BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - It was on September 21, 1966 when Navy Commander James B. Mills went missing during the Vietnam War. And after 52 years of searching, Mills’ family now has a sense of closure.
“We were pretty shocked in these last few days to receive these emails of confirmation from the Navy that his remains were positively identified through a rib,” said Mills’ nephew, Harold Taber.
Mills’ and pilot James Bauder were declared missing in action when their aircraft did not return to the ship.
“I was ten months old when my uncle was declared missing in action,” said Taber. “It was a lot of years, not knowing for sure that he died in his plane crash.”
Taber said this happened after Mills had come home from his first tour. “He had come home and they needed guys to come back, so he went back and it was his second tour on his first mission when he was shot down late night, early morning. [I’m] not sure if he was over land or overseas, which made the searching harder,” said Taber.
And while they searched, a tree grew, The Freedom Tree. It was dedicated to Mills after he went missing, a Bakersfield High alum and standout athlete.
“Look at it, just this huge base and the branches go from building to building,” said Taber. “It kind of reminds of how long our family waited for answers.”
And while the tree grew, it took a toll on Mills’ family. “I remember as a kid when the war ended and the names of the men who were returning were scrolled across the TV screen and my mom was watching the TV and then she’d break out in tears,” said Taber Because Mills’ name was not on that list of returning men.
“So my grandfather quit being principal at East High and he went back to Washington D.C., and he was one of the first directors of the National Families of the POW/MIA,” said Taber. "[He] was trying to get accounting for all of the men missing in action and of prisoners of war.”
Mills’ sister followed in those footsteps and has continued to be a leader in the League of Families for over 40 years. She and the family searched the coast of Vietnam every year, once a year due to the tides. It was until last year when hope finally came for the Mills’ family after finding Bauder.
“This part of the water off the coast of Vietnam can only be searched like once a year. The tides and the visibility only allow once a year. It was a year ago that his pilot, James Bauder remains were identified.”
On August 20, 2018, Mills’ remains were also found and now the family can lay their hero to rest. Mills’ family says his services will be in June 2019 at the Arlington National Cemetery.