As a black sailor in the segregated U.S. Navy, Andy Mills learned to pick his battles. Except when he couldn't.
Midway, for example.
That famous battle in June 1942 turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific. Mills was there, as chief steward aboard the doomed carrier Yorktown, playing a small but memorable role that spoke of character and determination -- so much so that decades later a barracks at North Island Naval Air Station was named after him.
Mr. Mills, a longtime San Diego resident, died May 18 at Mission Hills Health Care. He was 103.
"He came into the Navy at a time when African-Americans were only allowed to do certain jobs, and he overcame the obstacles," said retired Rear Adm. John "Mac" McLaughlin, president and CEO of the USS Midway Museum, the aircraft carrier on the Embarcadero that's named after the storied battle. "He endeared himself to all of us."
Born March 10, 1915 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the third of seven children, Mr. Mills grew up on a farm. The racial injustice he perceived as a child -- in particular two black men fatally shot by white police officers -- convinced him to leave the South, he told the Union-Tribune in a 2008 interview.
When he was 19, he enlisted in the Navy. A year later, in 1935, he was sent to San Diego, where he felt more welcome, but still limited in the kind of work he was allowed to do. He became a steward, making meals and cleaning rooms. He wasn't even allowed to walk through the white living quarters.
"It just kind of tears you up," Mr. Mills later recalled.
Even after he was promoted to chief petty officer, one of the first blacks to achieve that rank, there were some who saw him in his uniform and accused him of impersonation. At night, when the lights went out, they hurled epithets in his direction.
"He went through a lot, but he loved his country and he wanted to do right by it," said Debbie Mills, a niece.
In interviews, Mr. Mills said he and other blacks understood that they were under a microscope, watched by white people expecting them to fail. If instead they succeeded, they knew the way would be paved for later civil-rights reforms, he said.
At the Battle of Midway, named for a strategically located atoll in the Pacific, the Yorktown was hit by Japanese bombs and torpedoes on June 4, 1942, and the crew was ordered to abandon what was presumed to be a sinking ship.
But it didn't sink, and the next day a salvage party was assembled. Mr. Mills, the captain's steward, volunteered.
They put out fires, pumped out water and brought the ship close to even keel. The paymaster decided things were stable enough to go below and retrieve the payroll and other papers, and he brought along Mr. Mills for help.
When the paymaster fumbled with the lock on the safe, Mr. Mills stepped forward and got it open. So many coins spilled out they covered his shoes.
"Don't bother with the silver," he remembered the paymaster saying. "Get the green stuff and let's get out of here."
After stuffing a valise with what he later estimated was close to a half-million dollars, they made it back to the flight deck, where Mr. Mills attached the satchel to a rope so he could lower it onto a destroyer anchored next to the carrier.
Just then, more Japanese torpedoes arrived, cutting the destroyer in two and hammering the Yorktown. For the second time, the crew abandoned ship. This time, the carrier sank.
Sent back to San Diego, Mr. Mills stayed in the military through the end of the war and a few months beyond, leaving in late 1945. He worked stints at a local country club and a bank, and then settled into a 30-year career as a mail carrier.
In retirement, he enjoyed golfing and hosting get-togethers at his townhouse near Seaport Village.
After the Midway Museum opened in 2004, Mr. Mills visited for reunions and public ceremonies. "He was kind of our poster child," McLaughlin said. "He had great stories to share, and an important perspective because of the injustices committed against him."
But he wasn't bitter, according to those who knew him. At last year's 75th anniversary of the Midway battle, where he was one of six survivors in attendance, Mr. Mills said, "I'm just happy to be here."
Two months later, in a ceremony at North Island, the Navy dedicated Andy Mills Hall, a 900-bed barracks for young sailors -- a rare nod to a living person.
"He wasn't treated like his shipmates, but it never stopped him from his duty," Capt. Stephen Barnett told the crowd, which was packed with the modern-day equivalent of stewards. "His example will serve as a daily reminder to the sailors who go out and face the same danger."
Later, according to his niece, Mr. Mills called the barracks "the most beautiful thing I have ever seen." It didn't escape his notice that the building is visible across the bay from the flight deck of the Midway.
Survivors include a daughter, Carol Howard, of San Diego; a grand-daughter; and numerous cousins, nephews and nieces.
This article is written by John Wilkens from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.