By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Lewis L. Millett, 88, a career Army officer who was briefly and somewhat misleadingly court-martialed for desertion during World War II and went on to receive the Medal of Honor for leading a bayonet charge during the Korean War, died Nov. 14 at a veterans hospital in Loma Linda, Calif. He had congestive heart failure.
Col. Millett, who sported a red handlebar mustache, cut an audacious and unconventional path during his 35 years of military service. He led daring attacks in two wars and was instrumental in starting a reconnaissance commando school to train small units for covert operations in Vietnam.
He also was an Army deserter. He later said he had been so eager to "help fight fascism and Hitler" that he left an Air Corps gunnery school in mid-1941 -- months before the U.S. entry into World War II -- to enlist with the Canadian army and go overseas. He manned an antiaircraft gun during the London blitz before rejoining the U.S. Army, which had by that time declared war and apparently was not being overly meticulous in its background checks.
As an antitank gunner in Tunisia, he earned the Silver Star after he jumped into a burning ammunition-filled halftrack, drove it away from allied soldiers and leapt to safety just before the vehicle exploded. Not long after, he shot down a German Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter that was strafing Allied troops. Col. Millett, who was firing from machine guns mounted on a halftrack, hit the pilot through the windshield.
He had fought his way through Italy, participating in the campaigns at Salerno and Anzio, when his paperwork caught up with him. A superior officer told him that he was being court-martialed for his desertion to Canada and that his punishment was $52. He also received a battlefield promotion for fearlessness in combat.
His letters back home were unfiltered epithets aimed at the chain of command. "Letters were censored in World War II, and the next thing I knew I was standing before the battery commander," he told the journal Military History. "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."
During the Korean War, he received the military's highest awards for valor, including the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, for two bayonet charges he led as a company commander in February 1951.
"We had acquired some Chinese documents stating that Americans were afraid of hand-to-hand fighting and cold steel," he told Military History. "When I read that, I thought, 'I'll show you, you sons of bitches!' "
He was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading a charge up Hill 180 near Soam-Ni on Feb. 7. When one of his platoons was pinned down by heavy fire, he placed himself at the head of two other platoons and ordered the men to charge up the hill.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, he bayoneted several enemy soldiers and lobbed grenades in their direction while rallying his men to fight. Grenade fragments pierced Col. Millett's shin, but he refused medical evacuation.
"Despite vicious opposing fire, the whirlwind hand-to-hand assault carried to the crest of the hill," the Medal of Honor citation read. "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."
Charles H. Cureton, director of Army museums at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, said that Col. Millett's intimidating, close-combat bayonet charge was "very unusual. By the time you get to the Second World War, the range of lethality of weapons is such that a bayonet charge is very hazardous."
Lewis Lee Millett was born Dec. 15, 1920, in Mechanic Falls, Maine, and grew up with his mother in South Dartmouth, Mass., after his parents divorced. After his Korean War service, he went through Ranger training at Fort Benning, Ga., and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division as an intelligence officer. He later was sent to Vietnam as a military adviser to a controversial intelligence program called Phoenix, which killed thousands of suspected Viet Cong and their sympathizers in an effort to destroy the Viet Cong infrastructure in towns and villages.
He said he retired in 1973 because he was convinced that the United States had "quit" in Vietnam. He championed the return of U.S. prisoners of war from Vietnam and then worked as a deputy sheriff in Trenton, Tenn., before settling in the San Jacinto Mountains resort village of Idyllwild, Calif., across the street from an American Legion post.
His first marriage, to the former Virginia Young, ended in divorce. His second wife, Winona Williams Millett, died in 1993. Survivors include three children from his second marriage, L. Lee Millett Jr. and Timothy Millett, both of Idyllwild, and Elizabeth Millett of Nevada; three sisters; a brother; and four grandchildren.
A son from his second marriage, Army Staff Sgt. John Millett, died in the 1985 airplane crash in Gander, Newfoundland, that killed more than 240 U.S. service members returning from a peacekeeping mission in the Middle East.
Reflecting on his career, Col. Millett once told an interviewer: "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.