By Raiza Giorgi
In some old soldiers, the fighting spirit never dies.
French government officials recently awarded their country’s highest honor to local World War II veteran Rutledge “Putty” Mills, and he immediately threw up his hands and yelled, “If I am ever needed, I am ready to fight.”
The 95-year-old veteran received cheers and a standing ovation.
Mills and fellow valley resident John Wright received Legion of Honor medals at a private ceremony on July 18 at the Solvang Veterans Memorial Hall.
“The French people were so helpful and were always willing to help us when we were over there. They were even willing to trade their delicious French bread and cheeses for our K-rations, and let’s be honest, those (military meals) were terrible,” Wright said as the audience laughed.
The Legion of Honor, established in 1802 by Napoleon, is France’s highest honor for military or civilian service, and it is awarded to French citizens and to foreigners. Wright and Mills were honored for their wartime service in France.
“Freedom is a gift, and we honor those that fought for our democracy and human rights,” said Christophe Lemoine, the Consul General of France stationed in Los Angeles.
“The French people never forget your service to restore our freedom, and you are the best examples of the Greatest Generation,” Lemoine added.
The audience included Jim Kunkle, another local veteran who previously received the Legion of Honor medal, as well as Santa Barbara County 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann and Solvang Mayor Jim Richardson
Mills served as an aircraft mechanic in Europe with the 331st Field Artillery Battalion in Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. He saw action in central Europe and Northern France supporting the Battle of the Bugle.
He was then deployed to the Philippines for cleanup until the Japanese surrendered. He was featured in the Santa Ynez Valley Star’s June 19 issue for his post-war contributions to NASA’s space program.
Wright was a heavy-truck driver in France in July 1944 with the 482nd Engineer Maintenance Company, where he worked to build and maintain airfields for the 8th Air Force. Wright was involved in action in Normandy, Rhineland, Ardennes and central Europe, and he was awarded five Bronze Stars and the Good Conduct Medal.
Wright and Mills each received a proclamation from the city of Solvang and were honored by Vandenberg Air Force Base officials.
“While we work on satellite GPS systems these days and can talk to any unit in the field, 75 years ago this wasn’t an option. I can’t imagine the personal hardships and displays of heroism you had to do, but we are grateful for your service,” said Col. Bob Reeves from Vandenberg.