By Linda Kor
When Richard Miller first learned that his father, Jay Miller, was held as a prisoner of war during World War II it wasn’t from photographs and stories shared as he grew up, but from a friend when he was a teenager. “It was the first time in my life that I was aware that something like this happened to my dad,” he recalled, thinking perhaps his brother may have told him something years earlier, but this was the first awareness he really had of what it meant. After he was told he asked his dad about the experience, but Jay was reluctant to speak about it.
It wasn’t until several years later, while going through an old trunk that had been previously overlooked, that Richard found the telegram. It was a Western Union telegram, common in an era of little or no phone serv-ice. The telegram was from the War Department. It was dated February 1945 and was sent to inform the Mill-ers at their home in Joseph City that their son, Sgt. J.N. Miller, was missing in action and presumed dead. Richard later learned that when the Millers received this notification, they were given little hope that their son might still be alive. Still, the family waited anxiously until a month later when they received another telegram, this one telling them that their son was safe and well, and would be coming home.
Since that discovery many years ago, Richard has learned a great deal more about his father’s experience as a radio operator/waist gunner with the Ninth Air Force stationed in France.
Recently Jay, his wife Sarah May, who still resides in Joseph City, and his son Richard visited The Trib-une-News hoping to find a piece of history from that time that had been lost to them. It was found in an old bound volume of a newspaper printed on April 6, 1945. The item was a letter, written to Jay’s father and re-printed in its entirety in what was then called The Holbrook Tribune News. The letter was written in the weeks following Miller’s plane being gunned down over enemy territory.
In it was a detailed account of Miller’s 10th and final mission before his plane was shot down over Ger-many, killing several of his fellow crewmen and leaving him in enemy territory. Miller was on one of three aircraft, each carrying 28, 100-pound bombs. Their mission was to ensure that the other aircraft in their squad-ron, each carrying two one-ton bombs, were able to reach their destination and take out a bridge over the river Sieg, near the Rhine River deep in enemy territory.
“We’d done this type of mission before, but I think what made the difference this time was that cloud cover rolled in and visibility was too low, so the bombers had to come around again. I think it gave the enemy time to calibrate their weapons,” recalled Miller, whose aircraft held five other men, William Huskey of Oklahoma, Arthur Sunday of Florida, and Richard Whippy, Ted Reiser and Fred Siegfried, all of Ohio.
Miller, who was about 22 at the time, wrote to his father, “We had gone thru one barrage of flak (anti-aircraft shells) without damage and then thru a second barrage, which did hit our plane with two or three small pieces. No serious damage was done up to this point, however. We started into another place where the flak was thick enough to walk on and got a big hole blown in our bomb bay. Then another near miss tore a hole in our right wing and the main gas tank, setting the tank on fire. The gas leaking out of the tank and burning made us look like a comet going thru the air as the flames went out about 50 feet past the tail of the plane. The flames were also going in the hole we had in the bomb bay and giving it the appearance of a furnace inside. As we still had a full load of bombs we knew we had better get out and get out quick. I lifted my machine gun out of one of the waist windows and threw it overboard so we could get out of the window. We then started jump-ing out. I jumped out third. After about five seconds I pulled the ripcord and my chute opened with a jerk that is about equal to running into a wall. From then on down you float nice and slow.”
Miller hit the top of a small pine tree about 15 feet off the ground and he fell an additional nine feet. He unbuckled his chute and made the decision to get out of the area quickly before someone came to investigate what had happened.
Miller walked about a mile before deciding to hide until darkness fell. Under cover of night he then began walking toward allied territory, approximately 50 miles away.
“I had worn a pair of civilian dress shoes and walking thru the mud and water got my feet wet and they began to swell up; by night they were swollen to about twice their normal size and I knew I had trench foot,” he wrote.
Miller knew he could go no further and made camp by a nearby stream, but had no food to eat except a few pieces of candy. He remained there for nine days and although his feet were still very sore, his hunger became too much to bear and he decided to give up if he couldn’t find food soon. He made his way to a small German town and hid in the bushes during the night as he decided how to proceed. In the morning he was discovered by German soldiers and taken to where they had housed other prisoners.
“They didn’t treat me very bad, but they didn’t give me much to eat. Their menu consisted of some soup for breakfast, a cup of tea for dinner, which we had to drink as they didn’t give us any water, and a couple of slices of German sour bread with margerine for supper,” the letter read.
He was in the prison for two days when word was received that the Americans were closing in and his German captors pulled out, leaving behind Miller and the other prisoners who were unable to walk. With the uncertainty of where to go, and their weakness from hunger and pain, the men remained in hiding where they were for two more days.
As Miller read through the letter he had written more than 67 years before he recalled, “There was a Rus-sian prisoner that had gone out scouting to see if he could spot anyone and he came back yelling, ‘Americans, Americans.’” Miller had the Russian lead him to the American soldiers, where he was able to relate their story, and he and the other men were taken in and given warm food and medical care. “Believe me I don’t think I will ever equal the thrill I had when I saw those boys. I certainly will never forget it,” he wrote.
Miller, who was already thin, had lost 50 pounds through his ordeal and was finally sent to a hospital in France where he could recuperate. He learned that all three of the bombers had been shot down that day and that three of his fellow crewmen, Huskey, Whippy and Reiser, died when their plane exploded.
It was while at the hospital in France that Miller received the best news he’d received in a long time: he was going home. He reported to Camp Lucky Strike near Le Havre, France, where he waited several days for a ship to take him home and received an unexpected surprise. “There were thousands of people at this camp and the chow lines were about three or four thick and long. I’m standing in line and I look over and see the tail gunner from my plane in another line. I make my way to him and as we’re talking, I look to another line and see my other crewmate. We were all together, it was really something,” recalled Miller. Miller finally made it home and after a 60-day furlough, returned to duty for a short time.
In recognition of his service, Miller was awarded the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster, European Theater of War with star and a Presidential Unit Citation.
“There’s not too many of us left, those of us who were there,” stated Miller.
When asked why he never talked to his son about the war he said, “It wasn’t easy to talk about, not even after all the time that had passed.”
But now, with the lost letter found, Miller’s family will have the opportunity to learn from him firsthand what will soon only be found in history books, the story of a true American hero who survived the deadliest war in the world.
By Linda Kor