Charles Milam of Port Charlotte, Fla. was a freshman on a football scholarship playing for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks in 1944 when he decided to join the Marine Corps.
Within a couple of months he was serving with the 2nd Marine Division on Tinian Island in the Pacific. They were getting ready for the invasion of Okinawa, the largest island battle in the Pacific during World War II.
“Our unit, George Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, 2nd Marine Division was used as a diversionary force initially at Okinawa. We were to make like we were going in on the southern tip of the island to draw enemy forces to that area,” he said. “We never went in. We returned to Saipan, but a month later we went back to Okinawa and were involved in the last big drive to the south to take the island.
“I was there when Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner was hit and killed by an artillery round. He was in our regimental CP (command post) located on a rock ledge watching us attack when he got hit in the chest. He was the only one killed in the CP.
“The Japanese had their machine gun nests and artillery concealed in caves. You could get shot from the rear as well as the front,” Milam said. “Eventually we fought through the area and occupied the high ground. When we finally reached the southern tip of the island, it took us another three days of mopping up. Then our unit was relieved.”
This was the first and only battle in which he took part during World War II. Okinawa was the last major Pacific Island battle of the war before the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and, a few days later, Nagasaki, ending the war.
He spent the next year as part of the occupation troops. Much of the time his unit was involved in getting rid of enemy guns and ammunition.
“We went from island to island with an LST cargo ship collecting Japanese equipment and ammo,” he said. “We’d haul it to sea and dump it in the ocean.”
Although Milam didn’t know it at the time, this was almost the end of the first phase of a 30-year service career that spanned the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam and years of service in the Cold War Army.
After returning to the States in 1946, he returned to the University of Arkansas, rejoined the Razorbacks and played his last three years –1948 to 1950 — as an offensive guard. He lettered all four years and graduated with a degree in business administration.
He also graduated from Officers Candidate School. When he left Arkansas he received a commission in the U.S. Army as a 2nd lieutenant. Six months later he was serving in Korea as a member of the 40th Infantry Division in the Kumwha Valley, part of “The Iron Triangle.”
After several months in the valley, his outfit was moved to “The Punch Bowl” — another line of defense separating the North Korean troops from the Americans to the south.
It was his actions there during a patrol into the heart of enemy territory that earned him the Silver Star.
“I was on patrol one night at ‘The Punch Bowl’ when we went nose-to-nose with the North Koreans. We had a couple of fire fights with them and then discovered a couple of enemy bunkers filled with ammunition that we blew up,” Milam recalled.
“About the time my tour of duty was over in Korea, I took another Y in the road. The day after I got rotated out, my unit sustained a bunch of casualties,” he said. “That wasn’t my problem anymore.”
When he got back to the U.S. he got the urge to take Ranger training. The day he joined the Rangers he also signed up for the Airborne. After finishing Ranger school he was sent to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C.
By 1957 Milam was a captain assigned to the “Black Knights” battalion of the “Big Red 1,” the 1st Infantry Division. He and his unit expected to be sent to Europe to possibly fight the Soviet Union when things began heating up in Berlin. It didn’t happen.
He also came within a hairsbreadth of going to war in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“Our battle group was going to invade Cuba in 1962. The 82nd was to jump in and take an airport in Cuba so the 1st Infantry Division could fly in. All the plans were ready to go, then President Kennedy blockaded Cuba and the Russians withdrew their rockets. So I never got to jump,” he said.
Three years later, as a major, he went to Vietnam to train South Vietnamese troops. He was stationed in Nautrang as an infantry adviser. Later he was involved in training Vietnamese paratroopers.
“I left Vietnam 10 days after the Tet Offensive began in 1968,” Milam said.
He returned to Fort Bragg as a lieutenant colonel and battalion commander. After completing that tour of duty, he was stationed in Portland, Ore., as the adviser to the Oregon National Guard. It was about this time he made full colonel.
By 1973 he was back with the regular Army, stationed at Fort Monmouth, N.J., headquarters of the Army’s communications command. He was appointed executive officer of all support units on the base. Two years later he decided to hang up his rifle after three wars and assignments around the world.
A few days ago Milam celebrated his 80th birthday. What he really wanted for his birthday was to make a final parachute jump, but his wife, Nancy, had other plans. She took the old warrior to dinner with his family instead.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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