Take to the sky: World War II veteran honored with Dream Flight
Special to the Sierra Sun
Neighbors and family celebrated Willie Mills as the World War II veteran took to the skies Wednesday afternoon for an eagle-eye view of his Grass Valley home.
“I couldn’t find the steering wheel,” the 95-year-old Mills declared after being extracted from the front seat of a PT-17 Boeing Stearman, a 1942 training aircraft with an open cockpit.
Although the aircraft’s introduction into American military training coincided with Mills’ period of service — January 1945 to December 1946 — Mills said he mostly flew and worked on B-25s, AT-6s and C-24s.
Nevertheless, Mills said the he was grateful for the opportunity to look over his community, both for a view of recent fire damage and the trees turning color.
“It looks smaller than I thought it was,” Mills said of the section of scorched earth near Alta Sierra.
Mills’ military service took him to basic training in Michigan, to Langley Field in Virginia and then to the Philippines.
Before moving to You Bet Road in 1966, Mills and his wife traveled regularly between their home base in the Bay Area to Clear Creek, above Lake Amador.
Once their in-laws’ home out east was fully constructed, the Mills family followed.
Mills’ granddaughter, Katie Sapp, said she was grateful she and her two sons — 15-year-old Timmy and 13-year-old Jacob — could take part in the day’s celebration.
Although blood ties are close by, Mills established strong connections with neighbors through his weekly ice cream socials.
Between scheduling a flight on a 79-year-old plane for a World War II veteran, Debbie Lindh, Mills’ neighbor on Partridge Road in Grass Valley, scheduled his COVID-19 booster shot this Tuesday.
Lindh said she reached out to Dream Flights, the nonprofit dedicated to honoring former military through aviation adventures, to commemorate Mills’ two years of service.
She learned of the organization through a friend’s Facebook post, and thought that Mills’ service and stories were worthy of an honorary adventure.
Lindh said Mills has been a generous neighbor to her since he moved next door two years ago, adding that he hosts an ice cream social every Wednesday on his front porch — a conduit to regular check-ins and entertaining stories.
“(The neighborhood) is made up of interesting people that look out for each other,” said Karen Berndt, a regular attendee of the weekly socials.
Berndt said the gatherings were especially welcome given the isolation that accompanied the pandemic.
Aly Rieken was the crews chief on site for Dream Flights Wednesday. Rieken said she had a background in social work with a special interest in gerontology before getting into aviation.
The Reno resident said Dream Flights is a nationwide organization with a regional chapter she belongs to in Carson City. Normally, Rieken explained, the nonprofit’s flights are made available to all veterans. This year however, after flights completely halted due to COVID-19, the nonprofit prioritized World War II veterans.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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