Colorful nonagenarian reflects on eventful life, which included Apollo space program
As if his full name, Rutledge Alexander Mills, doesn’t sound impressive enough, the affable nonagenarian has been allowed to use the title “Sir” since July 2018.
But all of his family and many friends in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez, where he lives with his wife, Carol, know him by his nickname, “Putty.”
“It started back in the 1940s when I went to Santa Barbara High School. Friends teased me about my nose looking like putty. They called me Putty Nose, and that got shortened to Putty,” said 96-year-old Mr. Mills, widely known as one of the more colorful characters in the Santa Ynez Valley for a number of reasons.
One of them is about that title “Sir,” which was bestowed upon him when he was awarded the French Legion of Honor Medal for his service in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.
“I was 19 at the time and serving with General Patton’s 3rd Army as an aircraft mechanic. The Battle of Bulge took place from mid-December to mid-January 1945. It was considered by many historians to be the turning point in the war,” Mr. Mills told the News-Press.
“It was one of the coldest winters on record, and there was a huge snowstorm. It was snowing so hard, our men had gotten separated from our ammunition and food trucks.”
Because of his mechanical expertise, Mr. Mills, along with a “handful” of other men, managed to move the trucks to a safe position after a great deal of difficulty.
“We tried to pull the ammunition truck up, but it was sideways and downhill and it wouldn’t move. So we hooked that truck up to a second truck and another wench . . . Then, the guys all got their shovels, and they dug holes for the wheels and everybody worked together . . . and the truck started coming up the hill and over the ridge. We had all of our ammunition, and we got the food truck, too,” he said.
“Seventy-five years later, someone started going through all the battle records because in every battalion, the guys write down everything. Somehow, the French president decided to look all the stuff up, and he found out that I was the one who did that. So he sent his representative to come over and present me with the French Medal of Honor.”
The order is France’s highest award and is conferred upon men and women, either French citizens or foreign nationals, for outstanding achievements in military or civilian life. Twenty-nine Legion of Honor Medals have been issued to date, and Mr. Mills was presented with the 28th in July 2018.
Born in suburban Philadelphia in 1923, he moved to Santa Barbara in 1930 and became an avid motorcycle rider, which he remains today.
“I loved riding my motorcycle so much that I became the youngest member of the Santa Barbara Motorcycle Club. I still ride all the time. I’ll quit when I’m 100, maybe,” said Mr. Mills, who owns five of them, all foreign models.
He claims to be the World’s Oldest Speedway Racer, but he doesn’t do tricks on the motorcycles anymore.
What kind of tricks?
“Standing up while riding, sitting backward on the bike while riding and jumping off while going 10 miles per hour, letting the bike run in circles and jumping back on,” said Mr. Mills, adding that his blended family of four daughters and nine grandchildren, “never gave it a second thought.”
He also did high speed sprint car racing in Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Creston with his friend Malcolm Roe.
Among the other vehicles on his six-acre property on North Refugio Road in Santa Ynez is the prototype Mr. Mills built for American astronauts to practice driving the Lunar Rover before their trip to the moon during the Apollo 17 landing in 1972.
When the idea of the moon rover project was proposed, it was designed by Boeing and subcontracted to Santa Barbara Research in Goleta.
“They needed someone with experience in hardware and driving off-road. Someone thought of me because I rode motorcycles,” said Mr. Mills, who moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., where the rover testing would be done on rocky desert terrain that replicated the moon’s surface.
He worked closely with Gene Shoemaker, a renowned geologist and astronomer who trained the astronauts for their geological activities. He also trained astronauts Gene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, Jim Irwin and Dave Scott how to maneuver it.
“NASA paid $41 million for four moon rovers, but I built my prototypes for $2,000 each, using supplies from my surplus military catalog,” he said. “I had a 90-day turnaround to build them and finished in 89 days.”
Although he enjoys looking back on his eventful life, Mr. Mills prefers to keep busy with a “bunch of things” — riding his motorcycles, working in his fully equipped machine shop, membership in a group called Quiet Birdmen.
Members, called QBs, must be invited to join, and they join for life. Today, the club’s membership, organized into regional “hangars,” is made up primarily of retired airline, military and freight pilots, as well as a few astronauts, according to Wikipedia.
Founded in 1921 by World War I pilots, the organization meets in various locations never announced to the public. It is also known as Ye Anciente and Secret Order of Quiet Birdmen.
“I don’t like to sit around,” said Mr. Mills. “I had a heart bypass about 10 years ago, but afterward, I got my energy back.
“The key to a good life at this age is to keep moving. I love studying history and spend a lot of time reading. It keeps the brain sharp and youthful.”