Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: Delaware County Times
Date: August 2, 2002
Byline: Ed Gebhart

Flying was in Bob Mills' family, and in WWII, it came in handy

It had to be the greatest mismatch since David picked up that sling and took on Goliath. In this corner, weighing about 145 pounds and standing all of 5-foot-6, we have Bob Mills, a latter-day David flying a Grumman TBF torpedo plane. In the other, we have about three-quarters of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Forget Goliath. At the time, the Japanese navy was more like Godzilla. It hardly seemed fair, but somehow Mills lived to tell about it. He can even laugh about it now, sitting on the porch of his home on the Delaware River in Essington. The rest of the county was sweltering that day, but on Mills' porch the breeze off the river was cool and even the roar of jets taking off and landing at Philadelphia International Airport couldn't diminish the moment. The airplane engines drowned out conversation every five minutes or so, but Mills was used to it. It's a noise he's been hearing all his life. At an age when most kids were hoping to drive Dad's Model T, Mills was flying a float plane. He's 82 now and he's still flying.

"I'll be flying as long as I can pass my annual physical," he said.

Judging by the spring in his step, the strength in his handshake and the clarity of his mind, he'll be flying for a long time.

Unless you're an aviation buff, you're probably unaware that Delaware County has its own seaplane base. It sits on 11 acres near the end of Wanamaker Avenue in Essington, just east of the Lagoon night club. Passenger airline pilots know about it. They can see the planes on their landing approach to the airport.

Quite a few of them make it a point to get checked out on float planes while resting between flight assignments. Mills, naturally, is their instructor. They could hardly have a better one.

The Philadelphia Seaplane Base has been operated by the Mills' family since 1915. That's the year Bob's dad, Frank Mills, leased the property and was hired to assemble a Curtis Flying Boat for its purchaser, Robert Glendenning. At that time, there were probably no more than 500 airplanes in the entire country.

That same year, Frank Mills started the Philadelphia School of Aviation. Business shot up the following year when the government made an attractive proposition to college students. "We'll pay for flying lessons," Uncle Sam said, "but in the event we go to war, you'll be flying for me."

Shortly thereafter, the army took over the base and there were 500 military types all over the place.

After the war, Frank Mills began flying the U.S. Mail on the New York-Philadelphia-Washington, D.C. route, picking up a nifty $3,600 per year. By 1936, he had saved enough money to purchase the 11-acre plot from Philadelphia. He paid $10,500 for it.

When his son Bob sold it in 2000, the price tag had climbed to $2.15 million!

Mills now leases the property, which in its early history was the Lazaretto, a quarantine station for boats entering the port of Philadelphia.

When World War II came along, the government shut down all private flying and the seaplane bases. There were too many industrial plants along the Delaware — from Westinghouse in the east to Sun Oil in the west — and sabotage was a concern.

Unable to fly, Bob Mills went to work for the Naval Aircraft Factory at the Navy Yard. But by June 1942, he knew he had to get back into a cockpit and joined the Navy. He passed all the tests for flight training, but almost got dropped when the interviewing officer noticed dirt under Bob's nails. "Can't have a naval officer with dirty fingernails," the officer stormed. Mills had to explain that he still was working as a mechanic and hadn't had time to clean up.

On the day he was to be sworn in, the officer told him that if he flunked out of flight school, he would automatically be made a Seaman Second Class and put on a ship.

"Hold on," Mills said, "I'm a first-class aviation mechanic. Wouldn't that be a waste of talent to make me a seaman?"

"Your jacket's closed," was the reply. "Take it or leave it."

Mills left it and returned to his factory job. The next day his boss asked what had happened. "What was the officer's rank?" asked his boss, a lieutenant commander. "He was an ensign," Mills replied. His boss said, "You get back there tomorrow."

That's how Bob Mills, dirty fingernails and all, became an aviation cadet.

Upon graduation, he asked to be a fighter pilot. The Navy decided he'd look better piloting a torpedo plane.

"I figured we lost so many torpedo plane pilots during the Battle of Midway, the Navy was a little short," Mills said.

Mills, of course, was too late for Midway. But he'd be right on time for the Battle of Leyte Gulf ..and the biggest battleship in the history of the world.

NEXT: "The best-laid plans," etc., etc., etc.

Ed Gebhart is a retired public relations executive and works part-time in the Delaware County Department of Public Relations. His column appears Friday and MOnday.