Tall, lanky, bright, caring, deep thinking, energetic, self-motivated, loving, dependable, with a permanent grin. Those words and phrases continually resonate from a diversity of individuals describing their memories of Karl William Mills from the days of his childhood until his premature death. While Karl’s core values and basic leadership skills began during his early life at home, he gradually blossomed at West Point and greatly strengthened these values and skills. Marriage amplified his sense of compassion and love for others. As a young officer, Karl met the challenges of a new career and a combat tour, not only with competency and professionalism, but also in a manner that clearly demonstrated his ingrained sense of "Duty, Honor, Country."
Karl W. Mills, son of William and Dorothy Mills, was born in Columbus, OH. His mother died shortly after his birth, and later his father remarried. Karl grew up in a typical, mid-America family and neighborhood. His older sisters, Kathleen and Karen, helped start Karl on his way. He served as a good example and shining star for his younger brother Ken. Throughout high school and Karl’s time at West Point, the mutual admiration and bond between brothers deepened. Recently Ken summed up his feelings for their relationship by saying, "Karl was all a brother could be."
Karl attended Eastmoor Junior High School and Senior High School in Columbus. He excelled in academics and participated in numerous extracurricular activities. While not thought of as an athlete, Karl was a competitor on both the football and wrestling teams. During that time, he also was a member in DeMolay. His willingness to reach out and help anyone in need earned him the lifelong admiration and respect of many. He graduated in the top two percent of his high school class. In his senior year, he won a prestigious Harvard Book Award for academic achievement, was president of the student council, and was a representative at Buckeye Boys’ State.
During high school, Karl began to consider the service academies, initially motivated by both the financial incentive of a free education and because of the quality education that was offered. He developed a plan and began working to secure a Congressional nomination. In quick succession, he received nominations both to the Air Force Academy and to the United States Military Academy. West Point became the winner, when Karl was disqualified from the Air Force Academy for being too tall.
In June 1963, Karl was sworn in as a new cadet along with over 800 classmates. The initial cultural shock of Beast Barracks and his own lanky, uncoordinated "all-knees-and-elbows" frame proved to be a challenge, which he met with stubborn determination, quick wit, and a positive attitude. Once the academic year started, Karl began to excel. The success he found in the classroom seemed to build his self-confidence in all aspects of his life as a cadet. In intramural competition, he quickly became a stalwart on the K-1 wrestling squad. His initial physical awkwardness disappeared as he adjusted to cadet life, improving to the point that he served on the regimental color guard during his First Class year. The fact that Karl always was in the top 15 percent of his class was not as impressive as the fact that he unselfishly helped countless less academically-gifted classmates survive their individual academic struggles. While most of his classmates were intent on just surviving, Karl demonstrated his intellectual abilities in another area.
Beginning early in his Plebe year, and lasting all four years, he served as a hop manager. Karl had learned quickly that the hop manager worked closely with Mrs. Holland, the cadet hostess. This positioned him to be among the first to meet all of the single members of the fairer sex as they arrived without escorts for the various West Point dances. This fact might have partially accounted for the constant grin Karl had on his face.
Karl made several important decisions that set his future path. Leading up to Branch Selection Night, Karl was torn between the Corps of Engineers and the Signal Corps. When his turn came, he proudly stood up and proclaimed, "Field Artillery, Sir!" Earlier that year, as a favor to an E-1 classmate, Chris Vissers, Karl accepted a blind date with an attractive young coed from Douglass College. Her name was Nancy Dabinett and she had accompanied a girlfriend for a weekend at West Point. A serious relationship was far from either’s mind when the date was arranged, but, from that first meeting, a spark was kindled that neither had anticipated. Friendship turned to love, and the two were married in the Cadet Chapel on 23 Dec 1967 with several classmates in attendance. A stateside assignment took them to Ft. Sill, where the young couple tried to maximize their time together while orders for Viet Nam were pending. A pre-departure leave allowed them to move back east and get Nancy organized for her final year at Douglass College while Karl was overseas. During that time period, they were chosen to appear on a New York television game show for newlyweds called Dream House. About midway through Karl’s tour, the two were reunited in Hawaii for a wonderful R&R that was dampened by its all too short duration. In the spring of 1969, Nancy graduated from college and returned to her parents’ home to wait for Karl’s return.
Dreams do not always come true, as CPT Karl Mills became one of the 29 fatalities suffered by his class during the Viet Nam War. In the early morning hours of 11 Jun 1969, eleven miles northwest of Tam Ky in Quang Nam Province, Karl and approximately 130 American soldiers were defending an Americal Division location, known as LZ East (Hill 488). The position came under a devastating attack by units of the North Vietnamese Army, led by sappers and flamethrowers, who quickly overran the position before being driven back. A bunker Karl was occupying was destroyed during the initial onslaught. As he emerged from the rubble to confront the enemy, Karl suffered a fatal shot at close range. In all, 17 American soldiers were killed and 34 were wounded. Karl only had a few short weeks left in country. In a recent phone conversation with his former Artillery battalion commander, COL Edouard Peloquin said, "Karl was one of those rare individuals who was admired by his peers, his superiors, and his subordinates. The loss of this bright, promising young officer was a tragedy to all that knew him." His military awards and decorations included the National Defense Service Medal, the Viet Nam Service Medal with one Bronze Service Star, the Viet Nam Campaign Ribbon, the Ranger Tab, and the Marksman Badge with rifle and automatic rifle bars. Posthumously he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Karl is buried among other classmates at West Point. The impact that Karl had on the lives of others is evident in the strong feelings and memories that continue to be expressed individually by his cousins, his siblings, his widow, his special high school friend, his fellow soldiers, and his West Point classmates. The years continue to age all of us, but in our hearts and minds, our memory is clear. Karl’s image remains forever young with a permanent grin.
- Ms. Carol Brown
- Class of 1967
- Mr. Robert M. Colson '67
- LTC (R) and Mrs. Freed Lowrey Jr. '67
- COL (R) and Mrs. John N. Stewart '67