When infantryman David Mills joined the Army on his 17th birthday and was sent to fight in the Korean War, his mission was to hold Outpost Harry “at all costs.”
Mills, now 76, says those orders came from 8th Army on April 2, 1953, to stave off enemy Chinese troops from the strategically placed outpost in the Iron Triangle, about 50 miles from Seoul at the 38th parallel, which divided North and South Korea. The outpost was close to Chinese lines.
The Chinese had “an affinity” for Outpost Harry, said Mills, a member of Company F, 15th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division.
“They came to ‘visit’ us often and fought ferociously,” he said. “They tried [several times] to take it. Had it fallen, with its high elevation, it would’ve made it difficult for the main line of resistance to remain where it was. [We] perhaps would’ve had to withdraw as far back as Seoul, which no doubt would have extended the war for quite some time.”
It was unlikely the United States would have accepted a cease fire with the capital of South Korea under Chinese control at that time, he added, so it was important for American troops to hold the outpost’s position.
But on April 24, Chinese troops nearly took Outpost Harry.
“We had 88 men holding the outpost,” he said. “The attack was ferocious. We were overrun. Hand-to-hand fighting occurred in all of the trenches, and very heavy losses were suffered on both sides.”
The forward observer from the 39th Field Artillery called for backup artillery to stop the attack, which was successful, he said.
But things didn’t turn out as well that day for Mills, who received nine wounds — two in the head, six in the leg and one in the left arm.
During what Mills described as very close fighting with hand grenades and bayonets, his weapon overheated and became inoperable. While searching for another, he crawled on his stomach to the entrance of a bunker about 30 yards away.
“Nobody was in there,” he said. “I reached in to grab a rifle, and I felt something poke me in my back. I backed out very slowly and turned over, and was looking at the muzzle of a Russian-made submachine gun.”
Three Chinese soldiers stood over him, Mills said. One held the gun, and the other two carried six grenades each, three on each side of their chests, he said.
“I thought I was going to die,” Mills recalled reciting a short prayer as he looked up at the barrel of the weapon.
“I was ready to die,” he said. “Then I had an immediate second thought. I was 17 years old, and I thought, ‘How are my parents going to take this?’ And I thought, maybe, I could get the weapon away from that soldier, and kill all three of them. Then I had a rational thought: He had his finger on the trigger and the likelihood of me being successful was rather slim. I lay there until they picked me up.”
As the captors walked him to a Chinese camp, Mills saw the dead everywhere. “There were many Americans, but many more Chinese,” he said.
As the soldiers roughed him up and forced him down hilly terrain, Mills said he felt no pain and wasn’t aware he was wounded.
“Each time we got to the top of a rise, they’d hit me between the shoulder blades with the butt of the weapon, and I’d go tumbling down the hill. After the third time, my leg felt funny and I had difficulty maintaining balance,” Mills recalled. It was when he felt blood running down his neck that he knew he’d been hit.
“Eventually, I half-crawled and was half-dragged to a cave, in which I spent the first night of my captivity,” he said.
Mills found himself next to a Chinese soldier who had three bullet holes in his stomach.
“I could hear bubbles as the air escaped [from his wounds],” he said. “He died during the night.”
The next morning, the Chinese soldiers took Mills from the cave and repeatedly prodded him with a rifle to make him walk up a road, but by then he was in such pain from his injuries, he couldn’t walk.
“They pointed to a rock for me to sit down on, went around the corner,” Mills said. “I thought I was going to be executed.”
Instead, he said, four Chinese soldiers came around the corner with a stretcher, put him on it and carried him for seven days to a place Mills estimated to be 30 to 50 miles behind the lines.
“I was placed in a dungeon not high enough for me to stand, or long enough for me to stretch out straight,” he said. He couldn’t eat for two weeks. Knowing he would die of starvation otherwise, Mills said he forced himself to eat.
Rain poured into the dungeon. “I spent a lot of my time snapping the backs off lice,” Mills said of his confinement. “My leg hurt so bad, I asked them to cut it off. They sent someone to look at it. I don’t know if he was a doctor … he just looked at it, and [now] I’m glad they didn’t acquiesce to my request.”
After enough prisoners of war to fill an army truck were brought in, they were taken to a prisoner camp, Mills said. Still not treated for his wounds, with bullets and shrapnel intact, Mills said he was not made to do hard labor like the other prisoners.
During his four-month captivity “the 15th Infantry Regiment with its company-sized outpost decimated the entire 74th Chinese Infantry Division, killing more than 5,000 of them,” Mills said. “There were very heavy American losses, but we held that hill.”
Four months to the day after he was taken prisoner, the Chinese repatriated Mills and the other POWs on Aug. 24, 1953. His family didn’t know he was alive, Mills said, and initially were told he was killed in action. Mills said he has copies of his two published obituaries.
Reflecting on that April day in 1953 when the outpost was attacked, Mills said he was the last soldier, U.S. or Chinese, on the hill firing a weapon.
“I’ve often wondered if I was captured with an empty gun,” he said.
He also thought he was likely the only survivor of the attack, until decades later when he found the Outpost Harry Survivors Association and similar groups.
For being wounded during combat Mills received the Purple Heart, but it took 57 years, because of omissions in his paperwork, he said. Mills said his initial discharge papers indicated he’d served overseas, but they didn’t say where, and didn’t note that he’d been wounded, had served in combat, or been taken as a POW.
Knowing he was eligible for the Purple Heart, Mills’ daughter set out to find and correct her father’s records.
After hearing his records likely had burned in a fire in a St. Louis military repository, Mills’ papers were found archived in Philadelphia.
The paperwork was corrected, and the award was approved in nine short days, Mills said. Then-Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli presented Mills with his Purple Heart in 2010.
“To receive [the Purple Heart] from General Chiarelli was worth the wait,” Mills said.
Although the Korean War is sometimes called “The Forgotten War,” Mills said that was not his experience. Upon his enlistment in the Army, Mills recalled that he “wanted to see the world.”
“And I did. A small part of it,” he said.