Armchair historians are fond of pontificating about how the bayonet has been obsolete in infantry combat since the Napoleonic wars, which tends to make me wonder if they have ever read valor award citations from the Korean War. You will soon find that a relatively large number of actions involved used cold steel and rifle butts during hand-to-hand combat. Much of this probably has to do with the fact that eight rounds in a Garand rifle don’t go very far when there are thousands of Chinese trying to overrun your position in a human wave attack. It seems to have been fairly common for infantry troops to have no choice but to fight it out to the last man with rifle butts and bayonets during many of these battles. But there is one story from the conflict that truly stands out from all these desperate last ditch encounters, the bayonet charge of Captain Lewis “Cold Steel” Millett.

Captain Lewis Millett

Lewis Millett first joined the Massachusetts’ National Guard in 1938, serving with the 101st Field Artillery. When the U.S. did not enter World War II soon enough to suit Millett, he left his unit, crossed the border and joined the Canadian army. He was soon sent to England and fought with an anti-aircraft unit during the German bombing of London. Eventually, as everyone knows, the U.S. Army joined the fray and Sergeant Millett found a way to transfer over to the 27th Armored Artillery Regiment of the 1st Armored Division. Fighting across North Africa, making the landing at Salerno, and participating in the battle for Anzio earned him a Silver Star and a battlefield commission. Among other accomplishments, he was credited with shooting down a Messerschmitt Me-109 with the machine gun on one of his unit’s half-tracks. Ironically he was also eventually court-martialed for leaving his unit the first time, fined $52, and had his leave privileges revoked—as if going on leave was an option while fighting in Italy.

After World War II he attended Bates College in Maine, but soon found himself being recalled for duty in the Korean War. In early 1951 he was serving as the Company Commander of Company E, “Wolfhounds” 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. A few weeks before, he had captured Chinese documents that stated the enemy felt Americans were a bunch of sissies who were afraid of hand-to-hand warfare. He is later quoted as having said, “I decided I would show them!” and started a program of active bayonet training for his troops.

The 10-inch blade M-1 bayonets for their Garand rifles were hand-sharpened for a small fee by a local Korean ladies on a foot-pumped grindstones (given how dull period bayonets were, this was a very wise course of action). Some veterans have also stated they felt the full wood-stocked, steel-buttplated, 9.5 pound M-1 rifle was one of the best bayonet handles the army has ever issued. I might add that there is a famous “mess hall” painting (army veterans will know what I mean by that) of Millett leading his troops up the hill with 16-inch blade M1942 bayonets on their rifles. The M1942 was deemed obsolete early in World War II and replaced by the shorter M-1 model. If there is any doubt on this detail, I have also seen photos of Millett in Korea with the 10-inch M-1 version on his Garand.

Bayonet Charges

On February 7, 1951 on hill 180 near Soam-Ni, Captain Millett taught the Chinese just how afraid of fighting with cold steel the Americans truly were. When one of his platoons became pinned down by heavy machinegun fire, he told the others to fix bayonets and led them on a charge up the hill. Near the top, and despite having been wounded by grenade shrapnel, he personally killed two Chinese troops with his bayonet and wounded several others with his rifle butt, bayonet and hand grenades. The Wolfhound troops in the charge left 20 Chinese dead from bayonet wounds on the hill and an unknown number of others retreated with lesser injuries. Overwhelmed by the ferocity of the American attack, the Chinese fell back in total panic down the reverse side of the hill.

Captain Millett later received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism that day. What is truly astounding is that he received the nation’s second highest award, a Distinguished Service Cross, a few weeks later for yet another bayonet charge. From that time on he was known throughout the army by the nickname of “Cold Steel” Millett.

After the Korean War he attended Ranger school and served for a period of time as an intelligence officer for the 101st Airborne before the division was deployed to Vietnam. During the conflict in Southeast Asia he worked as an advisor for the CIA’s covert Phoenix program, “neutralizing” the Viet Cong’s political leadership infrastructure and terrorist network. He also helped found the MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) Recon Commando School run by the 5th Special Forces in Nha Trang, followed by a stateside tour commanding the Army Security Agency training center in Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Millett retired as a full Colonel in 1973 after 35 years of military service.

Along with being a graduate of his Recon Commando program, I had the honor of meeting Colonel Millett several times at the old Soldier of Fortune convention in Las Vegas. There was never any doubt that the other veterans attending the show held him in as much awe as I did. He was one of those officers that truly gave meaning to the U.S. Army Infantry School’s motto “Follow Me!”

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