On June 5, 1944, Earl Mills was among the men of the 101st Airborne Division who gathered at an air base in England as Allied Supreme Cmdr. Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged them on their mission — the first step in taking Europe back from the Nazis.
Mills was 23, a farm boy from Live Oak, a few years older than many of those he would soon be fighting alongside.
The men at RAF Greenham Common knew what was happening was big. And they knew that the hours ahead — parachuting behind enemy lines in France — were fraught with danger.
At 99, Mills still remembers the frank warning they were given: “They told us, ‘There are going to be a lot of you standing here today that won’t come back.’ I thought I might be one of those guys.”
Mills did make it back after surviving his D-Day jump and some combat he’d rather not talk too much about. Later in 1944, he went on to jump deeper into Europe as part of the Battle of the Bulge, where he froze in foxholes and was injured when an overhead artillery burst hurled shrapnel into his face. After hospitalization in Paris, he returned to his regiment until the end of the war.
As another Veterans Day approached, Mills, in a video call from his front porch in Live Oak, didn’t go into great detail about his combat time. That’s not like him, said his friend, George Burnham, who was on the porch with him helping with questions. Though Mills’ hearing is bad, he’s thoughtful and mentally sharp.
Mills will ride again Wednesday in the Veterans Day parade in Live Oak, but he resists a suggestion that some might consider him a hero.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t feel like a hero. My opinion, the real heroes were the guys who were fighting and got killed. They gave their lives. I didn’t give my life. To me, they’re the real ones.”
Mills, though, did acknowledge this: “I was very close to wounded people and those who got killed.”
As he approaches 100, he has some acreage in Live Oak, some cows, a tractor, a front porch with a rocker. He no longer has his wife, Myrtle, whom he met at a donut shop after the war. She was a beautician at the beauty shop next door, which was run by his brother J.B.’s wife, Annie.
Mills began talking with Myrtle Hardee when she came in for donuts. And that was it.
“She was just a sweet, sweet person,” he said. “She was enjoyable to talk to, and after we started dating she was just such a nice lady, and always was. We just enjoyed one another. I told her how much I cared for her, that I loved her. She said the same about me.”
They were married 68 years, had two children, lived in the country and traveled in an RV after retirement. Myrtle died May 25, 2016, after a long illness.
“I’m happy now because we’re both Christians, and even though Myrtle is not with me, according to God’s words I will be with her again in heaven,” he said. “That’s comforting to me. I know she’s in a better place than I am. I will be so happy to see her again.”
Earl was home on leave from the Air Force when he met Myrtle. He had enlisted shortly after getting out of the Army. Civilian life, he had learned, wasn’t for him. At least not after what he’d gone through.
“I was real restless. I didn’t figure I wanted to go back to the farm where I was raised,” he said. “I thought about what kind of career I was going to have, and I couldn’t settle for that because I was so restless and real nervous from having been in the war.“
He retired from the Air Force in 1961 and came home to Live Oak, to cows, chickens and an 18-year career as a mail carrier, both in the city and on a rural route.
His military career began in 1940 when he joined the National Guard and a few months later left for Army basic training at Camp Blanding in Clay County.
In June 1943 at Fort Benning, Ga., he volunteered for Airborne and was assigned to Headquarters Company of the 502nd Airborne Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
He was intrigued, he said, by parachuting. It also meant a raise of about $25 a month, a considerable sum to a country boy who’d grown up in the Depression.
“Well yeah, that was interesting too,” Mills said.
In October 1943 he boarded a troopship bound across the Atlantic for Liverpool. From there he went to jump school in Chilton Foliat, a village west of London.
Shortly before midnight on June 5, 1944, after the address from Eisenhower, Mills boarded a C-47 and headed across the English Channel. Early the next morning, he jumped over Normandy. D-Day had arrived.
The plane had zigzagged mightily to avoid German anti-aircraft, and by the time Mills landed he and his fellow paratroopers were scattered, out of touch. He spent a long, dark night with a few paratroopers from another unit before meeting up with his squadron commander and pushing toward the beach, along a deadly path thick with snipers and German artillery.
He was a heavy-mortar crewman, part of a mission to take out the gun emplacements that would soon be focused on Allied soldiers trying to get a toehold at the beach in France.
After four days of fighting, he was shipped back to England where he and his fellow soldiers were given some rest and some fresh troops to replace the wounded and killed.
On Sept. 17, 1944, he parachuted into Holland as the Allies pushed deeper into Europe. In a memoir, he wrote: “We were in many battles where we destroyed and captured many Germans. Our losses were heavy.”
As winter set in, it became bitterly cold, and icicles grew in his foxhole. There were many battles and close calls. Once he was strafed by the German aircraft and saw bullets digging up the dirt around him.
On Jan. 10, 1945, in Belgium, he was wounded by an artillery burst and sent to a hospital. By Jan. 26 he recovered enough to return to the 502nd, which fought until the Germans surrendered in May.
That wasn’t the end of it though, he said: They continued taking prisoners and running into German soldiers who didn’t know fighting was over.
Mills, from his porch rocking chair in Suwannee Count, said he sometimes thinks about the war, but less often, the older he gets.
Still, he had a ready answer when asked what he was fighting for.
“I think I thought about our country more than anything else,” he said. “I figured this was a job we all had to do. If we all got killed, we still had to fight the Germans. My primary thought was for my country, and for my family and friends back home.”
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