It’s not often that overzealousness can lead to a court martial on charges of desertion, but that was the case for Army Col. Lewis Lee Millett Sr. during World War II. He had a long military career after that incident, though, later solidifying his legacy when he earned the Medal of Honor for leading the last major American bayonet charge in military history.
Millett was born Dec. 15, 1920, in Mechanic Falls, Maine. His parents, George and Elsie, divorced when he was a toddler, so he moved with his mother to Dartmouth, Mass., at a young age. He had a brother, Albert, and three sisters, Alice, Ellen and Marion.
Millett grew up hearing stories about his grandfather, who served in the Civil War, and his uncle, who served during World War I. Those stories of leadership led him to become the vice president of his senior class and a National Guard member while he was still in high school.
In a hurry to fight
By the time Millett graduated in 1940, war had broken out in Europe. He wanted to serve, so he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. But after a few months, Millett didn’t think the U.S. was ever going to join the war. He was so eager to fight that he left the Army to join the Royal Canadian Artillery Regiment, which had joined the war on the side of the Allies.
Millett went through that unit’s training, but by the time he was sent to Europe, the attacks on Pearl Harbor had happened, leading the U.S. to enter the war. So, while serving in London as a radar operator for Canada, Millett turned himself in to the U.S. Embassy. Officials put him back in the U.S. Army and assigned him to the 1st Armored Division.
Millett was eventually sent to fight in North Africa as an antitank gunner. While in Tunisia, he earned the Silver Star for saving several Allied soldiers. During the incident, Millet saw a burning halftrack that was likely going to blow up. The halftrack – a truck with wheels in the front and tank-like tread in the back – was filled with ammunition, so Millett jumped into it and drove it away from the other soldiers. He managed to jump to safety just before it exploded. On another occasion, Millett also shot down a German fighter plane using a vehicle-mounted machine gun.
Not your typical court martial
By the time Millett got to Italy, though, his desertion to join the Canadian forces finally caught up to him. He was court martialed and convicted, which led to a $52 fine and the denial of leave.
“He didn’t give a hoot about the leave privileges because he wasn’t going anyway, but he was a little annoyed about the 52 bucks,” Millett’s brother, Albert, told the Boston Globe in 2009. “They told him they had to do that so they could promote him.”
A few weeks later, Millett earned a battlefield commission.
After the war, Millett joined the 103rd Infantry of the Maine National Guard. At some point he married a woman named Virginia Young, but that ended in divorce, Millett’s Boston Globe obituary said. As a civilian, he went to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, for about three years. But by 1949, he was called back to active duty.
Millet was eventually sent to Korea with the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division. It was during a pivotal assault that became known as the Battle of Bayonet Hill where Millett earned his Medal of Honor.
In early February 1951, Millett led Company E through a rice paddy into an attack against a well-fortified enemy position around Hill 180 near Soam-Ni, Korea. After two days of fighting, Millett and his men were eventually pushed back down to the base of the hill.
On Feb. 7, one of the company’s platoons got pinned down by heavy fire. Millett knew they had to get to higher ground. He also had read a translated enemy report that claimed U.S. troops weren’t willing to engage in close combat, and that was something he wanted to prove wrong.
So, Millett ordered the other two platoons forward and, putting himself at the head of the charge, fixed his bayonet onto his rifle. He then ordered everyone to do the same and follow him up the hill in a close-combat assault that became the last major American bayonet charge in military history.
During the fierce fight, Millett stabbed two enemy soldiers with his bayonet, threw a bunch of grenades, then clubbed and bayonetted his way through more enemy fighters as he urged his men forward. According to a 2019 article written by the 51st Fighter Wing’s public affairs unit, since Millett was leading the charge, he had to dodge enemy and friendly grenades. He managed to avoid eight of them, but a ninth injured him, leaving shrapnel in his legs and back.
Eventually, the U.S. platoons fought their way to the top of the hill. As the enemy fled, Millett signaled to his men that they’d made it. The skirmish led to the deaths of nine friendly fighters and about 100 enemy soldiers. Millett refused to be evacuated for his wounds until the hill was firmly secured.
For his bravery and leadership, Millett received the Medal of Honor on July 5, 1951, from President Harry S. Truman during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. Three other Korean War soldiers — Col. Raymond Harvey, Master Sgt. Stanley Adams and Sgt. Einar Ingman — also received the high honor that day.
During the festivities surrounding the ceremony, Millett met a woman named Winona Williams. They eventually married and had four kids: Lewis Jr., Timothy, Elizabeth and John, the latter of whom joined the service, too, but died alongside 255 other soldiers who were killed in an airplane crash in 1985.
Meanwhile, Millett continued with his military career. He went to Ranger School and eventually ran a 101st Airborne Division school for reconnaissance training. He served in several special operations advisory assignments overseas during the Vietnam War and even helped found the Royal Thai Army Ranger School.
At some point during the 1960’s, Millett also earned his bachelor’s degree from Park College in Missouri, the Boston Globe said.
Millett finally retired from the Army in 1973. He then went on to serve for more than 15 years as the honorary colonel of the 27th Infantry Regiment Association.
Millett’s later life was spent living in Idyllwild, Calif. Even though he was retired, he remained active in the veteran community and with units at March Air Reserve Base. In June 2000, Millett was one of eight Korean War veterans who returned to South Korea to serve as keynote speaker at the Army’s 225th Birthday Ball. One of his last acts of service was as grand marshal of a Salute to Veterans parade in April 2009 in Riverside, Calif.
Millett died Nov. 14, 2009, from congestive heart failure as he got treatment at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Loma Linda, Calif. The 88-year-old was then buried at Riverside National Cemetery near its Medal of Honor Memorial.
Shortly before Millett’s death, Navy Operational Support Center Moreno Valley, which had close ties with the retired colonel, created a unit excellence award in his name.
In 1952, about a year after Millett’s heroics, the U.S. Air Force built Osan Air Base around what it considered to be Hill 180 (there are varying opinions about where, exactly, the hill was located). The base erected a memorial site for the battle and has been holding a yearly commemoration there since 1994, when Millett was honored at the inaugural ceremony. There’s also a road that runs up the hill called Millett Road.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.