Urban King Mills

02/19/19 to 03/22/15

Urban King Mills, born 19th February 1919 in Smackover (near Stephens) Arkansas.

I joined the United States Navy after graduating High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. I took my boot camp training at the US Naval Training Centre in San Diego California. I travelled aboard the USS Idaho from San Francisco to Hawaii and was assigned to the USS Argonne – Auxillary General #31 – AG31. We were part of the service force which consisted of an array of vessels and ships such as tug boats, oil tankers, supply ships, refrigerator ships, hospital ships and all manner of barges and floating shops. The Argonne did general, minor repairs to ships that came alongside. The Argonne stayed mostly in port but went to sea approximately every 3 months for about a week at a time to exercise the engines and fire the guns at targets. The targets were usually towed by other ships at about 500 feet astern and about 1500 yards away.

The USS Argonne was built in 1920 at the Hog Island Shipyard, PA and was acquired by the US Navy in 1921. Initially designated AP-4 in November 1921, it was converted to a submarine tender AS-10 in July 1924 and then re-designated Misc. Auxiliary AG-31 in July 1940. She was awarded one Battle Star for her service in World War II

She was 448’06” long, 58’ beam wide and a draft of 18’ approximately depending on her load. The hull was of 40 pound plate and displaced 8400 tons (how much she weighed).

The Argonne was armed with 4 x 5”- 51 calibre guns with a range of approximately 2000 yards (at 25o elevation) and 4 x 3”- 50 calibre anti-aircraft guns with an effective range of 1200 yards depending on elevation.

The main engine was steam turbine with a left hand rotation of the screw (propeller), it was very unusual as most single screw ships have right hand turn. It had a cruising speed of between 12 & 15 knots.

I was aboard the USS Argonne at Pearl Harbor, 1010 Dock, Territory of Hawaii on the 7th December 1941 during the Imperial Japanese attack.

On December 6th, 1941 I had the duty, which means that 1/3 of the full crew must be on board the ship at any given time. Our duty was from 8am Saturday 6th December to 8am Sunday 7th December. My relief arrived at 7.20am; I was released for breakfast aboard before the 8am changeover.

Sometime before 8am we heard the hum of planes in the sky then we noticed low flying planes above us but no one seemed to take much notice as the US Navy had been playing war games all week and most thought it was another training exercise. Then we saw huge columns of smoke coming from a couple of battleships adjacent to where the Argonne was moored. It still didn’t immediately dawn on anyone until we saw one of the planes drop a torpedo toward one of the battleships. We started ringing the ship’s bell to man battle stations and I ran to an anti-aircraft gun on the top deck (port side) and removed the canvas cover to access the ready ammunition storage but both were empty, all the ammo had been taken back to the main storage in the ship’s magazine when we had returned to port, the week before. Frank Tillett and I ran to get ammunition but the magazine was locked! We were all running around trying to find bolt cutters or anything that would remove the lock so we could access the ammo. There was mass confusion, we weren’t expecting the attack. Lieutenant White had the key but was not aboard the Argonne at the time. We eventually got the lock off and we all formed an ammo line up to the top deck to all four guns. As things calmed down, everyone started talking about how many hits they’d made, there was elation amongst the crew until we noticed that most of our battleships were either on fire, sinking or turning over. We were in shock. Oil blanketed the sea, the water was on fire. There was dense black smoke in the air. My usual duty aboard the Argonne was Coxswain. The officer on deck called for me and my crew to take a boat and head to the vicinity of the battle ships and try to rescue survivors from the water. It was about 20 minutes before we found the first man. The water was more like thick molasses syrup than water, we tried pulling him up onto our boat but he was slippery, he was covered in oil, we could see his eyes and mouth but everything else was black. When we eventually got him aboard you could see raw flesh on both forearms where the skin had burned and then peeled off as we pulled him up. We went on to pick up more men none of whom were as badly injured as the first man. We took them back to a pier near the Argonne where a temporary hospital was set up. We went out again and again picking up anyone we could find. It was an unpleasant task but it had to be done.

I never did find out the name of the first man we pulled from the water but I thought about him a lot over the years.

After this major event, the United States of America was well and truly entrenched in the Second World War.

The Argonne remained in Pearl Harbor until the spring of 1942 when we left Hawaii and headed to the Pacific. We headed to Canton Island then onto Fiji, Noumea and then some months later we arrived in Auckland, New Zealand (around June 1943). I met Valerie Jean Vercoe (your mother) at the Orange Ball Room in Auckland. When our tour was over in New Zealand, we corresponded regularly and eventually decided she should travel by ship to the United States where we married in Long Beach California on the 17th December 1949.

I spent several more years in the services, deployed to Korea and then to Japan, specifically Yokohama and Yokosuka.

I returned to Hawaii where my son, Gary Walter Mills was born at the Tripler Army Hospital on the 28th December 1954. We returned to the mainland and my time with the Navy ended in October 1960 in Vallejo California where my daughter, Linda Marie Mills was born. We returned to New Zealand as a family but it was not meant to be so I returned to the United States and became Harbor Pilot in San Diego for 17 years before retiring to Sequim, Washington State with my wife Jessie Mills, where I became involved in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Sequim WA.

US Naval Ships served aboard:
1. USS Argonne AG31
2. USS Brule APA-66
3. USS McKean DD784
4. USS Whipstock YO33

Photo info