Since the Medal of Honor’s creation during the Civil War, many awardees have become household names and gone on to notable careers at least partially enabled by their status as Medal recipients. Few Americans have ever heard of Colonel Lewis Millett, perhaps because he stayed in the Army and never sought public office or wrote a book. His career, however, is as worthy as anyone’s of study and admiration. Millett is surely the only American soldier in our history to be court-martialed for desertion, then almost immediately promoted. He received the Medal of Honor for leading one of the last recorded American bayonet charges…until a few weeks later, when he led another. Millett’s service record reads like a script for a Hollywood action film. It also reminds us that while war has certainly changed, it has not changed as much as we are sometimes led to believe.
Born December 15, 1920 in Mechanic Falls, Maine, Millett joined the National Guard as a teenager and then the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940. He watched as World War II engulfed Europe and was frustrated when the United States did not join the fight. Millett deserted the Army in 1941 and went north to join the Canadian Army so he could fight. The Canadians sent him to London, where he manned an anti-aircraft radar station during the Blitz.
When the United States entered the war after Pearl Harbor, Millett quickly returned to the American Army. He served as an anti-tank gunner in Tunisia and finished the North Africa campaign with a Silver Star medal for bravery. He later fought in the Sicily invasion and at Anzio. His 1940 desertion then caught up to him, and the Army court-martialed him. He was convicted and received what amounted to a slap on the wrist: a $52 fine and loss of his leave privileges. A few weeks later, he received a battlefield promotion to Second Lieutenant.
Millett attended college in Maine after the war until being recalled to active duty during the Korean conflict. On February 7, 1951, Captain Millett commanded Company E, 2-27 Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, in a vicious firefight near Soam-Ni. The opposing position was strongly fortified, and one of Millett’s platoons was pinned down by enemy fire. With ammunition nearly exhausted, Captain Millett ordered his other two platoons to fix bayonets.
Placing himself at the head of the column, he led his men in an uphill assault. He bayoneted and clubbed several enemy soldiers and threw hand grenades while leading his troops forward. Wounded by shrapnel, Millett refused evacuation until the enemy retreated and the objective was secured. Five months later, Captain Millett received the Medal of Honor for this action that historian S.L.A. Marshall called “the most complete bayonet charge by American troops since Cold Harbor.” He received the Distinguished Service Cross – the Army’s second-highest valor award – for leading another bayonet charge just a month after the first.
Millett stayed in the Army after Korea. He graduated from Ranger school, fought in Vietnam, and founded the Recondo (reconnaissance-commando) school. He retired as a Colonel in 1973. He later settled in California and became the Honorary Colonel of the 27th Infantry Regiment. In 1985, his son, Staff Sergeant John Millett of the 101st Airborne Division, was one of over 200 soldiers killed in a plane crash in Newfoundland as the unit returned from a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula.
Modern American weapons technology has made wartime killing possible from great distances, whether by unmanned drones controlled from faraway command centers or by snipers who can make shots from a mile or more. These capabilities make Millett’s actions that much more impressive. Footage of laser-guided smart bombs exploding or popular films about crack snipers make it tempting to think that war is fought from afar and is therefore somehow easier. But a young Korean War captain ordering his men to advance against enemy machine guns with nothing more than bayonets at the ends of empty rifles reminds us that war has always been – and still is – a bloody, deadly, up-close struggle.
Lewis Millett died on November 14, 2009, just a month shy of 89th birthday. His impressive record serves as proof that we can simultaneously hate the war but have great admiration for the soldier ordered to fight it.