By Pamela Ramey, USAG RedstoneJuly 23, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- The young Soldier had a watch to keep. He had awoken from his two-hour rest break, and it was his turn to watch for the tanks. They had orders to follow them into Monte Cristo.
But the Soldier had no way to know when his shift was over.
Harold "Mac" McMillan also had a watch to keep -- the watch he received from his parents for graduating high school, a "big deal" in 1943 in his home of Lawrence County. It was his most prized possession. The Soldier asked to borrow it. McMillan initially said no, but the Soldier was persistent, and so was McMillan's fatigue. He knew he needed sleep before the battle ahead. So, McMillan let the private borrow the watch and went to sleep.
The tanks came earlier than expected. McMillan awoke to the sounds of battle cries and engines. His night guardian was nowhere to be found, and neither was the watch.
"All hell was breaking loose. We had to jump in behind those tanks and cross the river. I didn't have time to look for the watch. I didn't have time to think," McMillan said. "But I do now, and I want my watch back."
At age 84, McMillan can recount his World War II experiences, as well as the rest of his life, with amazing detail. He can describe the sights and sounds of each major battle in which he and the 168th Infantry Regiment participated. He remembers vividly the battle in Monte Cristo in which bullets that "sounded like popcorn" whizzed by his ears, and subsequently hit him in the back, almost paralyzing him and giving him his first Purple Heart.
He remembers his time in the hospital, while he was recovering from his wounds, when medics brought in a severely wounded Soldier who was bleeding internally. The Soldier begged McMillan to take the contents of his pockets -- $35 and a watch, and return them to the men from whom he had borrowed them. McMillan refused, trying to keep the Soldier's spirits up, telling him, "You'll be out of here before I will." McMillan was sent back out into the battlefield a few days later. He never saw that Soldier again.
He remembers meeting an Austrian count -- an artist whose hand had been crushed by the Germans because he refused to make weapons for them - who drew his picture and published it in "Yank Magazine," another keepsake lost in the war that he is trying to recover.
He recollects the only time he was "scared to death" in the war -- right before his platoon was ambushed in Rome, when his radio was literally shot out of his hand. His troop leader was so badly injured that he never saw him again. That injury earned his second Purple Heart.
He can name every one of the seven medals he earned in the war, give exact details of when, where, and how he earned them.
He can recall what it felt like to turn 21 in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, as he returned home from the war in 1945, and the stranger he met in the bus station in Decatur who gave him a ride back to Lawrence County. They discovered on that ride that they had actually passed each other on the road in Italy. McMillan's company had replaced his in battle.
McMillan can describe in detail his work at NASA, where he spent decades as a contracting officer in the Saturn S2 and the Space Shuttle programs, which he calls a "helluva experience."
He can also reminisce, with a tear in his eye, about the day he met his beloved wife, Montayne, and the 61 years of marriage they shared before she died in his arms last September from a cerebral hemorrhage.
But age, time and illness have robbed him of the ability to remember the names of his fellow platoon members, so finding the watch he has missed for 60 years is an almost impossible task. Although he knew it at one time, he can't remember the name of the wounded Soldier in that makeshift hospital tent, who as it turns out, was unknowingly trying to give him his own watch back.
"He had a German name, and he lived in Ohio. I found out he was alive in the 1990s, but at the time, I didn't know how to contact him, and then I just decided not to bother him," McMillan said. "He'd been through enough."
Now, though, as McMillan admits he is "ready to go on" to be with his wife, he is seeking some closure about his watch.
"I figure he has the watch, or it's gone ... but I sure would like to have it back," McMillan said. "I'd like to wear my watch one more time."