99 years old, with war stories still fresh in his mind
Plus the top news of the week: CMS to drop mask mandate March 7 — New election maps lead to filing scramble — Hot Ballantyne rezoning approved — Charlotte FC opens its season today
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Charlie Mills lives a vibrant and independent life approaching 100, and memories of his 41 WWII missions remain vivid; ‘I’m still a lucky man. There’re not many of us left.’
Charlie Mills rarely told war stories, but behind glass, he keeps the World War II mementos that have defined his long life: The crews he flew with, the medals he won and the photos of flyboys forever young. (Photos by David Perlmutt)
by David Perlmutt
Even now, nearly 80 years later, Charlie Mills chokes up telling the story.
It’s about Mills and his B-24 bomber crew returning from a raid in Germany in 1944, deep into World War II. They had left with 15 B-24s, but bad weather and a malfunctioning engine separated their plane from the pack, and it straggled back late — and alone — to North Pickenham, home base in England for the 492nd Bombardment Group of the Army’s Eighth Air Force.
The crew of mechanics that kept the plane flying was there to meet it, but the head mechanic, the crew chief, was missing.
They found him in a tent, crying — upset the squadron had lost two more planes and 20 airmen.
“We’d lost so many airplanes,” said Mills, a retired B.F. Goodrich operations manager in Charlotte. “The crew chief said: ‘All we do is fix those planes …’” That’s when Mills teared up and stumbled over words. He paused to compose himself.
He continued: “He said ‘All we do is fix those planes, and send them out to die.’”
Mills could have been one of them — many times. He was a top turret gunner and flight engineer, flying 41 missions first on a B-17 Flying Fortress and then B-24 Liberators. Nearly half the missions were with the hapless 492nd, the rest with the 801st Bombardment Group after the 492nd, nicknamed the “Hard Luck Unit,” was disbanded after losing so many planes and men.
Yet, on a recent morning, here was Mills, seven months shy of his 100th birthday. He walks without a cane or walker. He hears without any aid, still mows grass and trims hedges at his east Charlotte house. He cleans house, cooks (“such as it is”), and cares for Penny, 97, his wife of 67 years.
“I know I was lucky,” Mills said. “I’m still a lucky man. There’re not many of us left.”
He said he rarely tells war tales. On this morning, he was full of them.
‘Didn’t want to be left out’
His story is similar to thousands of Americans from all corners when the country was drawn into war in late 1941.
Mills was born in Stony Point, near Statesville, where his pharmacist father, Charlie Sr., a World War I veteran, opened the community’s first drug store. When Charlie Jr. was about 4, the family moved into Statesville and his father ultimately dispensed medicines at the city’s hospital.
Charlie Jr. left Statesville High School in the 10th grade to study sheet metal drafting in Durham as part of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program designed to put young Americans to work during the Great Depression.
He transferred to a sheet metal school in Baltimore, then got a job at Glen L. Martin Co. in Baltimore, building B-26 bombers.
In late 1942, Mills, then 20, could have avoided military duty because he worked for a defense contractor helping the war effort, but his friends back home were Army-bound. “I didn’t want to be left out of the action,” he said. “I got drafted and transferred to Statesville with the idea I’d go in with my friends.”
His friends joined the infantry. Mills was assigned to the Army Air Corps, though he’d never flown. In 1944, after training at 13 bases around the country, he became a top turret gunner/flight engineer with the 492nd. His battle perch was inside a revolving Plexiglas dome with two .50-caliber machine guns that protected the plane from overhead attacks. The crew wore heated suits, boots and gloves since their planes climbed to 20,000 feet or above where the temperatures dropped to 20 to 40 below zero during missions on war and industrial targets over Germany, France and Belgium.
Surviving many close calls
His luck carried him through the 41 missions remarkably unscathed, despite being exposed to constant showers of German anti-aircraft flak. The 492nd flew 67 missions in 89 days but was dissolved after losing 55 bombers and 234 airmen. Another 131 were taken captive. Many of the missions were called “carpetbaggers,” transporting spies or leaflets and supplies to resistance forces fighting the Germans in France, and supporting Allied troops breaking out of St. Lo, France in the weeks after the D-Day landings at Normandy.
On a night mission to drop fake food ration stamps over Germany, the plane’s navigator and waist gunner were badly wounded from flak. Mills was sent to check on the waist gunner, and found a huge hole in the side, and frayed rudder cables. The pilot made an emergency landing in Reims, France.
During another raid, Mills smelled gas boarding the plane. He thought it’d been spilled during refueling. But poking his head out a top hatch as the plane taxied into position, he got face full of fuel.
“I had goggles on and thought it was raining,” he said. “Then I smelled and tasted the gas. I told the pilot to cut the engines right away, that we had a bad gas leak.” He found gas gushing from a fuel line to the number 2 engine. “If the super chargers under the wings had gone off, that would have been the end of us,” Mills said.
That incident triggered a recurring nightmare that Mills had for eight years after the war, where he climbs onto a wing to repair the leak, but slips off as the airplane explodes.
