Chaplain’s WWII passion runs deep as living historian

LINCOLN — Mike Hills is a man of deep faith.

He attended Christian Tabernacle Academy, a private school in Lincoln, for grades K–12.

Then, after earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Delaware Technical Community College, he attended Southern Baptist pastor/televangelist Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. There he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Presently employed as a driver for DART paratransit for the elderly and disabled, the 49-year-old Milford native is a history buff.

World War II history is his passion; wartime history of Fort Miles and German submarines to be more specific.

“My dad was in the National Guard during Korea. He used to train at Fort Miles. I also had a grandfather during World War II who was stationed at Fort Miles as an MP (Military Police). On this one particular day back in 2011, I heard Donald Hattier … advertise about an event being held at Fort Miles. I’m like, ‘Wait a minute: I never remember dad saying anything about Fort Miles as WWII, just at what he trained. So, I wanted to go check it out,” said Mr. Hills. “And I never left.”

He got involved with the Fort Miles Historical Association, the Bunker Busters.

“As I would get days off or periods of time during the day I would go over and help John Roberts and some of those guys work inside the bunker of the museum. Anything they needed help with; I just wanted to get involved. It was a place where history came to life and you could touch it. And it was something you could be a part of. It was pretty cool and since my dad and my grandfather had been through there in the real military, it’s kind of my family heritage I guess of that Fort Miles thing,” Mr. Hills said.

“On my DART run I meet hundreds of people through the week. I would tell people about Fort Miles. Most of them didn’t ever hear anything about it. I wanted to learn more,” said Mr. Hills. “I got ahold of Mike Rogers who at that time was the state park historian. He was leading the tours. I got introduced to him and asked if could start tagging along on the tours to learn the history about the place. Eventually, I got to a point where he would let me do a little portion of the tour. Then, I was actually a certified docent at the park for doing the tours under his tutelage.”

Mike Hills, chaplain for the Harbor Defenses of the Delaware Living History Association, presents information on German submarine presence off Delaware’s coast during World War II.

It’s probably no earth-moving shock that Mike Hills serves as the chaplain for the Harbor Defenses of the Delaware Living History Association.

“On this one particular evening we were getting ready to do a lantern tour, which was a nighttime tour. I heard Mike Rogers and Donald Hattier talking about some kind of an event. They had a re-enactment group. I heard them mention that they would like to have a chaplain,” said Mr. Hills. “Now considering that I had been Christian schooled all of my life. I went to Liberty. I was saved and accepted Christ as my savior at a young age of six. I thought that it might be something I might be interested in some day — in the future. They signed me right up. They drafted me.”

Mr. Hills resides in Lincoln. He and wife Tina celebrated their 24th anniversary this week. They have a grown son Kaleb and daughter Jordyn, who attends school in Milford.

This week’s People to Meet: Mike Hills.

What’s your job with DART like?

“All of our drivers do all of Sussex County. So, if you want to know how to get somewhere ask a DART driver because we’ve probably been on that road. What I didn’t know is Sussex County is the biggest county of any county east of the Mississippi River. I think I’ve been on every road. Well, maybe not, but it feels like it. I’ve been with DART 8 ½ years. Before that I was in the trucking industry. I drove a truck for 18 years.”

What do you do in your spare time?

“History takes up a lot of my time. I do a lot of hunting, big deer. I used to do a lot of duck and goose hunting when I was younger. I do a lot of woodworking and that actually has helped because a lot stuff that we use for our events are things that I have built; tables … the crate that hauls the plotting board is one of the things that I have built.”

“And I like reading books. I never thought I would say that when I was younger but I love to read historical books and Christian books of different things of faith. As a chaplain that’s a good thing to do.”

You’re quite serious about your chaplain’s role?

“I do chapel services for the guys. I have researched a lot of what World War II chaplains did with their men, like how close they were, and so I have tried to do that in a modern-day world of me not being in the military. When my guys are having a birthday, I send them a card based on a World War II theme, or anniversary card for them and their wives. I make myself available that if they are in the hospital and they don’t have a pastor. I will go visit them in the hospital, just trying to make myself available in whatever avenues that I can be of help in, the things that a chaplain would be doing. Yes, I’ve taken it very seriously.”

“I always tell people that putting on the uniform is an impression and it’s a make-believe role, but you can’t fake bring a chaplain. That is something that has got to come from the heart. You can ask any of my guys and they will tell you I am pretty serious.”

