Into The Jaws Of Death
On March 6, 2013, we lost a true American hero who took part in the Allied invasion of France at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Fred Millard of my hometown of Northville, Michigan was a member of the heralded 1st Infantry Division of the United States Army, also known as the Big Red One. Today, I would like to pay tribute to him and share a little of his amazing story.
I had the honor of meeting Fred and then developing a friendship with him because of the Wacky Warning Label Contest that I often write about on this blog. Six years ago, we just happened to be getting our hair cut at the same time in a small barber shop, and Fred overheard me talking about a local NBC television reporter named Roger Weber who was coming to my office to do story about the contest. Sitting next to me, Fred mentioned that Weber had once interviewed him, too.
“What did he interview you about?” the barber and I both asked, and Fred said that Weber had come to a local school to hear him talk about D-Day. His granddaughter had asked him to speak to her classmates after learning that her grandpa was a real-life war hero, and word somehow got out to Weber, too. Surprisingly, the media and Fred’s granddaughter learned about his war experiences not long after Fred’s own children. It wasn’t until a camping trip in northern Michigan a few years ago that Fred, sitting near a campfire, began sharing stories from World War II that they had never heard. Until that day, he had said virtually nothing to his family about his wartime experience.
My, what stories they were! On June 6, 1944, Fred set off for the shore of Omaha Beach in a Higgins boat with 31 other members of H Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infrantry. After nearly drowning when his company had to jump into water over their heads, he unloaded most of the gear weighing him down and was lucky just to make it to shore. Once on the beach, he armed himself with a rifle from one of his fallen comrades and quickly developed a plan for making it to the base of the hill in front of him.
Eventually, he joined up with Joseph Dawson, a captain in another company who is well-known today to military historians for being the first officer to reach the ridge on Omaha Beach. That area is now reverently known as Dawson’s Ridge. Later that day, as Fred moved inland, he single-handily captured eleven Nazi soldiers.
Fred told me about that experience on Veterans Day, 2008, as my smart phone captured our conversation. It was incredible to hear him give a first-hand account of the events portrayed in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, and we thought it might be a good idea to record them for posterity. If you would like to hear him tell his story, there is an audio file of our conversation here.
We were driving to Lansing, Michigan that day to hear FOX News host, John Stossel, speak at an event. Stossel had invited me to New York City many years earlier to do one of the first news reports about the Wacky Warning Label Contest for national TV, and I wanted to introduce Fred to him and some other VIPs who would be there. Everyone who met Fred that evening enjoyed listening to his stories, and before the night was over, he received a standing ovation from the nearly 1,000 people at the reception.
Fred Millard (middle) in the studio of radio Hall of Fame member, Dick Purtan.
Telling all of Fred’s remarkable stories would take hours, but I would like to share one here because it is an experience that eventually earned him a Purple Heart and a visit from General Dwight Eisenhower.
Long before Fred made it to England for the D-Day invasion, he was part of the army’s campaigns in North Africa and Sicily. One day while he and his company were making their way through the Sicilian countryside, Fred stepped on a buried landmine. Shrapnel shot into his legs, back and arms, and he was injured so badly he couldn’t go any farther. Enemy soldiers were quickly moving in and night was falling, so in the heat of battle, a couple of his friends laid him in a roadside ditch and covered him with hay in the hope that they could come back for him the next day. All through the night, Fred laid there in pain as enemy soldiers walked by him just a few feet away. Miraculously, he survived, and in the morning, his company returned to rescue him.
After that, he spent several weeks in a military hospital recovering from his wounds. At one point, he nearly died from blood poisoning caused by the lead shrapnel in his body. As Fred told me this story, he pointed to where the shrapnel was still lodged in him. Once he became strong enough to walk, he was sent off to rejoin his company and later to take part in Operation Overlord – the largest military invasion in human history. Of course, we know it today as D-Day. It was during this time that General Eisenhower heard about Fred. He was so impressed that he made it a point to personally award Fred the Purple Heart.
It wasn’t the last major award he was to receive. In 2010, Fred was also awarded the French medal of the Legion of Honour for his extraordinary bravery in helping to liberate France. The Legion of Honour is the highest distinction France can bestow upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for France.
It was a great honor to meet Fred and to be able introduce our sons to him. In recent years, we enjoyed riding our bikes to his house and listening to him tell story after story as his lovely wife, Shirley, would proudly display his latest award or news clipping on the table for us to see. He also liked to listen to our stories about the Wacky Warning Label Contest, and Fred had definite opinions about why his generation didn’t need common sense warnings like the ones we see so often today. He would laugh when hearing about a label like the one on a fishing lure that warned, “Do Not Swallow,” and then wonder what has happened to common sense and personal responsibility. We’ll leave that story for another day, though.
These heroes not only set an example for us through their well-documented bravery and heroism; they have lived their lives as powerful reminders that we as Americans have more in common than we do things that divide us. Today’s all-too-common “I’m a victim” mentality in America – the very thing that drives much of the lawsuit crisis I comment on every week on the radio – drives much of the political divisiveness that keeps us from doing the big things, the great things. This is an alien mentality to the likes of Fred Millard and millions like him in the “greatest generation.” They served, worked, paid taxes, built the strongest nation on earth, and complained very little about the daily “small stuff” that now drives our national discussion.
We would do well as a nation to be reminded of the virtues of this quiet heroism.
Much has been written about the heroic efforts of soldiers like Fred Millard, and it is important to keep all of their memories alive. I have attempted to do that with this tribute to him, and I hope you will join me in honoring this true American hero.
Photo credits: The top photo was taken on D-Day by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent.
The bottom photo was taken by Bob Dorigo Jones. Pictured from left to right are: Dick Purtan, Bob Dorigo Jones, Johnny Dorigo Jones, Fred Millard, an intern at the radio station who was a veteran of Iraq, and Bobby Dorigo Jones. Dick Purtan, a member of the national Radio Hall of Fame, hosted the annual Wacky Warning Label Contest on his radio show for nearly ten years until he retired. He is a history buff, so we brought Fred Millard to his studio one day to share some of his stories.