Dropping bombs by hand
His crew’s most dangerous target was a submarine plant in Hamburg, Germany. “At a briefing, they told us it’d be a tough target, but a must target,” Mills said.
From his turret, he saw a grouping of B-17s drop bombs in the distance, then take a barrage of flak. “I’d never seen that much flak.” He radioed the navigator: “What’s that city 10 miles off the left wing? Our guys are getting the hell hit out of them.”
“That’s Hamburg. The target!”
His squadron lost six of 15 planes over the target. Another two planes collided landing at North Pickenham. “We lost eight planes out of 15,” he said. “I thought we weren’t going to make it out of that mission. Our plane wasn’t scratched.”
On a similarly harrowing mission, Mills’ plane had flown into the Battle of the Bulge to support American ground troops pinned down by Germans. The plane was loaded with anti-personnel bombs, smaller than the bombs it usually carried. The bombardier dropped several bomb racks, but the top rack of 12 live bombs got jammed — placing the plane in danger.
It was Mills’ job to free the bombs. Trying not to “excite the crew,” he climbed onto a 10-inch-wide catwalk and opened the bomb bay doors. He began to delicately loosen each of the top three live bombs. “I physically picked them up and dropped them out of the plane,” he said. “When I picked up the third bomb, it took the pressure off the rest and they fell. It was a bit unnerving with the bomb bay doors opened. I kept telling myself ‘just don’t look down.’”
As a gunner, he encountered only one German fighter plane. The waist gunner warned of the approaching fighter, but Mills didn’t see it until it was on top of him. He shot several bursts. “It looked like they were hitting the plane,” Mills said. “All of a sudden, he turned and I saw him go down. I don’t know if I hit him.”
Still vigorous approaching 100
He was discharged in 1945 and returned to North Carolina, moving into a rooming house in Hickory, where he went to work for Goodrich at a tire store. A friend encouraged him to take a correspondence accounting course on the GI Bill. He did, excelled, and took an advanced course.
Meantime, a co-worker set up a blind date with Penny Davidson of Newton. They married in 1953 and moved to Winston-Salem, where Mills managed two Goodrich stores. They moved to Charlotte in 1957 when Mills became an operations manager at the Charlotte district office. The couple had no children.
Mills almost didn’t make it to 60, suffering a serious heart attack in 1982. But with medicine and exercise prescribed by his primary doctor, he’s not seen a cardiologist since his mishap. He’s had no other health problems.
He’s not what you expect of someone approaching centenarian status: He’s fit, with a head of white hair. He doesn’t need a hearing aid or glasses to read his morning newspaper, though he wears “weak” glasses. He and Penny walked two miles a day for years. Several canes lean against walls throughout his house, but he doesn’t use them except to shoo off dogs on walks. He golfed and fished until last year, and he still makes house repairs, including electrical and plumbing.
Charlie Mills took up painting in his retirement. Here he sits in front of some of his watercolors.
Mills must still be thinking long-term. At 94, he bought a brand-new Volvo to replace the previous Volvo he drove for 18 years.
He’s got no secret for longevity. His father died at age 80; his mother 86. He’s outlived three sisters, all younger — and most of his relatives. He’s not particularly careful about what he eats, though he’s always avoided fatty foods for “digestive reasons.”
Retiring a year after his heart attack, Mills took up painting, mostly watercolors. In the early days, he sold a few at shows, “but my accounting background convinced me I couldn’t turn it into a business.”
Several paintings hanging in his home studio in a converted bedroom harken back to his war days. A flight jacket hangs from a rack in one painting; nearby are portraits of a B-17 and B-24. Each year for the past 20, he’s painted holiday cards that he and Penny send to friends and relatives. They started with a list of 50. In 2021, they mailed 25.
There’ll be no celebration on Sept. 30, the day he’s set to turn 100. “It’ll just be another day,” he said. In the late 1990s, as the world approached the 21st century, Mills said he had vivid thoughts that he’d not live to see it.
“Now here we are 22 years later,” he said with a shrug and grin. “I’m still here!”
David Perlmutt has written about the Carolinas for 40 years, including 35 years he spent as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This week in Charlotte: New election maps lead to filing scramble; CMS goes mask-optional starting March 7; Atrium opens new Matthews hospital; new tower planned for SouthPark
On Saturdays, The Ledger sifts through the local news of the week and links to the top articles — even if they appeared somewhere else. We’ll help you get caught up. That’s what Saturdays are for.
Charlotte Latin controversy: (Ledger 🔒) A group of parents and the administration of Charlotte Latin are feuding over how the elite south Charlotte private school introduces students to the touchy topics of race, politics and sexual identity. The issue came to a head last August, when a group of parents concerned with the direction of the school made a presentation to the school’s board of trustees — which the head of school later slammed as “awful” and full of misrepresentations. One parent says his children were expelled because he kept wanting to discuss the issue.
CMS mask policy: (Ledger) Masks will be optional for Charlotte-Mecklenburg students, staff and visitors in school buildings starting March 7, after a Tuesday vote by the county school board. The board debated whether to remove the mask mandate on Feb. 26 to align with the date the countywide mask mandate was set to expire, but decided to give the district more time to get a transition plan in place. Local private schools are largely dropping mask requirements starting Monday.
