the platoon sergeant as he barreled into position, Millett just hollered at the men, "Get ready to move out! We’re going up the hill. Fix bayonets! Charge! Everyone goes with me!" He raised his rifle and took out across the open fields.

Bounding from the small rises and hurdling the ditches, Millett kept his feet across the ice-covered ground. Behind him the platoon sergeant and a dozen men ran after Millett. Those who hadn’t followed were cut down minutes later as enemy machine-gun fire from Hill 180 zeroed in on them. When he reached the base of the hill, Millett flung himself down under a rocky outcropping while he waited for the others to catch up. After they did Millet motioned upward. "Let’s go!" he said. Dashing from rock to rock. Millett made the first of three small knobs that comprised Hill 180. The center and far knob rose some twenty meters higher. Millett spotted a Chinese machine gun to his left. He ordered a BAR to fire on it. Another soldier spotted eight Chinese squatting in a hole just ten yards from Millett. The captain ran to it, firing his carbine and throwing grenades. The enemy died.

Millett now radioed for his third platoon to come forward. After he had them in position Millett told them, "Attack straight up the hill!" With their bayonet-tipped rifles carried at high port, screaming Chinese phrases as they ran, Millett and his assembled men raced toward the two higher knobs. Lunging into the first line of enemy foxholes, the GIs ripped into the Chinese, bayonets first. The terror-filled shrieks of the bayoneted enemy rose above the din of battle. Millett was so far in front of his men he had to dodge grenades thrown by both sides. Ignoring the thundering explosions, he charged headlong at an anti-tank gun firing point-blank at him. A few well-tossed grenades took care of that weapon.

A cluster of grenades flew down from a Chinese position farther uphill. Millett danced and dodged around, avoiding the detonations of eight grenades. A ninth got him, sending hot steel shards into his back and legs. He could feel the blood coursing down his skin, drenching his fatigues beneath his parka. Unmindful of the intense pain, Millett continued his charge. He urged his men forward. "Let’s go!," he screamed. "Use grenades and cold steel! Kill ‘em with the bayonet!" At the crest of the highest knob he jumped into one arm of a V-shaped slit trench. With a savage thrust of his bayonet he impaled one enemy soldier. He had to fire a round to dislodge his weapon. A second enemy soldier rushed at Millett. The emboldened captain met him like a frenzied tiger, jamming his sharp steel blade into the man’s throat, ripping it wide open. A third Chinese, in the far arm of the V, raised his rifle. Before he could fire Millett was on him, slamming his blood-stained bayonet into the enemy soldier’s chest. While Millett dispatched the soldier, the rest of his men rushed past. Millett leaped after them. Together they went on, screaming and yelling, firing from the hip, ripping and stabbing enemy flesh with their bayonets, throwing grenades into bunkers and foxholes until they had completely eliminated the enemy from the hill.

When it was all over Millett stopped atop the saw-toothed ridge and pumped his bloody rifle up and down, signaling to those below he had conquered Bayonet Hill. After the battle forty-seven enemy dead were counted on the forward slope of the hill; thirty had died as a result of bayonet wounds. On the reverse slope lay another fifty enemy, dead of either bayonet or gunshot wounds. Witnesses estimated another hundred Chinese escaped.

Evacuated due to the seriousness of his wounds, Millett spent several months in the hospital recuperating. His Medal of Honor was presented to him at the White House on July 5, 1951.
Some wonder why his men were so well versed in the "archaic" bayonet. Well ...
A few weeks earlier, he had heard that the Chinese Army was circulating handbills among their troops accusing the Americans of being “afraid of cold steel”—the bayonet—so he had trained his men hard in the use of that weapon.
His 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.
A little side-bar to his life. He lost his youngest son with the 347 people who were killed returning from a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai.

He wrote
the following in his memory:
A SOLDIER’S PRAYER - by Col. Lewis L. Millett

I’ve fought when others feared to serve.
I’ve gone where many failed to go.
I’ve lost friends in war and strife, who valued duty over the love of life.
I’ve shared the comradeship of pain
I’ve searched these lands for men that we’ve lost.
I’ve sons who’ve served our land of liberty who’d fight to see that other lands are free.
I’ve seen the weak forsake humanity.
I’ve heard fakers praise our enemy.
I’ve seen challenged men stand ever bolder.
I’ve seen the duty, the honor, the sacrifice of the soldier.
Now, I understand the meaning of all lives,
The lives of comrades of not so long ago.
So to you who answered duties siren call, may
God bless you my son, may God bless you all.

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