Valor Friday

| December 1, 2023

Lewis Millett

Some figures in military history are truly larger than life. Even when they’re in active service, their legend precedes them. They are the types that those who serve with or under them, wear that closeness as a badge of honor for the rest of their lives. Men such as George Patton, Chesty Puller, Chester Nimitz, or Robin Olds. Within certain communities in the various military branches are less widely well known, but even more revered figures. Lew Millett is one such man.

In the US Army few men have a mystique around them like Lewis Millett. The non-regulation mustache alone would command the respect of the men under his command, but his record of bravery was truly inspirational. Colonel Millett is the kind of man that could lead a group of absolute cowards through the gates of Hell.

Millett got his start in life in the small Maine town of Mechanic Falls. When his parents divorced and his mother remarried, he moved at age three to Dartmouth, Massachusetts. His family owned a 10 acre farm with a modest kit-built 2-car garage used as the house. Growing up during the Depression, Millett said that the farm produced all the food they needed. He said, with a smile, “People were starving during the Depression, but not us.”

While still in high school Millett joined the Massachusetts National Guard. He enlisted in the 101st Field Artillery, a unit in which his uncle had served in the Great War. Millett’s uncle, Lieutenant Roland M Ranlett IV, was wounded in action at Chateau-Thierry. It was his uncle that inspired him to enlist. Of his uncle, Millett said, “I always thought of him as my hero.”

Another hero of Millett’s was Maine’s General Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain had famously led the 20th Maine Infantry in defense of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. A defense that devolved into a bayonet charge at Chamberlain’s order. He earned the Medal of Honor for the action, and the event has been recreated several times in film and television, most notably in Gettysburg (1993), where he is played by Jeff Daniels.

The 101st Field Artillery is the oldest field artillery regiment in the US Army. They trace their roots back more than 100 years before the formation of the United States. First raised in 1636, they’ve served in most major conflicts America has been involved in since.

Ranlett is but only one of Millett’s ancestors who’d seen military service. Millett was proud enough of his ancestors’ battlefield service that he listed them on his personal letterhead. Among those noted were;

  • Thomas Millett, who died in the colonial-era Indian Wars in 1675
  • John Millett, who saw service in the British Gloucester Regiment from 1775-1780
  • Frank Millett, 1st Maine Artillery during the Civil War
  • Lewis Morton, 14th Maine Infantry, wounded in action during the Civil War
  • William Millett, imprisoned at Andersonville during the Civil War, and noted as killed in action

After graduating high school, with the Second World War having started in the interim, Millett eagerly enlisted into the US Army Air Corps, leaving the National Guard. He began gunnery training with the USAAC in 1940.

By mid-1941, American isolationism was keeping us out of the ever widening conflict that had now seen Hitler steamroll his way to conquer most of Europe and Hirohito doing much the same in Asia. It looked as if we’d never join the war. Millett decided to run away from the Army and head to Canada to enlist.

Years later, while giving an interview, Millett said of his desertion, “People went to Canada during Vietnam to get out of the war! I went to Canada to get in the war.”

Many Americans in this time period were doing the same. Entire squadrons of American volunteers were raised for service with the British Royal Air Force and, though most of them were active American servicemen, in China. Similar units of volunteers had done the same during the First World War, the most famous being The Lafayette Escadrille (a French Air Force unit of Americans).

Going unauthorized absence from the Army, Millett joined with a buddy who’d received a bad conduct discharge from the Marine Corps. They hitchhiked to Canada and signed up with the Canadian Army. Once trained as a member of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, he was sent to the UK. He saw his first taste of combat there as an anti-aircraft radar operator during the Blitz.

Stationed on the southeast coast, Millett said his anti-aircraft position was overflown by German light bombers (fighter aircraft with a small bomb load), but that they never fired on each other. They let the RAF fighters take care of them. “So it wasn’t very exciting,” Millett recalled.

When the US joined the war in 1942, Millett returned to the US Army. He was taking advantage of a policy that allowed Americans serving in foreign militaries to transfer into US service. Millett told them of his desertion, and was assured that nothing would come of it.

