By Donald Swan (from a previously published article.)
By all measures, it was an impressive Celebration of Life at Veterans Hall in Garberville, California. George Mullins was alive and well-looking good, standing tall and surrounded by about 200 of his family and closest friends from across the country for his Ninety-Third birthday celebration (95 in June 2020). There was good food, lots of great memories and laughter.
But some friends were missing; friends bonded by brotherhood in battle and not just any battle.
At 19, Mullins was one of the men who on D-Day was advancing on Utah Beach through a fusillade of fire. “In Normandy, my machine gun section of 13 took terrible losses, when morning came, I was the only survivor who could continue. The others were killed or seriously injured,” recalled Mullins, who was an infantryman with the renowned 101st Airborne Division. Later, in Holland, he would not be so fortunate.
Born in the small coal-mining town of Jenkins, Kentucky, Mullins thought he might miss the war, but was inducted into the U.S. Army on October 21st, 1943. So many were drafted or volunteered; they closed the high school he attended.
Mullins at age 18. (Mullins archives)
After training in Georgia, he sailed to Europe on a Liberty ship. Mullins landed in Ireland where there was more training; then he was assigned to C Company, 1st Battalion, 327th Glider Infantry, where the 130-pound teenager prepared for D-Day and quickly realized: “This was the real thing, this is real war! Here I viewed the ravages of war, the smell of death, the decaying human bodies,” Mullins recounted as he broke eye contact and started away at nothing in particular.
After he was dispatched to Holland, he made his first combat glider flight. At altitude, he heard steel hitting steel as flack pelted the frame of his venerable plane, Mullins and his men landed hard but safely. But that was just one lucky flight.
“In our seventy-two days in Holland, we dealt with mines; booby traps; snipers; constant enemy patrols; artillery and our foxholes filling with water, filth, and mud,” Mullins recalled. In one of those foxholes searing shrapnel from German artillery pierced a small area of his shoulder where it remains today.
But Mullin’s continued with his men only to be chewed out a couple of days later when they happened upon an aid station where he had his wounds checked. He was informed that anyone wounded needed to seek medical attention immediately; he assumed the complaining Captain had never been under fire like his platoon. He was cleared and returned to duty.
From Holland, he was sent to the extreme cold of Bastogne (Think: Battle of the Bulge). If the Luftwaffe constantly raining down bombs on his location was not enough, he soon found himself surrounded by German airborne troops. “Suddenly there was a thundering explosion, and I gained my composure, I found two of my fellow soldiers lying on top of me. Before I could pull myself free, blood from their wounds was running down my face, as far as I could tell, I was saved by their deaths,” sighed Sgt. Mullins.
Although not physically wounded, he was out of action for a few days, the only time he was away from his platoon during the war. “Thanks to Patton’s tanks coming to our rescue, we went on the offensive and fought our way out of the encirclement,’’ Mullins recalled.
In just over two years Mullins was a Staff Sgt. in the 101st Airborne Division. Promoted far ahead of his peers, he said modestly because he was willing to take on responsibility. He was rewarded for his combat leadership, receiving the Bronze Star and Combat Infantryman Badge. He also was awarded the Purple Heart and other medals. And his unit received the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation.
A writer covering the war once asked Mullins why his unit had such a high survival rate. “Because we were diggers.” What, said the puzzled journalist? “When we stopped, even for a short period, we shoveled the earth and dug foxholes for our protection,” said Mullins, who had commandeered a higher quality German shovel for the task.
He returned to Kentucky after serving two years, two months and eleven days, most of which were in combat. His Dad had secured a “good job” for him in the coal mines. Instead, he finished high school in Virginia and then headed west. He was employed a few years in Washington state as a lumberjack before settling in California, where he worked in logging and tried commercial fishing.
As for making it to 93, through the war and those years of hard work? “You need to get with it while you’re still vertical, I can’t stop now I have too many responsibilities,” said Mullins a cogent communicator, who gets around well and looks to be in good shape; a young 93 for sure.
And for the inevitable question, how are you so healthy at this age? “I’ve had a good wife to keep me happy, I stay active and keep my mind sharp by thinking of things to invent.” He’s still an active member of the VFW Honor Guard.
To the people of Garberville where Mullin’s lived for 59 years: “You gave me a chance to get out of a ditch [when I came here] I couldn’t have bought you a hamburger then, or one for myself really, but today I can buy you a steak. It’s a little paradise on earth.” Mullins beamed. And it was here that he became a successful businessman as owner of G & M Construction.
If the past 93 years are any indication, George Mullins: husband, care provider, father, grandfather great-great-grandfather, WW II hero, and a good citizen of the country and community; he may remain vertical for a long while, and someone might just buy him a steak.
“I can’t say that I enjoyed the war, but it was the place to be,” said Mullins. “It took me a long time to get my brain straightened out, but our generation is, of course, different. I believe we were so thankful for having survived, we accepted the horrors of war differently than later generations. But you never forget, it’s a hard drive that can’t be erased.”
Item: Twelve WW II veterans die about every hour, around 292 a day. Of the sixteen million who served, less than 4% remain. The average age is 92.
As of June 2019. Source: National WWII Museum, New Orleans.