William Hills, of Freeport, Illinois, celebrated his 97th birthday Jan. 29 with a special gift from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, headquartered at Fort Drum, New York, with help from the Illinois Army National Guard.
“We’re here in honor of William Hills who served in the original 10th Mountain Division during World War II,” Lt. Col. Eric Smith, of Springfield, Illinois, Deputy Logistics, Illinois Army National Guard (ILARNG) said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to help you celebrate your 97th birthday. We don’t want to overlook your impact on the military and this community.”
Hills, who served in the Po Valley and North Apennines campaigns in Italy, was presented a flag flown in Afghanistan by the 10th Mountain Division. Smith, a member of the Illinois Army National Guard (ILARNG), who recently served with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan, was on hand to make the presentation to Hills.
Hills originally served in the Veterinary Corps working with dogs and mules. He later became the driver of the colonel who was leading the setup of advanced headquarters posts as the front advanced through the Po Valley.
Smith said the presentation to Hills came about when a friend of Maj. Gen. Greg Knight, the Adjutant General of Vermont, who hunts on property near Hills’ hometown in Illinois passed along Hills’ military affiliation to Knight. Knight then reached out to Maj. Gen. Brian J. Mennes, Commander, 10th Mountain Division.
“The 10th Mountain Division is deployed to Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. Knight asked Maj. Gen. Mennes to fly a flag in Mr. Hills’ honor and send a note,” Smith said. “Maj. Gen. Knight thought it would be better if a member of the Illinois National Guard made the presentation.”
Hills told his fellow residents at the Oakley Courts Assisted Living and Memory Care facility in Freeport, Illinois, he doesn’t think he deserves the attention.
“I didn’t think about my military experience,” said Hills. “I just served my country. The military provided me all my education.”
Hills earned his masters degree and 30 hours towards a doctorate courtesy of the GI Bill.
“It’s hard to express my gratitude in words,” Smith said during the presentation. “You serve as a great example.”
Smith, who recently served as the Commander of the ILARNG’s Bilateral Embedded Staff Team (BEST) A24, which returned from Afghanistan in May 2020, shared with Hills the BEST A24 fell under the 10th Mountain Division.
“As part of the State Partnership Program, we served alongside the Polish military in both Afghanistan and Iraq,” Smith explained. “In World War II, the friendly forces adjacent to the U.S. forces in the Po Valley were members of the Polish military.”
Hills shared memories of his time in the military.
“The Army showed me the world that I would never had been able to see any other way,” he said.
Hills said he was in Paris, France, on the first Bastille Day celebration after the German’s occupancy was removed.
“It was the wildest celebration I’ve seen,” he said.
Hills also talked about the welcome the Allies received from the Italians.
“As we would pull into Italian towns, the local people would swarm our vehicles and offer heartfelt thanks,” he said. “They were completely broken. The Germans had come through and taken every single thing and executed most men and teenaged boys. They treated the American forces as the liberators they had been praying for.”
Hills also shared a memory of the colonel he was driving for commandeering a large villa from a woman.
“She was very upset and worried the military would destroy the art and furnishings she had,” he said. “Myself and another Soldier wrapped up and moved all the art and non-essential furniture into a nearby shed for safekeeping.”
Another memory involved what began with being invited to dinner by an Italian family, but ended with Hills and another Soldier sharing their C-rations with the family.
“We were invited to Easter dinner by an Italian family,” Hills said. “When we arrived, we found out the family had essentially no food, so we broke out our C-Rations and divided it up with the family. When we departed, we left behind all the food we had with us.”
Hills served in the U.S. Army from Nov. 4, 1942 until Dec. 15, 1944. Among his awards and decorations are the Bronze Star medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal, the World War II Victory medal, and Good Conduct medal.