He was assigned as an anti-tank gunner in the 27th Field Artillery Regiment, part of the 1st Armored Division “Old Ironsides.” Coming ashore in Tunisia, the regiment was part of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa.

During his first actual combat engagement, Millett, just a private, would earn the Silver Star. While taking fire from German close air support planes and Wehrmacht artillery, a haystack near his position was hit and started on fire. Parked next to the haystack, using it as concealment, was an American half-track laden with ammunition.

The half-track’s driver and the company first sergeant were both at the truck when it too started on fire, so they made a hasty tactical retreat and un-assed the area. Millett recognized the risk to the truck, and ran to it to drive it away from the conflagration of the haystack. He hadn’t seen that the truck itself had burning hay falling on it.

Millett had never received training on driving the vehicle, so when he jumped in, he couldn’t even find the starter switch. Eventually getting it running, he started to drive it away from his comrades’ position. It was then he noticed the fire that was consuming the rear of the half-track.

The fire started to cook off the ammunition. Realizing he wasn’t going to make it much further he jumped off the moving truck. The half-track exploded. Millett described it as “the track blew up beautiful – beautiful explosion – I mean all this ammo and white phosphorus and red shells and all that.” He earned the nation’s third highest award for combat bravery that day.

Fighting across North Africa, Millett used a half-track mounted machine gun to shoot down one of the Nazis’ best fighters, the Messerscmitt Bf-109. Next up was the Invasion of Italy. Millett fought at Salerno and Anzio.

It was around this time that the Army’s personnel file on Millett had been located and forwarded. Promoted to sergeant by now for his combat performance, Millett’s desertion finally caught up with him. He was court-martialed, convicted, fined $52, and took away his leave privileges. Lucky for him, he hadn’t been getting paid all this time, so the Army owed him almost $6,000 from which they could draw their penalty. Just a few weeks after his court-martial, Millett was given a battlefield commission.

Before the war ended, Millett had received a Bronze Star Medal and a promotion to first lieutenant. After the war, Millett returned to the National Guard and spent three years at university. In 1949, he was called to active duty, as the Army was short on company grade officers. This was fortuitous, as the next year North Korea would invade the South, bringing a new war.

Millett was stationed in Japan when the war started. He was with the 8th Field Artillery. When he found out the 27th Infantry Regiment was going to be going to Korea, he volunteered to join them. His commanding officer said not to worry about it, that they would be going soon too. Which they did.

Stinson L-5

Millett’s role as an artillery officer was as a forward observer. In December 1950, while flying as an observer on an Army L-5 Stinson, they responded to the scene of a crashed South African Air Force F-51 Mustang. Landing their small observation plane on a nearby road, Millett gave up his seat so the Allied pilot could be returned to safety. Surrounded by enemy troops, Millett was alone. When the L-5 returned to the area, he couldn’t find Millett. Returning again just before dark, he was able to find him.

As a forward observer, Millett was often embedded with infantry units. From the very front of the lines, he could call in indirect fire from American artillery and close air support. He spent most of his time with Company E, 27th Infantry Regiment. The company commander was Captain Reginald Desiderio.

When Desiderio was killed in action, for which he posthumously received the Medal of Honor, Millett volunteered to take over the command. It was as the commander of Easy Company, 27th Infantry, that Millett too would earn the Medal of Honor.

It was 7 February 1951, just a bit over two months since Desiderio’s gallant death. They were attacking Hill 180, a heavily defended enemy stronghold. Leading from the front, Millett saw that his 1st Platoon was pinned down by the well-entrenched enemy. He took his 3rd Platoon up the hill to reinforce them.

With the two platoons now joined, Millett remembered an intelligence report from captured enemy papers. In the report, the Chinese made the claim that Americans were afraid of bayonets. Millet thought at the time that was a bunch of malarkey. “Both my great-grandfathers that fought in the Civil War used bayonets all the time,” Millett recalls, “and we’ll teach those son of a bitches a lesson!” Thereafter he had his men train with sharpened bayonets. This was the perfect time to remind the enemy that Americans knew how to use them.

