Bakersfield High School students lined up on campus along California Avenue on Friday to welcome home James B. Mills, the 1958 Driller alumnus and Vietnam War naval aviator who was listed as missing in action for 52 years.
During the ceremony, students chanted "Once a Driller, always a Driller!" They sang the national anthem, held banners and waved American flags. Passing motorists sounded their horns in support as the students cheered.
“This is a very teachable moment, and the kids are embracing it big time,” said history and archiving instructor Ken Hooper. “They got here this morning before I did.”
Mills, a radar intercept officer, was just 26 when his fighter jet went down during a combat mission on Sept. 21, 1966. His remains, found after years of searching off the coast of Vietnam, were identified just weeks ago. The remains of James Bauder, the F-4B Phantom’s pilot, were identified last year.
"If he was part of my family, I would want to welcome him home," BHS senior Kareli Medina said of Mills. "He's a Driller. We are his family."
Alyssa Sargent, 17, said she learned from Hooper the significance of the discovery — truly a surprise ending no one ever expected.
Through Friday's sidewalk rally, Sargent said, students were able to share the news with the rest of the community.
For decades, the Mills family lived with no sure knowledge of whether Jimmy — as his sisters still call him — was alive or dead.
The crew's wingman never saw the plane go down. No distress call was heard. No wreckage was discovered in the aerial searches that followed.
All of that changed in recent days.
“We’re celebrating his past and his service.” said Mariah Rodriguez, 17, a senior at BHS. “He’s a Driller and he’s part of our legacy.”
Friday, Aug. 31, would have been Mills’ 78th birthday.
BHS is celebrating, as are many residents across the community.
Interment of Mills’ remains will be at Arlington National Cemetery, likely on June 19, 2019, said Mills’ sister Ann Mills Griffiths.