This week I had the opportunity to visit the grave of Lieutenant Colonel George B. McMillan at Arlington National Cemetery. McMillan was one of the original fighter pilots with the mercenary American Volunteer Group, Flying Tigers, in 1941-42. He shot down three Japanese bombers over Burma and one over China during the darkest days of World War II. When the AVG disbanded in July 1942, he volunteered to stay an extra two weeks to help stand up the new 23rd Fighter Group. After returning to the States he accepted a commission in the Army Air Forces and went to the AAF Proving Ground at Eglin Field, Florida. There he flew every fighter in the inventory. He honed his skills as a combat pilot and under the mentorship of David Lee “Tex” Hill, honed his skills as a leader. He returned to China in October 1943 and took over command of the 449th Fighter Squadron. The 449th was in a bad way. On October 30, they got caught in a Japanese ambush and lost four airplanes. Two pilots managed to make it back, but two were killed – including the squadron commander.
Even though McMillan was an experienced fighter pilot, he eased his way into the squadron. He let other pilots who had been there for several months lead the missions, while he flew their wing. On the 14th Air Force’s most famous mission, a raid to Xinzhu, Taiwan, on Thanksgiving Day, 1943, he let Sam Palmer and Ryan Moon take the lead. His attitude and experience were just what the squadron needed. Over the next several months, he added four more kills to his personal score and turned the 449th into a unit feared by the Japanese. The squadron flew out of Suichuan, the 14th Air Force’s most forward airfield. Father Joseph Cosgrove, the squadron’s chaplain, remembered him as a man who led by example. He was, “first to roar down the runway and first to turn into enemy fighters when sighted. I never saw a pilot who so relished combat with the enemy.” According to Lieutenant David Williams, “I could not say more and mean more than to say … I would ride his wing any day, any where.”
When the Japanese launched the Ichi-go Offensive in April 1944, the 449th was at the front. Almost half a million Japanese troops pushed into Central China. With the Chinese Nationalist Army melting away, the airplanes of the 14th Air Force were all that stood in the path of the enemy campaign. The front lines blurred as enemy troops advanced faster than intelligence sources could report. Brigadier General Casey Vincent, commander of the 68th Composite Wing, believed the only way to pinpoint the Japanese vanguard was by sending out patrols of fighters. He flew into Suichuan on June 24 to confer with McMillan. The 449th was preparing to evacuate the base. When Vincent arrived, McMillan was about to takeoff on a bombing mission. Vincent told him to cancel the mission. He wanted him to check out reports of an enemy column north of Pingxiang. The weather was not good. The low cloud ceiling meant the squadron’s P-38s would meet a murderous reception from Japanese small arms. McMillan told Vincent the mission was asinine. Vincent flew into a rage and the two of them had a heated argument on the flight line in full view of the rest of the squadron. Finally, Vincent threatened to court martial him. Frustrated, he threw up his hands and said he would “fly the damn thing!” The armament crews unloaded the general purpose bombs and loaded the Lightnings with frags.
McMillan was not the type of leader that would ask his men to do something he would not do himself. Despite his reservations, or maybe because of them, he led the mission personally. Arriving over Pingxiang, he could see soldiers in the town. He could not tell whether they were Chinese or Japanese. As it turned out, the Japanese were well south of where Chinese intelligence thought they were. They shot at the Lightnings, hitting McMillan’s fighter in the radiator. He dropped his fragmentation bombs, but as he departed, his right engine began smoking badly. He told Lieutenant Arpin, his wingman, that the coolant in his right engine was leaking and the left engine oil pressure was dropping fast. Ten miles out of Pingxiang he decided to ditch in the Lu River. “How do these things land on water?” he asked his flight. “Climb out of your parachute,” one of them responded. According to Arpin, “Right after this I started overtaking him and saw that he seemed to be removing his parachute shoulder straps. I passed him and saw that his left engine was froze and was losing altitude. When I looked back from about 500 feet the ship had crashed in flames about 200 yards south of the river bed. I saw no parachute in the area.”
McMillan was dead. The 449th’s best commander died leading his men from the front. The squadron was crushed, but there was no time for grieving. The Japanese were closing in on Suichuan. Only two days later, the squadron evacuated the field. The Chinese found his body and after the war, he was re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. There he lies today, surrounded by thousands more of his generation and others who died for this country.