With bayonet affixed, Millett led his men up the hill. Calling encouragement, and personally dispatching several enemy himself, Millett led the last American bayonet charge. As he pressed forward, he stabbed two enemy soldiers with his bayonet, tossed grenades, and then clubbed and bayoneted another of the enemy.

The enemy fire directed at Millett and his men was intense, but as their captain went, so too did his soldiers. Until they finally crested the hill. The hand-to-hand fighting of this last mass bayonet charge of the US Army. Along the way Millett had dodged at least eight enemy grenades and countless bullets sent his way. A ninth grenade hit him in the ankle.

Taking Hill 180, Millett and his men sent the enemy in a disorganized retreat. Wounded in the action, Millett refused to be evacuated until the site was secure and his men were looked after. The hill became better known as “Bayonet Hill” after Millett’s charge. Upon securing Bayonet Hill, about 50 enemy soldiers lay dead. At least 20 of them had been killed by bayonet.

Millett would receive the Medal of Honor for this action. Millett’s was the second MoH to a CO of Easy Company, 27th Infantry (Desiderio being the first). His was one of only five Medals of Honor awarded during the Korean War to men of the 27th Infantry.

Millett said the medal was as much his men’s as it was his. He said, “What stupid son of a bitch is going to say ‘fix bayonets and charge?’ You know? And if they don’t charge — you’re dead!” Which is to say that without the support of his men, he would have run alone headlong into the enemy. A single man can not a successful bayonet charge make. “I say – this [medal] is not just mine. It’s a hundred men that I had too – and usually companies are about 220! I only had a hundred. And if they all hadn’t gone, I’d be dead – just as simple as that. So this as much belongs to the men of my unit as it does to me.”

President Truman with Millett (left) and Sgt Waldo Hatler (right, seated)

In July 1952, Millett received the Medal of Honor from President Truman. Near as I can tell it was the one and only time he shaved his distinctive, way out of regs handlebar mustache. He and six other Medal of Honor recipients from the Korean War were Grand Marshals for the 1952 Tournament of Roses Parade (photo below). Mrs. Pattie Desiderio (CDR D’s mom) is seated in the center of the following photograph (as is CDR D’s little brother Tim).

Mrs Pattie Desiderio (seated) with MoH recipients. Capt. Ray Harvey, USA, (kneeling), Lt. Stanley Adams, USA, MSGT Ernest Kouma, USA, SFC Joe Rodriguez, USA, Major Carl Sitter, USMC, LTJG Thomas Hudner, USN, and Capt. Lew Millett, USA, (kneeling). Circa December 1951

After his second war, Millett remained on active duty. He graduated from the Army’s Ranger School and served in the 101st Airborne Division. While with the 101st, he was the first commander of the RECONDO (reconnaissance-commando) school. This program taught infantry NCOs the small unit and patrol tactics that would become pivotal in the Vietnam War.

Speaking of Vietnam, Millett went there as well. He was a military advisor as part of the CIA’s Phoenix Program. Phoenix was a controversial anti-insurgency program whose goal was to root out and eliminate the Viet Cong and their sympathizers.

Millett retired from the Army in 1973 at the rank of colonel. He said he retired, saying it was because the US had “quit” Vietnam. He worked as a deputy sheriff for a time, then moved to southern California, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Millett also received the Distinguished Service Cross, but I can’t find the exact circumstances of the award. One report notes that it was received during the Korean War, which seems most likely. In addition to the MoH, DSC, and Silver Star, he received three Bronze Star Medals (at least one w/ “V” for valor), at least two Air Medals, and four Purple Hearts.

Millett had married during the inter-war years. His wife divorced him while he was in Korea. She showed up in Washington, D.C. when Millett was to get the MoH. Apparently his receiving the nation’s highest honor made her rethink the divorce, she wanted him to annul the divorce. “Once burned – twice shy,” he says.

