Polk's only Medal of Honor recipient honored in Veterans Day ceremony


LAKELAND — Polk County’s only Medal of Honor recipient died from injuries he sustained in a roadside beating on Veterans Day 45-years ago today.

On Saturday at a Veterans Day ceremony, more than a hundred people came out to recognize James Henry Mills in a re-dedication of a monument at Veteran’s Memorial Park that recognizes his valor.

“He’s always been a part of my life,” said Mills’ niece, Ann Hagan Brown, who is pictured in Mills’ arms as a 6-year-old in a newspaper clipping from when Mills returned from World War II. “I’m just honored to be here.”

The monument received a new plaque, and a much-needed makeover that included new tile steps leading up to the monument and grout for the podium.

Dozens of veterans, the mayor and city commissioners, gathered in Veteran’s Memorial Park to honor the Fort Meade native and hear a moving tribute to Mills by historian Canter Brown, Jr., also a Fort Meade native.

Brown described Mills’ upbringing, his heroism during the war and his struggles after he returned home from the war.

The citation for Mills’ award was signed by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt just six months before his death at age 63 of a cerebral hemorrhage. It describes how Mills, who was then a 21-year-old Army private, faced death on his first day of combat near the Italian village of Cisterna di Littoria.

He and his fellow soldiers found themselves surrounded by German troops while making their way north toward Rome. The citation, awarded Nov. 14, 1944, while Mills was still in Italy, reads:

“Private Mills preceded his platoon to reach a position from which an attack could be launched against a heavily fortified strong point. After advancing about 300 yards, Mills was fired on by a machine gun only five yards distant. He killed the gunner with one shot and forced the surrender of the assistant gunner.

“Continuing his advance, he saw a German soldier in a camouflaged position behind a large bush pulling the pin of a potato-masher grenade. Covering the German with his rifle, Mills forced him to drop the grenade and captured him. When another enemy soldier attempted to throw a hand grenade into the draw, Mills killed him with one shot.”

The citation describes how “the enemy was completely demoralized by Pvt. Mills’ daring charge, and when he reached a point within 10 feet of their position, all 6 surrendered.”

When Mills returned, Fort Meade welcomed him with a celebration. School was canceled that Nov. 24 and according to one account, “virtually every man, woman and child in this area was waiting before the ceremonies got underway.”

Mills thanked everyone for the welcome home, Canter Brown said.

“I think today I’m about the proudest man in the world,” Mills said, according to accounts.

At the ceremony on Saturday, a new plaque was installed to honor Mills that details part of his life in Polk County. His niece stood next to the plaque with her 19-year-old grandson, Lucas Brown, who serves in the National Guard.

Wounded in a later battle, he was discharged from the service in 1945 and returned to Polk, where he helped operate his mother’s citrus grove in Brewster, south of Mulberry.

In 1966, Mills retired from the Veterans Administration on a full pension and moved to Melrose, east of Gainesville. He spent much of his time at the Gainesville VA Hospital because of health issues he had from drinking too much and wartime disabilities.

He died on Nov. 11, 1973. He stopped to help three men claiming car trouble. The men nearly beat him to death. Two days later, Mills died in the Gainesville VA Hospital. Relatives said he had planned on moving back to Polk County in the coming months.

“He loved it here,” his second wife, Shirley Joan Delp said later in life. “It was home for him.

“The people here were his people.”

John Chambliss can be contacted at john.chambliss@theledger.com or 863-802-7588.

 

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