In 1943, 19-year-old Hughie “Gopher” Mills was living in Charleston W.Va., and working at a Lincoln automobile dealership preparing delivery of new vehicles. One of four boys, his idea was to save up enough money to attend West Virginia State College, about 12 miles from home.
Before anyone in the family knew it, all four of the boys received draft notices from the Army. The youngest son, Lionel, chose the Navy, while the rest served in the Army.
“It was probably one of those crazy thoughts, but we all just said that it was the thing to do,” said Mills, who at the age of 89 lives near the University of Nevada, Las Vegas with his wife of 59 years, Greta. “We knew that it was coming after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.”
Ready to surrender his plans for college, Mills climbed on a train and reported to an induction station in Kentucky.
“There was no need to fight it,”Mills said. “I just thought that if I couldn’t whip them, join them. I had somewhat of an attitude that we should whip Japan.”
Before he knew it, Mills found himself on another train headed for boot camp in New Orleans. He and several hundred other blacks were headed for Slidell, which is a few miles outside the Crescent City.
In February 1944, Mills and his fellow soldiers reported to New York where thousands of soldiers were Europe-bound.
“We went to England, but we had no idea that our eventual destination was Normandy, where thousands of U.S. military members invaded the beaches in June of 1944. At that point, we were just loading and unloading armor, guns and whatever was needed for an invasion we didn’t even know was in the future.
“We were just doing our jobs. As time went on, we all noticed that the pace was being sped up. Our officers knew and we just sensed something was going. There was lots of scuttlebutt, but we really had no idea what was about to happen in the near future.”
While in England, there were good times, too.
“For a period of time, we were able to relax,” Mills said. “There was lots of jazz music that catered to the younger crowd, and we’d jitterbug to the music of Duke Ellington just as the Big Band music erupted in popularity.
With the continued dry runs on ships, Mills and his friends suddenly realized they were boarding a ship headed for Normandy less than 20 miles away. When the ramp dropped in Normandy, the only choice was to grab his gun and get it on.
“We started taking fire while on the ship,” Mills said. “Once we hit the shores, we started digging holes for cover. We started taking anything that floated to cover us in our foxholes. The Germans wouldn’t let up.”
On Omaha Beach, all that was on anyone’s mind was to survive.
“We knew that we had to set up to unload the ships,” Mills said. “We never had a direct hit, but there were pieces of metal flying in the air all the time.”
Mills said he covered shrapnel wounds on his face with a basic Band-Aid.
In February 1946, Mills returned to West Virginia before starting college at West Virginia State College.
“I didn’t specialize in anything because I knew I was going to graduate school,” Mills said. “From there, I went to New York University and got my master’s degree in public administration in a 1950.
In the past 60 years, Mills has worked for Reynolds Tobacco Co. in sales promotion and finally joined Columbia University to help develop programs to interact with minorities to enhance the quality of life for all graduate students at the Columbia University School of Business.
Long after retiring from Columbia, Mills went to Nassau Community College in Long Island in the 1980s.
“They had three great golf courses right next door,” Mills said with a laugh. “I never paid a coin to play and they were fantastic courses.”
In July 1989, Mills and his wife decided it was time to escape the snow and head for Las Vegas.
“I wanted to be a part of the community,” Mills said. “I love to volunteer helping others here and I ran a literacy program for several years. Interestingly, too, is the fact that I’m a former smoker who volunteered for the American Cancer Society nonsmoking program and ended up being the director of the Fresh Start Program.”
Las Vegas remains a good town for those seeking opportunities, he said.
“The opportunities are here and you just need to dedicate yourself to whatever it is that you want to do,” Mills said. “There are many times that I have thought I should have moved out here 50 years ago.”
Mills received his greatest thrill in 2008 when the Hughie E. Mills Professorship of Business was created in his name at Columbia University School of Business. It is the highest award anyone can receive in the academic world.
Interestingly enough, Mills read about fellow Normandy soldier Gaetano Benza in the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2012. He took the newspaper article with him and walked into the barbershop where Benza works at Eastern Avenue and Maryland Parkway just to say hello.
“He hugged me,” Mills said. “After more than 60 years, it was so good meeting someone in the same type of port battalion. I had to go see him and we had a great laugh. Since then, we have been to dinner and lunch several times.”
Mills wouldn’t change a thing about his life.
“I have certainly had my challenges, but I wouldn’t change a thing,” Mill said. “In addition, I have the most wonderful sweetheart of a wife in the world.”