Among the MoH festivities in D.C. though, Millett met a beautiful young lady at the White House. Within a week he’d married her. Lew and Winona would be married for 44 years, until her death in 1993. They had three sons and a daughter. Millett died in 2009 from congestive heart failure, one month short of his 89th birthday. The man whose character, bravery, and very presence was larger than life could beat thousands of Nazis and communists couldn’t beat time.

Col Millett (left, with MoH and epic ‘stache) and the Desiderio at a 25th Infantry Division Association reunion circa 1994

In his retirement, Millett was active with many veterans organizations. One of the men he never forgot was the one whose death gave him the command of Easy Company that led to his fame and glory. Millett was frequently the escort for Pattie Desiderio, the widow of Reggie, at Medal of Honor Society events and other occasions. Which is how our CDR D came to know the man.

We have others in our midst that had the opportunity to serve with or meet Millet. Our Poetrooper knew Millett as a major in the 101st Airborne in the 1959-1960 timeframe when Poe was a young airborne MP. Poe said, “He was flamboyant and larger than life and inspired fear-filled admiration in the likes of young Poe.” He recollected that Millett “was a bear of a man, a frequent and formidable sight, with near-celebrity status, throughout the battalion area and the division headquarters right up the street. It was rumored that he was both a bit of a wild man and a personal favorite of division commander William Westmoreland.”

Shortly after that, when Millett was in South Vietnam his family was living in Bangkok. His son Lewis Jr. attended school with the son of a Green Beret officer, our rgr1480.

POW Memorial-Millett.jpeg

POW Memorial (Millett)

Lewis Jr. would also serve in Vietnam, like his father. He’d leave the service and become an accomplished sculptor. The powerfully moving bronze Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Memorial in Riverside, California is perhaps his most famous piece.

John Morton Millett, Lewis’s youngest son, was an active duty US Army staff sergeant when he died in the Arrow Air Flight 1285 crash in 1985. John was a member of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 5th Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, a part of the 101st Airborne Division. The airplane crashed, killing all 256 souls aboard. Two hundred forty eight American servicemen were on the flight, being ferried from Egypt to Fort Campbell. They had been a part of the Sinai Task Force, having just completed their six-month tour.

While the Islamic Jihad took responsibility, and there were reports of a fire and/or explosion aboard the aircraft just before the crash, the official cause of the crash was found to be overloading and icing. Four of the nine members of the safety board reviewing the crash dissented. It would appear to me that Lewis thought his son’s plane was brought down by terrorists, as he noted his son as being killed in action on his personal letterhead.

Lew Millett was also something of a poet. He wrote the following poem after the death of his son.


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.

***Special thanks again to David Desiderio (CDR D) for sharing his personal recollections and several photos*** 

Category: Army, Historical, Korea, Medal of Honor, Valor, Vietnam, We Remember

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Men like Millett could never have a distinguished career today. The first time they are recommended for UCMJ is essentially a career-killer, and there’s no battlefield commissions, so a circa-2023 SGT Millett would be PVT Millett, with a disdainful NCO “Support Chain” and Chain of Command. He’d be considered an embarrassment to the unit and would be ostracized by everyone except [maybe] the E-4 Mafia.

In today’s Army, he’d have been chaptered out, but instead, having served when he did and rendered the gallant service he did, he’s immortalized in the Last 100 Yards at the National Infantry Museum.

I didn’t know that his youngest son died in the Gander crash. As a Rakkasan, I passed by the memorial tree park every day on the way to work.


Spot on, fm2176…Nailed it! I have no words to add other than…DAAYUUM! “…that such men lived…”

Battalion Gun Salute for these Warriors. Ripple fire…Fire by Battery…by the piece…from right to left…PREPARE…COMMENCE FIRING!

Another excellent write up, Mason. We are truly in the midst of Heroes…and their progeny. Thanks!


Excellent job, Mason.

Skivvy Stacker

Well, he may have shaved off his epic mustashe (one I happen to share); but I think he was wearing Argyle socks while in uniform…


Awesome story, thank you. Absolutely humbling.