At 92 years old Thomas W. Miller is still mentally as sharp as a bayonet, although after a fall last week he admits to feeling a little worse for wear physically. Sitting somewhat comfortably in the living room of his home of 54 years in Arlington, he periodically rubs his side under his thick Aran knit cardigan as we talk. “The doctor says I didn’t break any ribs, but every now and then I get a shooting pain,” he explained.
Miller, a USMC Private First Class, was fast asleep when the Japanese struck. He was part of a group of Marines guarding a Naval ammunition dump at the West Loch of Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December 1941. He had come off shift on the front gate the night before and crashed out in a small two-man tent behind the guard post. He was nineteen years old.
“I was awakened by what I thought were firecrackers,” he said. “I went to the door of the tent in my skivvies and asked what the hell was going on? PFC Albright, the Marine who was on duty was literally jumping up and down shouting ‘the damned Japs are bombing the Navy.’”
Miller took his clothes and ran out of the tent. “I was getting dressed and yelling at Albright ‘you don’t know that is true,’” he said.
Then a plane suddenly roared by. “For a split second I thought it was going to hit the water tower. Then it banked” – Miller moved his hands through the air tipping the imaginary plane on its wing – “and we could see the big red ‘meatballs’ as we later got to calling them.” Both Albright and Miller screamed ‘sound the alarm’ at exactly the same time.
Within fifteen minutes all they could see of the Navy yard was smoke and planes diving into the smoke. And then survivors started swimming in. “I remember the first two were cooks, one from a ship called the (USS) Oglala and one from the (USS) West Virginia. One of them was covered in oil. We opened our lockers to them,” he said.
Sitting in the dying afternoon light listening to Mr. Miller’s life I couldn’t help but be impressed by his mental acuity. We journeyed down all kinds of byways and asides in our hours together, weaving backwards and forwards in time and relationships and details. He never failed to know a name, a rank or a date or to have another funny or barely related side note. It was mesmerizing. For someone who has only read a minimal amount of history it was like sitting with a human bridge back in time. A lifetime.
“I did my job and some of it was dangerous,” he recalled. “But I never did anything spectacular. There were so many people who made all kinds of sacrifices. My greatest accomplishment is that I didn’t get killed.”
In 1939 a young Tom Miller had been delivering copies of the Times Picayune in New Orleans. “I used to be able to ride my bike no hands, fold a paper, and throw it,” he said. He had just completed delivery of a hundred or so copies when they were called back to the ‘depot.’ “It was someone’s garage,” he laughed.
“We were given ‘Extras’. I had to walk back through these streets shouting, ‘Extra, Extra’ … and maybe ‘Nazis Invade!’ … or … ‘War has started!’ something like that. People were coming out in their nightclothes,” he said.
In 1940 a group of U.S. Marine reservists visited Miller’s high school and set up a bunch of weapons. “They were in their dress blues, but that didn’t impress me as much as the weapons. I asked one of them if I joined would I be able to fire one of these weapons.”
Being only seventeen Miller had to talk his father into signing him into the Marine Corps program. “It didn’t take much convincing. In thinking back on my life I wonder if he thought that this would toughen me up,” he said. Miller’s course was set.
Buck Private Miller went active duty in 1940 along with the rest of Company C of the 10th Battalion Marine Reserve and shipped out for San Diego – where they merged into G Company of the 2nd Battalion 6th Marines all en-route to Hawaii. “I hadn’t been on a train before that trip. It took us three nights and two days to get there. Then they loaded us an old repair ship in Vallejo, California. It was an old, old ship like a coal carrier or something.”
“I have been under the Golden Gate Bridge three times now,” he said.
Miller was horribly seasick on the journey and remembers it as being a miserable ten days getting to Hawaii. “I remember arriving. After a long time at sea in a stinky ship I could smell the flowers. I can almost still smell the mixture of aromas.”
In the years following the chaos of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller quickly rose through the ranks, made Corporal in January 1942, and Sergeant in July 1942. By 1944 at 22 years old he was Gunnery Sergeant Miller, a fire direction chief of an artillery unit with the 1st Battalion, 13th Marines as part of the 5th Marine Division. “There was a war on they needed to fill out the ranks,” he said jokingly.
In December of 1944 Miller boarded a ship out of Hawaii to Saipan. At Saipan in February they were loaded onto a smaller 300 foot long LST (Landing Ship Tank) – destination ‘Island X.’
“I remember standing on that deck … we had been told to get rid of any identification. I had my wallet out, tearing up anything that had my name or unit on it. Which is when it hit me – that the only reason I was doing this was because I might get killed tomorrow,” he said.
Mr. Miller got out an aging framed color map and we leaned over it together. “Iwo Jima,” he said, “the map I carried ashore in 1945.” Hands with only the slightest tremor picked out details from his memory – the landing beach, exit beach and the artillery command post.
The initial waves of Marines assaulted Iwo around 8 a.m. on February 19th. Miller’s artillery detachment waited offshore watching the assault with trepidation and waiting to get called in. “It was a couple of miles to shore. We could see everything.” At 3 p.m. they rolled off the open front of the LST in an amphibious vehicle and headed through choppy seas towards the battle.
“We landed on Red Beach 2. When we got to shore I could see rounds landing on the beach, but not close to where I was. All of the artillery batteries landed piecemeal. The front line wasn’t very far away from us. It wasn’t till late that night or the next day before we were organized. It was just a matter of steeling oneself while all of this crap was going on.”
The artillery battery command set up tents in two side-by-side shell craters just off the beach. On the first night a Japanese shell came in on the artillery message center tent set up in the adjacent shell hole. “It was fifteen feet away. I was lying on my side. I saw a purple light, which must have been something in my brain caused by the concussion I guess,’ he said. “It killed eleven men.”
“When daylight came we could hear this crackling. I lifted the tent flap up. And just as I did an LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked) exploded. And I pulled the thing (tent flap) down again,” he said laughing at his frightened younger self “As if that was going to help!”
“I was there the whole battle. 36 days. You never escaped that threat of death.”
Miller’s worst moment paradoxically came after the battle was over, while on board a ship at night waiting to leave Iwo Jima. “I was in a bunk in the hold when an air-raid alarm sounded. All of the hatch covers had been taken off so our artillery pieces could be loaded down through the decks. You are not supposed to go up on deck during General Quarters, but I knew I had to get up on deck and get out in the air. I just had this horrible feeling that it (the bomb) was going to come right down through those hatches. It was irrational. But I was truly scared.”
We took a break for a cup of tea. He sat on a small kitchen stool, walking stick between his knees, while I boiled the water and then sat down to sketch him.
“I have had some interesting experiences. Little vignettes. And I guess if you put them all together it amounts to something. I hope that maybe all of the little things that I have accomplished in my time amount to something. It is not any one thing that anyone does. But we all laid our lives out there. And so many lives got cut off way, way too short,” he said.
Miller finally quit the Marine Corps in 1952 after spending much of the postwar period in Germany. He had learned Russian and had a job listening to broadcasts from behind the Iron Curtain and interrogating defectors. He met his wife Susanne in Munich in 1951. A German national, she had survived the bombing of Berlin. In 1953 Mr. Miller started work for the CIA. He worked there for the next 36 years as a Russian expert.
Mr. Miller’s wife of 61 years died in August of 2012. They had one daughter together, her name was Daphne.
“I got to thinking in the last few years what a stupid thing a war is. It goes against everything that we are taught about the sanctity of life. But how can you eliminate it?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Faces of the Fallen” is the Post’s comprehensive and searchable database of U.S. service members who have died in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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