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George Mills of Decatur was captured by  Germans at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
DAILY Photo by Emily Saunders
George Mills of Decatur was captured by Germans at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

French to come to Decatur to give medal to local veteran, former prisoner of war

By Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2438

Don't try to convince World War II veteran and former prisoner of war George F. Mills of Decatur that the French aren't grateful — and kind.

Thursday at 3 p.m. at American Legion Post 15, the Consulate General of France will present the 85-year-old Mills with the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, an award created by Napoleon in 1802.

"In particular, it is a sign of France's true and unforgettable gratitude and appreciation for your personal, precious contribution to the United States' decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II," wrote Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to the United States.

Mills said French officials wanted him to come to Atlanta in September and bring 15 guests with him for the presentation.

"I told them that only my wife and I could come," Mills said. "They said, 'No problem. We'll come to Decatur.' "

Mills said he was surprised to learn that he was the only veteran in the area receiving the award.

"What does it mean? It means that the French are proud of what we did for them," he said. "They're expressing it through those medals."

Mills' mind returned to Paris, when, on Aug. 29, 1944, he was among thousands of American GIs marching 24 abreast down the Champs-Elysees past a reviewing stand that included future French President Charles de Gaulle and Gen. Omar Bradley.

"The parade celebrated the liberation of the city," Mills said. "I didn't quite understand. We had arrived the day before, and we knew the war wasn't over. We knew we had a lot more to do. The next morning, we went back into combat."

Mills would not have wanted to know just how much of a sacrifice on his part remained before guns stopped firing. He already had given his all. He had waded ashore with Company E, 109th Infantry, 28th Infantry Division on Omaha Beach in July 1944. He fought through the hedgerows of Normandy, through the countryside of France and into Paris.

He fought through the "Dragon's Teeth" of the Siegfried Line on Germany's western border and into the Hurtgen Forest. Throughout weeks of fighting, 5,700 of Sgt. Mills' comrades died. Finally, the Army sent the 28th to Fuhren in Luxembourg, where another tremendous battle awaited. Historians call it the Battle of the Bulge. It began on the cold overcast morning of Dec. 16, 1944.

Mills' company of 200 men had set up headquarters in the Betzen House, an ancient manor. Soon, Germany's 5th Panzer Division attacked their left flank while its 373rd Vanguard Division hit their right.

Surrendered to Germans

"The fight continued throughout the night with no letup, and the Germans hammered away at us throughout the next two days," Mills said. "Finally, on the night of Dec. 18, we were down to six rounds of ammunition. Our captain said that we had no choice but to surrender."

Mills began walking that freezing night and would stay on the move for the next five months. At the time of his capture, he weighed 190 pounds. His weight plummeted to 120 as he and the other prisoners of war foraged for food along their journey.

"Once, as we slept in a brickyard building, I traced the smell of cigarette smoke to a medic," Mills said. "He refused to either sell me a cigarette or give me one. I told him that I'd take it from him. He reconsidered, and I paid him $41 for it and shared it with my friend, Andy McLaughlin of Oxford, Ohio. We had made a pact that we would divide whatever food we could get or steal."

Mills said he once traded his sweater to a German woman for a bucket of potatoes.

"When I held it up to the sunlight, it appeared to be alive with the movement of lice. I watched as the woman unraveled it, forcing thousands of lice to scatter everywhere, so she could use the yarn to knit socks," he said.

Mills said many soldiers "died as they walked, and we could not stop to bury them." But he recalls one tender moment from the enemy.

"One of the guys died one night just as we set up camp," he said. "Our captors finally let us take his body out of camp and bury him. To our surprise, a German bugler began to play 'Taps.' Other Germans fired a volley in his honor."

Mills became a free man again April 13, 1945. After a short stay in LaHavre, France, he went by transport ship to Camp Miles Standish, Mass. He was halfway across the ocean May 8 when he received word Germany had surrendered.

He arrived in Decatur by bus one morning at 5 o'clock. There was no one to meet him because the family had no idea when to expect him.

"I walked from the bus station to our home on Sherman Street and opened the door," he said. "My parents and sister all screamed in surprise as I walked in."

Mills said although he was thin and ragged, his pit bull recognized his voice and almost tore the screen door apart trying to get to him.

Veterans Day parade starts at 9 a.m.

Those who fought for freedom will be honored at Decatur's Veterans Day parade starting today at 9 a.m.

The parade route is along Second Avenue Southeast to the Morgan County Courthouse.

Michael Durant, a prisoner of war in Somalia after his Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, will be guest speaker.

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