ORANGE PARK – Primary sources of World War II – the oral history of those who fought, saw their comrades killed and came back to a changed nation – are rare now. Their stories can be …
ORANGE PARK – Primary sources of World War II – the oral history of those who fought, saw their comrades killed and came back to a changed nation – are rare now. Their stories can be side-splitting, poignant and thoroughly engrossing.
We have the movies, the video games and the ceremonies. Without actively remembering, Omaha Beach, Mount Suribachi and Dunkirk have become footnotes in a history book. Luxury apartments and stadiums can replace the bombed-out buildings: look at modern-day London. In person, concentration camps can appear like an orderly series of buildings. Entire lifetimes have come and gone since Nazi-led Germany began encroaching into Eastern Europe. The centennial of Pearl Harbor is 19 years away.
The war involved about 19 million U.S. men and women with about 418,000 Americans dying throughout the war, according to the National World War II Museum. In the U.S., most statistics point to there being fewer than 250,000 veterans of the war alive.
The Purple Heart is the oldest and one of the most recognizable military decorations a soldier can earn. There were more than a million Purple Hearts awarded in World War II. Cliff Miller, a father of two, 60-year husband of Maxine, a contractor, a soldier and a saboteur, has two of them.
Miller, 96, stepped off a golf cart and entered s a meeting room last week not far from his Moosehaven residence. He carried a display case of medals his grandson organized for him. Other than the Purple Hearts, the medals are for his service in occupied Germany and France. He also pointed to a medal of good conduct.
“That one is kind of hard to believe,” he said with a laugh.
Miller’s story began with a fight, a busted lip and an expulsion. He hailed from Sterling Rock Falls, Illinois, which is 115 miles west of Chicago. Eight decades removed from the incident, there’s a sense he’s told this story many times because it unfurled so fast.
“I’m taking a drink at a drinking fountain. A guy comes along and taps me on the back of the head into the spout. I cut my lip and bruised my tooth there,” Miller said while pointing to his tooth. “I turned around and I cleaned his clock. There’s an empty locker there, I put him in it, took a padlock and locked it. Somebody let him out right away. So, here comes the president of the school. ‘Miller, I’ve got to have a talk with you.’ … He says, ‘Don’t you know his brother is a deputy sheriff?’ Well, I wasn’t fighting his brother. … I didn’t hurt him that bad. He hurt me worse than I did (to him).”
At 17-and-a-half, Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army on Dec. 2, 1943. He trained at Camp Blanding and Ft. Meade, Maryland. He visited the Clay County installation since. He served under Gen. Omar Bradley, one of the most distinguished generals of the period. Bradley was known as a soldier’s general.
After Miller took shrapnel in the ankle, he soon returned to combat. An artillery strike near Bastogne killed two fellow soldiers and concussed Miller. He was flown to Paris presumed dead due to losing consciousness for three days.
“I woke up in Paris and there was a nurse working on me. I look at her, sit up in bed,” Miller recalls, “I go, ‘Who in the hell are you?’”
Losing an eardrum and most of his teeth, he stayed at the hospital for five weeks.
“I did not know they even picked me up,” he said.
Back from the hospital with the Allies pushing toward Berlin, Miller’s role was sabotaging enemy lines with five squadmates. His focus was on cutting gas lines and providing coordinates of bridges to artillery. He remembered the travel, the waiting, the fear.
“The Germans are all over the place,” Miller said. “A lot of people can’t imagine that. We’d look for anything that looked like it had gas, or a pipe out there. If there were fumes going out of there ... we’d used to take a match and light it.”
Shuttling behind enemy lines required constant vigilance. His squad wore regular uniforms and had to listen for engines, voices even the breaking of twigs in the forest. Anything that could give them away.
Miller recalled attempting to blow up a tank when his squad came across a lone 15-year-old German soldier standing watch. They captured the soldier and debated what to do with him.
The troops didn’t carry large amounts of explosives, which meant they often had to call in support. The destruction of one bridge sticks in his mind.
“I’d get on the phone with the artillery, and give them the coordinates of where to hit. (The artillery officer) dropped the first one right in the middle of the bridge,” Miller said. “He said, ‘Who in the Hell are you? I want to meet you. I’ve never had anyone give me those kinds of coordinates before.’ I told him I was just a soldier, I guess. I would have liked to have met the guy.”
Toward the end of the war, the United States and the Soviet Union flanked Nazi Germany from the east and west, respectively. Allied troops witnessed the remnants of the Holocaust. Miller doesn’t remember which of the death camps he saw, but the smells and the memories of the stacks of bodies stayed with him.
The experience made him sicker than he had ever been, he said.
“I never was that sick in my life,” Miller said. “That’s something you always remember.”
Miller explained that the captured German soldiers toward the end of the war would ask the Americans what took them so long.
“I said, ‘Let’s leave him here.’ We talked to him. He could speak English,” Miller said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to be here, but I’ve got to be here.’ … With the Germans, you do what they tell you to do. We destroyed the telephones so he couldn’t call. … We took off.”
Miller laughed when he described camp life and soldiers, specifically the British, searching for Scotch whisky. He had three brothers serve during the war. At one point, Miller recognized his brother Gordon’s division. Miller remembered playing cards in a tent when someone told him.
Miller asked Bradley if he could see Gordon and the two saw each other for the first time in a few years in a tearful, albeit brief reunion.
“(A soldier) says, ‘Your brother’s here!’” Miller said. “I said, ‘By God, he is in the Eighth Army, isn’t he?”
When the war was over, Miller returned to Illinois. He married Maxine on June 12, 1948. They had a boy and a girl. After a series of odd jobs, Miller built custom homes for more than 40 years.
“It wasn’t very good (at first),” Miller said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. … I just broke out and started my own business.”
He later drove a shuttle, taking veterans to a local VA Hospital. He’s been at Moosehaven for about four years.
Miller put his hat back on and tucked his display case to his side. His handshake is still strong; he built more than homes. With the door open, his voice rose above the din of U.S. Highway 17.
“What I did was nothing more than what millions of others did,” he said.
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