Howard Mills remembers June 6, 1944, as a long, long day aboard the USS Texas, the mighty battleship that provided immense firepower at the Allied invasion on D-Day at Omaha Beach.
It was his 19th birthday, and he spent it in the bowels of the ship. A U.S. Navy fireman first class, Mills was a shell handler. It was his job to hoist shells up to the deck as part of the massive bombardment that led to the end of the Nazis.
In the first 34 minutes of the engagement that happened 75 years ago, the USS Texas, with Mills assisting, shot 255 14-inch shells at a rate of 7.5 per minute, according to various accounts. It was the ship’s longest sustained period of fighting during World War II.
Besides providing fire in support of the troops storming the beach, the USS Texas also backed nearby Pointe du Hoc and the Army Rangers who scaled its imposing cliffs.
Mills, formerly of Culpeper, turns 94 today and the memories remain fresh.
“I think about it all the time,” he said in a phone call this week from his home in Stephens City, where he moved with his wife, Nancy, last year, to be closer to family. “I can’t really remember what went on yesterday, but I can remember what went on 75 years ago.”
In moments of ceasefire, the USS Texas recovered dead and wounded from the waters. It also took some fire itself.
“We were not allowed on the deck when those 14-inch guns went off, you had to be very far away from them or it would blow your eardrums out,” Mills said.
He recalled one time during a moment of sunshine when he was permitted on deck.
“I was on the fantail of the ship, the back part of it, and I noticed in the water some splashes, like bullets trying to get the ship,” Mills said. “It was a sniper over on the cliff shooting but he couldn’t reach us.”
The young sailor notified the navigation bridge of his observation. About half-hour later, Mills recalled seeing a P-38 Lockheed Lightning fighter-bomber aircraft fly overhead.
“Boy, was it a sight. The plane came over, strafed the cliff and that was the end of it,” he said, noting the sniper fire ceased.
In another close call, the ship was at port unloading supplies when it got hit twice with enemy fire, killing the helmsman and several others aboard, Mills said. The other shell was a dud.
“It was terrible,” Mills said of the noise. “We had a minister aboard that was keeping us up to date through the loudspeaker system on the amount of shells that missed us and how close they were. All I was doing was sending up those 14-inch shells.”
His fellow sailors knew it was his birthday, but there were issues of life and death at hand.
“That wasn’t important. It didn’t make any difference that it was my birthday,” Mills said.
The D-Day veteran has frequently shared his experiences from that historic day and he’s been back to visit the places where it happened in France three times. He used to make regular trips to visit the USS Texas in Houston, meeting up with the men with whom he served, the last time being in 2014.
Mills mentioned plans in place to refurbish the aging, more than century-old dreadnought that also saw action in World War I, and a recent invitation to visit it. He laughed at that prospect Wednesday morning, saying he can barely walk anymore due to his advanced years.
“I doubt seriously if any of the crew can get there, because I was one of the youngest ones aboard the ship,” Mills said.
Acknowledging the many anniversary events going on around the world in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the wise veteran, who spent his retirement years serving the community, said all he can do is sit in his chair and talk with family, including several great-grandchildren. Mills has also been watching various television shows about that critical day of which he was part.
The memories are ever near, forever seared in his mind. In a diary entry from June 8, 1944, Mills wrote, “During these days all hell seemed to be broken lose. Ammunition dumps were blown up, planes were falling and men were being killed everywhere.”
Growing up in Falls Church, he had never before been away from home until his Navy service. He received various awards, including two bronze stars and a World War II Victory Medal. In more recent years, Mills was awarded the Congressional Veteran Commendation and the French Legion of Honor.
As for his 94th birthday, he will spend part of it at a doctor’s appointment before returning home for more TV programs about D-Day and a home-cooked family meal—he says his children and grandchildren take very good care of him. Mills said his favorite thing to do these days is sit and talk about old times. This includes old friends from Culpeper, whom he said he misses and doesn’t see much anymore.
“I love you all,” he said, his voice wavering.
Asked the message he wanted to covey on the anniversary of that momentous day, Mills was steadfast.
“Freedom is not free,” he said. “We have to work for it all the time.”