“I only get to preach a couple times of the year. I started doing online devotionals. I never considered myself a writer but my paper is called the Harbor Light/Fort Miles. Basically, I will take a WWII story and then I’ll kind of bring the story to biblical principles to try to get a biblical message through a World War II historical point of view. They share them a lot of times with their wives or their kids or their friends. So, it’s something that may be of help. I’ve got a lot of good feedback on those things that encourage them in their daily lives. I don’t get to do it every month but I do my best, just letting them know that somebody cares. I’ve always tried to live to the idea of service before self. The saying I use is ‘People don’t care what you know until they know much you care.’”

Other duties with the Harbor Defenses of the Delaware Living History Association?

“My little portion of it is I keep track of all of the volunteer hours for our group to report to the state. When we do an event like Wings & Wheels I’ll take all the guys’ volunteer hours that were there, categorize them and I’ll send that report into the state. They get credit for it and all of that money goes to Fort Miles to help with the restoration.”

Mike Hills shares historical information on Fort Miles and the May 14, 1945 surrender of German submarine U-858.

Re-enactors or living historians?

“In my line of work when I find out I have a veteran I always thank them for their service. My life because of DART has shifted a little bit and the re-enacting. It is actually a big change. We actually consider ourselves living historians. A re-enactor I always thought was somebody that just puts on a costume and just walks around. These guys (veterans) are very knowledgeable. They can tell you if your button is wrong. Mike Rogers is phenomenal on how much he knows, plus he is in the military. I am constantly trying to learn of how to do something the military way. That is an ongoing thing. By his tutelage I have put together a really good impression. I try to look the part. A thousand people may not know the difference but people like that will. So, if we are going to honor them (military veterans) we need to do it right.”

A special passenger veteran greatly impacted you?

“One of the people that had a big impression on me was a guy I met on the bus. He was doing dialysis. His name was Leroy Chrobot. He had a little sawmill at his house. We got to know each other pretty well. He was at Normandy at Omaha Beach and at the Battle of the Bulge. He was 87 when we met. So, I was half his age. But when I would ask him questions to start with he was vague until he realized how knowledgeable I was about history and that I had a real passion to learn. We became really good friends. Because of him I realized how important it is for us to do it right and to pass that information on. We consider ourselves building the bridge between our veterans and the public of today. One thing we have found out is they will talk to us because of our historical knowledge.”

You reach out to aging WWII veterans and their families?

“I find that, and they’ve told me this many times, they didn’t want to talk about it when they were younger. And now that they are getting older they want somebody to know. When I have a veteran … I sometimes will pull family members aside, and ask, ‘Have you talked about it with your dad or mom? Ask them. They want to talk about it.’”

“Hopefully I have linked some families together. We build the bridge between our public today and our veterans of yesteryear. We’ve become their voice. LeRoy made a big impression on me. He donated me a lot of lumber that I have used to build a lot of things I have built in his memory. He has passed away. “

Lincoln resident Mike Hills points to historical information on U-858, the Fort Miles link to his extensive research on German submarines during World War II.

“It’s a personal thing and that’s why we take so much pride in making sure that our uniforms are spot-on.  A lot of things we use can’t be period because it’s hard to get things from 75 years ago to operate right. We try as best we can. But the things we can control we try to make it correct for their honor. They know the difference; they lived it for five or six years.”

Do you regret not serving in the military?

“My dad served during Korea. I had a brother that served during Vietnam, he wasn’t in Vietnam; he was in the Guard; a brother-in-law the same way.  That is something I never did and I regret that. And that’s another thing I guess that motivates me. I came close to joining in high school, the Marines, and Army later during college. But I didn’t. I regret that tremendously. When we have Veterans Day I wish I could be one of the ones standing. So, this is my way of serving.”

Your research on German submarines in WWII?

“I love the U-boat stuff. A listing on every U-boat, number of ships they sank, dates, ships and tonnage sunk. And the fate of the boat. It took about six to seven months.”

And how about U-858, which surrendered at Fort Miles?

“U-858, that was a very historical boat because that was the first enemy vessel to surrender in U.S. waters since the War of 1812 with the British. So that was kind of a historical boat.”

Your living history has a sentimental donation?

“John Roberts, he is head of the Bunker Busters. His grandfather was a chaplain in the Navy. He was onboard the USS Wyoming. The gun that we have in the bunker as a display came off the USS Wyoming. I got a call one day, ‘Mike, we’ve been going through our grandfather’s stuff.’ They found their grandfather’s communion kit. They donated his communion kit to me. It’s not only a family heirloom which I take tremendous pride in, but it is also off the USS Wyoming, the same ship we got our 12-inch gun. I’ve got the communion kit off the ship we got the gun from. It was given to me by the family. They entrusted me. It gives me shivers just thinking about the responsibility of honoring him with that too.”

You salute fellow living historians for their help?

“When I started I had nothing. Over the course of time, through Mike Rogers and Don Hattier, I now have this big trailer. Without these guys I would be struggling.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.