MOUNT VERNON — Many veterans have numerous memories of their time in the armed forces. Some of these can be good and others not so good.
Being able to remember is no problem for Mount Vernon’s Howard Mills. At 89 years old and having been in a car wreck two years ago which required many stitches in his head, his memory to this day is remarkable, as he can recall the intricate details of many events which took place 70 or more years ago.
Mills graduated from Howard High School in 1938. School superintendent John Nesbit encouraged Mills to enlist in the U.S. Air Corps (now U.S. Air Force), so he did. He enlisted in 1940 and was an aircraft radio mechanic, working with crystal radios, before taking a correspondence course in radio/electronics. Training followed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., before Mills worked in a control tower as an air traffic controller for aviation cadets. Radio school followed at Scott Field in Illinois before Mills served another stint as control tower operator at Turner Field in Georgia.
With all his experience watching young pilots, Mills said, “I can fly as well as they can.” He then applied for flight school, graduating from Moody Field in Valdosta, Ga., in 1942. He became a B-25 bomber pilot and was promoted to flight instructor in 1943, later being re-assigned to Florence, S.C.
With World War II nearing its climax, Mills was sent to northern Italy where he ran 40 night missions on A-20 and A-26 bombers. “I wasn’t really scared,” said Mills. “At times there were air strikes against me which I could hear near the plane.” He would carry two 500-pound general purpose bombs with the purpose of knocking out bridges and stopping the supply of German troops. “I would watch for moving trains, bridges, power stations and ammunition dumps,” he said.
Usually flying at about 12,000 feet, Mills said, “I had my choice of altitude. I would not skip bomb (fly low) near the trees.” He told a story of a roommate who was a squadron bomber who once told Mills, “If it gets any worse, I won’t be back.” He later crashed his plane into an olive grove. “It kind of bothered me,” admitted Mills. “We didn’t find out until after the war what had actually happened.”
Recalling his experiences during World War II, Mills remembers many details, even the serial number of his plane. “And I didn’t ever have to sleep in a foxhole ... not once,” he said, also joking about the time his shoes froze to the ground in a tent.
One memorable experience was when his plane was hit by lightning flying over the Aegean Sea heading to Turkey, burning the plane’s antennae. “We first wondered what happened. It was a numbing experience,” said Mills. “After we passed through the rough part of this thunderstorm, I asked this state department employee riding with me how long she thought we were in that storm? She said ‘Maybe 30 minutes;’ but I know it was five minutes. It just seemed like 30 minutes.”
Suffering a bit today from hearing loss, Mills claims it came from flying his planes, which were very loud at more than 95 decibels. “I often had to use a microphone or lean over and yell for the co-pilot to hear me,” said Mills.
After the war, Mills was stationed at Lake Charles, La., where he flew an A-26 in numerous air shows. He later received an assignment in Germany in the occupation forces, working at a supply depot restoring homes for families. His next job saw him fly 88 airlift trips in a C-47 twin-engine cargo plane, carrying supplies and cigarettes over the Berlin Wall until 1948.
Not willing yet to give up service to his country, Mills later received assignments in Rapid City, S.D., in a motor vehicle squadron; was chief of administration at Armament School in Lowry, Col.; a missions performance inspector at A.R.D.C. in Baltimore; an air controller at Air Defense Command in Labrador, Canada; an operations commander in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; and eventually was stationed at Sawyer AFB in northern Michigan until 1963. It was here where Mills was once performing a demonstration for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, intercepting aircraft through electronic control. The NASA representatives were so impressed they offered him a job in their missions system.
Deciding to take the job with NASA, Mills officially retired from the Air Force on Dec. 31, 1963. When driving to work that morning, he remembers spotting a crescent moon in the western sky at dawn, realizing that it was an eclipse. “That was a good sign,” said Mills, who was employed as a display and control equipment engineer with NASA in Houston, Texas, until he retired in 1982. He eventually would build his own airplane, which he claims is still in storage in Texas.