REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--He had no food to eat and no promise of tomorrow, but for the five months George Mills spent as a German prisoner of war in WWII, he had his love for his country.
"I wouldn't take nothing for the experience I had," Mills, a Decatur native, said. "I wouldn't want to do it again, but for my country I would."
When Mills enlisted in the Army in May 1942, he was only 21, a single piano salesman from Decatur. The Army didn't just make him a man, it made him a Soldier, assigned to Company E, 109th Infantry, 28th Division under Gen. Omar Bradley, making him a member of one of the best trained divisions that ever fought in World War II. For Mills, fighting for his country wasn't a choice, but rather a requirement as an American.
"Our country was attacked," Mills said. "They bombed Pearl Harbor. They destroyed everything we had. It wasn't a matter of if you wanted to go, it was a matter of everybody was going to have to. You were expected to go. We were in bad shape -- we didn't have anything, everything was in Pearl Harbor and they knocked all that out. We had no guns, we had no ships, we had no airplanes, no nothing. Everybody in America went to work making guns, making ammunition, and they were interested in defeating those enemies. That was the desire of the whole United States."
After 26 months of training, Sgt. Mills arrived on Omaha Beach 25 days after D-Day. For seven months he was in combat, engaged in four major battles, including the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Fighting for his life and for his country, he let his survival instincts take over.
"You lose so many men that I guess in a certain length of time you kind of get hardened to the point where you feel like maybe it's going to be me next, so you just don't worry about it," Mills said. "You do what you have to."
Mills was unaware, however, just what he would have to do to survive when he became a prisoner of war in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.
After the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, Mills and his company were sent to the German-Luxembourg border. Two miles in front of any other company in hilly terrain, the Allied forces enjoyed peace and quiet until they were awakened one morning at 5 by rockets and artillery.
"I knew that we were going to get hit," Mills said.
Mills' company was surrounded by 15,000 forces, vulnerable as the only company out there, but able to hold their ground Dec. 16 and 17. Holed up in a house with artillery 15 miles behind them and only six rounds of ammunition for the whole company, the options were few for Mills and his comrades.
"No one could get to us," he said. "No one could get us ammunition or anything."
Axis forces blew a hole in the north end of the house with a bazooka and flamethrowers followed, setting the entire house on fire. Mills sustained injuries by shrapnel when he went to see what the noise was after the initial bazooka blast. Artillery was instructed to flatten the town in 30 minutes; the company would be surrendered. Local civilians seeking refuge in the home's basement were released to the Germans; the mayor of the town was shot instantaneously.
"We thought they'd shoot all of them," Mills said. "We thought they'd shoot us because they had no use for us."
On Dec. 18, 1944, Mills and those of his company that were still alive were captured by the Germans.
"There's no way that you could explain the life of a prisoner of war," Mills said. "You think combat's bad, and when you become a prisoner you say, 'Well, I'm at ease now I'm not going to get killed, I'll be able to get home.' The danger is just starting."
The Germans interviewed each Soldier to try and get any information out of them they could before taking them to Stalag II-A, a German POW camp in Neubrandenburg, where they were fingerprinted, photographed, given a dog tag and registered as a prisoner of war. They remained there for two days before the Germans segregated the Soldiers, sending officers into concentration camps, forcing privates into work, and sending NCOs, including Mills, on a five-month walk that would break their souls and their bodies, across Europe.
"The only way you survived was steal what you could get -- rutabagas, sugar beets, potatoes," said Mills, who recalls only being offered one meal in the time he was held prisoner by the Germans, grass mixed with boiled water.
Their bodies ridden with lice and whittled away from extreme hunger, as they walked, men fell from starvation, dysentery, American bombers, and the freezing cold. Mills lost 70 pounds over the course of five months, while more than 1,200 Soldiers lost their lives, an astounding drop from around 1,500 POWs to a mere 250.
"It's quite a challenge for your life, when you're thrown to another nation and depend on them for life," Mills said. "We're the only nation out there that really abides by the Geneva Convention when it comes to prisoners of war."
Finally liberated on April 13, 1945, Mills began the long journey home, gaining back 60 pounds in 30 days as he ate six meals a day to feed his appetite.
"When you're that hungry, it's just hard to get satisfied," Mills said. "I don't know whether it's in your mind that you're not going to get that food and you don't want to let it pass you, but you just don't let any food get by for a long time."
When he finally returned home at the bus station in Decatur at 3 a.m., Mills enjoyed a cup of coffee and conversation with the locals before beginning the final 15-block walk home. Taking in the scenery of his peaceful Alabama town, his sister was so excited to see his face that she forgot to unlatch the screen door to let him in. But his faithful bulldog, upon hearing a voice he hadn't heard in four years, nearly broke down the door trying to get to his master.
"It was a joyful day," Mills said.
For more than two decades Mills didn't talk to anyone about what he had experienced in the war, save a few words for his father who never asked any questions, but listened when his son wanted to share. Instead, Mills threw himself into his work as a piano salesman in Decatur.
"I just put myself into work like I did in the service," Mills said. "I never thought about it or dwelled on it or anything. I don't think I had anybody to even talk to me or ask me if I was a veteran for 20 to 30 years. I never talked to nobody about it.
"I just got involved in trying to get back to work and forget all about that. When you come out of combat you've got grenades in your pocket, an M-1 in your hand and you're authorized to shoot anybody you see, or throw a grenade and kill them if you want to. When you come home it's a different life when you step out of that back into here with you folks. You've got to forget about all that. These boys coming home from combat, sometimes they go to alcohol or something to get that off their mind instead of really getting involved in work or something. That's what I did. I just got involved in work."
A perk of keeping the morning report for his company meant he knew all their names and where they lived, enabling him to keep in touch with 35 to 40 Soldiers since his discharge from the Army in 1946. Traveling the country and Canada in an RV with his wife and another couple in the years that followed, whenever they neared a spot where he knew a fellow Soldier lived, he made it a point to stop by. As time has marched on, Christmas cards now accompany sad tidings that a fellow comrade has passed away, pieces of living history gone forever. Only one from his company he believes to still be alive today; this year's Christmas card will tell.
Mills was honored at the POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony Friday at the Morgan County Courthouse, where he served as guest speaker. Started nearly 20 years ago by the commander and officers of the American Legion 15 in Decatur, the ceremony honors and recognizes those who have served the United States and those who remain missing, in observance of National POW/MIA Recognition Day, declared this year as Sept. 16 by President Obama. State Sen. Arthur Orr, state Rep. Terri Collins, Morgan County commissioner Randy Vest and Decatur mayor Don Stanford were all in attendance. In addition to words from Mills, a candle lighting ceremony, 21-gun salute, empty chair ceremony and roll call of Gold Star mothers, wives and sisters, as well as ex-POWs was performed.
"This ordinary man did an extraordinary thing," said Theresa Groves, commander of the Combined Patriotic Organizations of Morgan County, who introduced Mills at the event. "He survived. And he will be the first to tell you this -- he would never want to relive the time he spent in combat and as a prisoner of war, but he would take nothing for the experiences he has had. He learned his own limitations and strengths. He learned discipline and gained self-confidence. He's not scared of anything anymore, but most importantly, he learned that you can survive. By doing what you've got to do, you can survive."
"It's awful, war is," Mills said. "I just hope nobody ever has to go through it. But if they do, I hope they do a good job."