ST. PETERSBURG — The headstone at Belgium’s Ardennes American Cemetery for U.S. soldiers who died in World War II read: “Rest in honor and glory.” But it featured no name.
The U.S. military had identified the man only as “Unknown, X-632″ when he was buried. For more than seven decades, no one knew who was in that grave.
Then, a team of German researchers began an effort to identify missing Americans, wanting to honor those who helped defeat the Nazis and bring democracy to their nation. And they uncovered the story behind the unnamed soldier.
The soldier was exhumed, flown to the United States, and buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 13.
There, a new headstone has a name: Newell Franklin Mills Jr. He was from St. Petersburg, an Army Air Forces pilot who went missing when his plane was shot down by Nazi fighters.
“Nothing can prepare you for the emotion,” said Trisha Mills Oeland, his niece. “He’s been found and is now being honored in the way he deserves to be honored.”
Mills enlisted in the Army Air Forces at 19 after graduating from St. Petersburg High School, where he was a star on the swim and dive teams. He was assigned to the 354th Fighter Squadron of the 355th Fighter Group and flew out of England.
“He was a hero,” said Oeland, who lives in Oregon.
The local newspapers detailed his exploits.
“1st Lt. Newell F. Mills Jr., P-51 Mustang pilot shot down three German fighter planes during a recent Eighth AAF raid over the Holland-German border,” reads a February 13, 1945 St. Petersburg Times story.
The Germans “were above us when we first saw ‘em,” Mills was quoted as saying. One was “so close I felt like I could have hit him with my fist.”
Two months later, the Times reported that Mills destroyed a fourth fighter in an attack on a German airfield. That mission earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross for “extraordinary achievement and heroism.”
“He was a badass fighter in the sky,” Oeland said. “He then wrote a letter to his father saying he got the ship and mission that he wanted but could not say more because it was top secret.”
According to a recent media release issued by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Mills was piloting a P-51D Mustang Fighter on April 7, 1945, as part of a mission escorting bombers to a target in Geesthacht, Germany.
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“The formation encountered German fighters near Bremen,” the media release says. “Mills and the other escort pilots turned away from the bombers to engage the Germans. Mills and his wingman never returned to base and were never reported as prisoners of war.”
Mills was listed missing and was declared dead a year later.
“After the war, we put a lot of resources and time into looking for our soldiers’ remains,” said Jim Bell, an identification specialist with the United States Army Past Conflict Repatriations Branch. “We’d interview citizens from where the battle took place. We’d interview German soldiers. We’d go to the battlefield. The German military kept tremendous records.”
In 1949, that effort led the U.S. military to a cemetery near Bothmer, Germany. It contained a grave marked with a wooden cross that, in German, was scribed, “Here lies nine American aviators,” Oeland said.
But they found 10 aviators when the grave was exhumed, she said. Nine were identified and the 10th was buried in Ardennes American Cemetery with the “Rest in honor and glory” marker. That same year, the military announced that Mills had been found in another German grave. That body was also buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery.
“My grandmother paid to have flowers put on that grave every year for 50 years until she died” in 1995, Oeland said.
Then, in 2010, Mills’ family was told there had been a mistake. The remains were those of another soldier.
Mills was listed as missing again.
“My father hoped his older brother ejected and was living anonymously in a little German village somewhere,” Oeland said.
Still, only a small part of him believed that could be true, she said. Her father, Robert Lee Mills, flew in the Pacific Theater and “was always tormented by not knowing what happened to his brother.”
Her father died in 2014.
“I wish he was with us for the call,” Oeland said.
Bell, the identification specialist, called Oeland in April. “He said we found your uncle,” she said. “And it’s a 100% identification because they still had my father’s DNA from when they had to be sure it was not my uncle buried in the other grave. It was a miracle.”
She shared the news with a Facebook group dedicated to the 355th Fighter Group and received a message from a member. “He knew who found my uncle,” Oeland said. “And he put me in touch with Stefan Illsemann.”
How he was found
Illsemann is part of a group of German researchers seeking to identify unknown soldiers who died defeating the Nazis.
“He told me that, because of their efforts, he has a life of democracy,” Oeland said.
Mills was on the researchers’ list of names. In 2012, the researchers were “investigating a plane crash near Bothmer, Germany, where Mills’ wingman had been found in 1946,” a media release says.
They interviewed villagers who, as kids, witnessed the aerial battle, Oeland said. “The villagers recalled it was a beautiful afternoon with blue skies. They saw a plane get hit and a man eject. The villagers pulled the man from the river. He was dead, shot in the head on descent. They took his pistol, flight jacket and bar of chocolate. The German soldiers then shooed them away.”
Illsemann showed a picture of Mills to a witness, who identified him as the man pulled from the river and recalled he was buried with the nine other aviators in the grave exhumed in 1949, Oeland said.
Illsemann contacted the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in 2019 to inform them of the discovery.
“Our historians began their investigation,” said agency spokesperson Sean Everett. They identified Unknown, X-632 as “the strongest candidate.”
The grave in Belgium was exhumed in July 2021 and the remains were sent to the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska for testing and confirmed to be Mills, Everett said.
Oeland said her grandparents’ home was adorned with photos of Mills and his medals and they honored him on birthday and holidays.
“They never stopped talking about him,” Oeland said. “I never met him, but I feel like I knew him. He has always been a part of us. He is where he belongs now. We’re grateful that he has a headstone with his name.”