Graduation rates: (WFAE) Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is falling short of its graduation rate goal and will put more effort into monitoring students in earlier grades for signs that they might be at risk for dropping out. CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston gave a report on the issue to school board members Tuesday night and outlined some strategies for keeping students in school.
New electoral maps cause scramble: (Ledger 🔒) A North Carolina court redrew election maps, and filing for federal, state and local offices restarted on Thursday. A new Democratic-friendly Congressional district that includes south Charlotte was being considered by several elected officials. State Sen. Jeff Jackson said Friday he will run for that seat, and it’s unclear if he will have any major challengers.
Mask requirements lifted: Mecklenburg County’s mask mandate ends today.
Controversial rezoning: (Ledger 🔒) Charlotte City Council approved plans for two new schools in south Charlotte, including one that was hotly contested by some Ballantyne-are residents because of traffic implications. Plans for a new elementary school on Ardrey Kell Road across from Ardrey Kell High School drew concerns from residents because the site will also include 349 housing units (mostly apartments), and residents say the area already experiences high traffic.
New hospital: (Biz Journal) The new Atrium Health Union West opened last week in Matthews at Hwy. 74 and Stallings Road. The 150,000 s.f. hospital houses 40 acute-care beds, four for intensive care and eight for labor and delivery. There are three operating rooms, eight observation beds and a 10-bay emergency department.
New tower for SouthPark: (Ledger 🔒) Developer Childress Klein filed plans to build an office tower across from the entrance to SouthPark Mall on Sharon Road, on land that currently houses upscale Japanese restaurant Baku and two bank branches.
Uptown ready for revival: (Biz Journal, subscriber-only) Uptown and South End have $4B worth of development in the pipeline, according to a new report from Charlotte Center City Partners. Uptown is poised to mount a comeback after being slow to recover coming out of Covid.
Home sales: (Axios Charlotte) Charlotte and Atlanta tied for the largest percentage of homes sold to investors last year, at 25%, according to a Washington Post analysis. Some zip codes in western and northern Mecklenburg County saw more than 40% and 50% of homes sold to investors last year. A 2015 report showed that 11% of homes had been bought by investors in the previous year.
New era for Charlotte soccer: (Fútbol Friday) Charlotte FC, the city’s new pro soccer team, opens its season today on the road against D.C. United. Our Fútbol Friday newsletter breaks down everything you need to know: how to watch, what to look for and much more.
Balancing act for McCrory: (The Assembly) Running for the U.S. Senate, former Charlotte Mayor and N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory says he has a record of accomplishment that cuts across party lines. But the upcoming Republican primary is filled with voters who value support for Donald Trump, who has endorsed McCrory’s opponent. How is McCrory navigating that tension? Longtime Charlotte political reporter Jim Morrill checks it out.
Hickory, land of arch collapses and sinkholes: (N.C. Rabbit Hole) Reflecting on the collapse of 40-ton decorative arches on a pedestrian bridge in Hickory, writer Jeremy Markovich recalls another infamous Hickory infrastructure-related misfortune: a sinkhole in 2002 that swallowed a Corvette. “When it comes to infrastructure, Hickory is North Carolina’s Narnia,” he writes.
Julius Chambers documentary 🎥: OK so this isn’t a read, but it’s a good “set your DVR” suggestion: Longtime WBTV reporter Steve Crump has a new documentary, on Charlotte civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers. Crump unveiled “Julius Chambers: A Life of Service, Courage and Conviction” on Thursday at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture, and it will air on WBTV on Sunday morning (2/27) at 5:30 a.m. “If he were a major league pitcher, he would have been a Cy Young Award winner, because he went eight for eight in the Supreme Court and never lost a case there,” Crump tells The Ledger. It’s Crump’s seventh documentary since being diagnosed with cancer in 2018. (The Gantt event and documentary are also available on YouTube)
From the Ledger family of newsletters
A priest reflects: (Ways of Life 🔒) For Lisa Saunders, associate rector at Charlotte’s Christ Episcopal Church, presiding over funerals is one of the most meaningful parts of her role. She reflects on another component of memorializing our loved ones – the obituary – and shares thoughts on the lasting power they can have.
Bus ridership drop analyzed: (Transit Time) An analysis of CATS data shows that bus ridership on crosstown routes has fallen the fastest during the pandemic — raising questions about how the bus system can grow. Some routes average less than two riders per bus.
Economic fallout: (Friday 🔒) As the world watches the horrors of war in Ukraine, some of the economic effects are rippling to the U.S., including higher volatility in the stock market, higher fuel prices and lingering inflation.
Taxing district for SouthPark: (Friday 🔒) A new taxing district for the SouthPark area seems to be gaining momentum, with major corporations backing the effort — which would allow the area to improve marketing, infrastructure and events.
40 Over 40 nominees revealed: (Ledger) The Ledger released the list of the 132 nominees for this year’s 40 Over 40 awards. It’s an impressive group. Judges are judging and will render their verdict in a few weeks, followed by an April 28 party. Details to come.
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