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A Memorial Day Special: Last of His Crew

Memorial Day: 96-year-old La Crosse WW II Veteran

Last of his Crew

LA CROSSE, Wis. - Aletter was sent to the mother of La Crosse's Jim Millin nearly 75 years ago, "...The Secretary of War desires to express his deepest regret that your son Staff Sergeant James R Millin has been reported missing in action."

96-year-old Jim Millin was just 21 then with 12 missions already under his belt. 
He was a Ball Turret Gunner on a brand new B-17.


The young crew took off October 4th, 1943 in the plane they named "Ten Knights in A Bar Room".  It would be its first and last flight.

"There's 10 guys on a B-17 and everybody on that aircraft other than the pilot and co-pilot, when you get into combat mans a 50-caliber machine gun," said Millin.     

Although it was more than 70 years ago and some of his memories have faded, the day his plane went down is one he'll never forget.

Millin explained, "We were on a bombing mission, right on the border of France and Germany, right at the foot of the Alps." 

He continued, "Five of the guys came down on the French side, the other 5 of us came down on the German side and we became P-O-W's."

Millin suffered a bullet wound in his right thigh and wound up in a German Prison Camp in what is now Poland.

"Once you left the airplane you never saw another of the crew members after that, Millin explained very solemnly.

A harsh existence surrounded by German guards.
"They didn't feed us we were starved. Some of the guys didn't make it they actually died of starvation."

He went in the service at 150 pounds, but the lack of food and being forced to walk for hours every day took its toll.

Millin said, "I weighed 96 pounds when the war was over." 

Still, Millin and his fellow P-O-W's kept each other alive with thoughts of home.
"We always had other P-O-W's around us so we could converse back and forth and think about all the girlfriends we left home," Millin chuckled.

Some 16 months into captivity things went from bad to worse.
"The Russians were coming from the East , the allies were coming from the West and we were in the middle,"  Millin explained with a clarity as if it just happened yesterday.

In early February of 1945 The Germans were emptying their prison camps as allied forces were closing in. 
Millin said guards ordered them to march out of the camp.
Now the P-O-W's were forced on a death march... that would last three and a half months.     

"No food and the fact we never got into a heated building from February until May. We slept in barns and fields and ditches and everything else."         

But many times those farms were Millin's saving grace.

"We ate potatoes out of the vats with the hogs." 

And then on the morning of May 8th, 1945 the P-O-W's woke up inside a barn listening to a vehicle circling outside.

"It was a  British Major in a recon car and he drove near the building and said you guys are free the war is overwith."

The German guards had left during the night as allied forces pushed them back. 

Millin and the other P-O-W's immediately asked for one thing.

"Someone yelled where can we get something to eat?"

After walking for three or four months, the officer said, "about 14-15 miles down that road there's a field kitchen and you can get something to eat."

They had already walked 600 miles, but would have to go 15 more.
Something Millin found bittersweet knowing how many of his fellow service members wouldn't be going home. 
 "They pick your mission, you fly it and come home. And then there's that one mission you don't come back." 

At 96, Jim is the last surviving member of that 10 man crew.
The day Jim's plane went down sixteen other B-17's were also shot down... that's another 160 servicemen that went missing that day.
By far the most costly war in terms of human life was World War II, where the total number of fatalities, including battle deaths and civilians of all countries, is estimated to have been 56-point-4 million."
 


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