The Navy recognized a 102-year-old World War II veteran Thursday by inaugurating a new barracks in his name, a rare honor for a living recipient.
From his wheelchair, retired Chief Steward Andy Mills waved to the sailors attending the ceremony Thursday at the naval base, in Coronado, California, near San Diego. Mills told reporters softly before the ceremony that he was overjoyed by the honor.
"Oh beautiful," he told reporters when asked to describe how he felt seeing the barracks in his name, shaking his head side to side. "That's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen so far." He added moments later: "I think I have a lot of friends."
One of the maritime branch's first black chiefs, Mills risked his life for the service despite facing discrimination in a then-segregated Navy.
In 1942, Mills volunteered to board the USS Yorktown after it was attacked by the Japanese during the Battle of Midway. He cracked open a safe containing documents and bills on the heavily damaged ship. He and a paymaster stuffed them in a suitcase, got a rope and lowered it down off the ship before the Japanese attacked again, destroying the Yorktown and the USS Hammann next to it.
Capt. Stephen Barnett met Mills two years ago at an event in San Diego and said he was so moved by the man and what he had done that he wanted to honor him and have young sailors learn about the inspiring chief.
"He wasn't treated like his shipmates but it never stopped him from his duty — a duty he carried out with courage, honor and commitment — and that remains a cornerstone of his character now," Barnett told the crowd at the ceremony.
Mills vividly recalled to reporters one of the officers saying "but I need one of those black boys over there" to go back on board the ship after it had been attacked by the Japanese. Mills, one of two African American sailors on the ship, agreed to go.
When the paymaster accompanying him could not open the safe on the USS Yorktown, Mills asked if he could have a go at it.
"Click. I went up there and turned it. Click," he said, grinning. "Money fell all out of it."
Family friend Deborah Thompson, of San Diego, said it meant so much to his family to see him finally honored for his bravery.
"It brought tears to our eyes," she said as she held on to the back of Mills' wheelchair.
The barracks will house 934 sailors. Carrying their seabags on their backs, some of the sailors gathered around Mills for a photo in front of Andrew Mills Hall.