CORONADO, California (AP) — The Navy recognized a 102-year-old World War II veteran Thursday by inaugurating a new barracks in his name, a rare honor for a living recipient.
From his wheelchair, retired Chief Steward Andy Mills waved to the sailors attending the ceremony Thursday at the naval base, in Coronado, California, near San Diego. Mills told reporters softly before the ceremony that he was overjoyed by the honor.
One of the maritime branch's first black chiefs, Mills risked his life for the service despite facing discrimination in a then-segregated Navy.
In 1942, Mills volunteered to board the USS Yorktown after it was attacked by the Japanese during the Battle of Midway. He cracked open a safe containing documents and bills as the ship was sinking. He and a paymaster stuffed them in a suitcase, got a rope and lowered it down off the ship before the Japanese attacked again, destroying the Yorktown and the USS Hammann next to it.
Capt. Stephen Barnett met Mills two years ago at an event in San Diego and said he was so moved by the man and what he had done that he wanted to honor him and have young sailors learn about the inspiring chief.
"He wasn't treated like the other shipmates but it never stopped him," Barnett told sailors at the ceremony.
Mills vividly recalled one of the officers telling him "I need one of those black boys over there" to go back on board the ship after it had been hit by Japanese dive bombers in an attack that killed 66 sailors. Mills, one of two African American sailors out of 75 serving on the ship, agreed to go.
When the paymaster accompanying him could not open the safe on the sinking USS Yorktown, Mills asked if he could have a go at it.
"Click, click, turned it," he said, grinning.
Family friend Deborah Thompson, of San Diego, said it meant so much to his family to see him finally honored for his bravery.
"It brought tears to our eyes," she said as she held on to the back of Mills' wheelchair.