Veteran shares perspective about D-Day
By Dave Bergmeier
As Veterans Day nears, a Dodge City, Kan., businessman recalls the carnage of D-Day, the successful invasion of Normandy, France, that ended Nazi tyranny in World War II, and he does so with a dose of humility.
Bill Miller, now 91, takes time to answer questions about the June 6, 1944, invasion because he knows the World War II generation is dwindling. Miller watched D-Day from a ship near Normandy and waited for the command to go to Omaha Beach. Miller, who enjoys excellent health, occasionally gives public presentations about his experiences, as well as being on an Honor Fight, which takes veterans at no cost to see war memorials.
Miller has an appraisal service and continues to help farmers and businesses alike. With great pride he says he enjoys his field of work.
He does not see himself as a hero, rather as someone who grew up in the heartland, like many of his country cousins who joined up with their urban brothers to fight a common enemy in Nazi Germany. It was a war the Allied Forces had to win, he said, and it was the success of the D-Day invasion that military experts and historians alike agree was the turning point.
Veterans Day does offer a time to reflect, Miller said. As he thinks back on D-Day he remembers the sacrifices made by so many Americans, some who died on the battle front or from their injuries sustained during World War II. Others returned safely home and went about their lives. Many of them are now deceased. He also remembers and is thankful for the many people who provided support from the home front.
The early years
Miller grew up on a farm near St. John in Stafford County, Kan., and attended a one-room country schoolhouse where boys and girls from first to eighth grade were taught by one teacher. It was the place where he developed his abilities in arithmetic and spelling. During his stint in the military those skills proved valuable. Until after high school graduation and being drafted, he had not spent much time thinking about his future. World War II changed his life and millions others like him.
At age 20, Miller was drafted into the Army in February 1943 and was first assigned to the 149th Engineering Battalion Company B. He took a general aptitude test that had many math questions. He scored highly and that opened opportunities. Growing up in the heartland was good preparation, he said.
His dad told the younger Miller “how to work and to do what I was told,” which served Bill well in the Army whether on D-Day or through the months ahead leading up to V-E Day in May 1945 when the war ended on that front.
The advice his father gave Bill remains timeless. He likes to share it with younger generations. He also reminds them about the importance of taking advantage of educational opportunities.
His first assignment with the engineering battalion took him to Camp McCain, Miss., and they soon transferred to Fort Pierce, Fla., where he and the men in his unit started training for an amphibious invasion.
On one of the training days in which the unit appeared to be somewhat lackadaisical Miller can still remember Sgt. Collins telling the men, “When we start landing on the coast of France those Jerries (Germans) ain’t going to like it. Somebody’s going to get hurt.”
Miller becomes quiet for a moment because the epilogue had a painful moment in the aftermath of D-Day.
In September 1943, Miller was transferred to headquarters company 6th Engineer Special Brigade and Miller noted his clerical skills earned him another promotion to corporal when a company clerk made too many mistakes. In January 1944, he headed overseas and his vessel had to avoid German submarines and the challenge of rough waters and landed in Liverpool, England. His combat group was taken by train to Paignton, Devonshire, on the English Coast. After five months of training the group prepared for the largest invasion in modern history, which Miller says will never be duplicated.
In war times, an engineering battalion typically was involved with sweeping for mines, working with explosives and building bridges. Because of Miller’s clerical skills he was assigned other duties. The men he served with had difficult duties and they were courageous.
D-Day invasion, aftermath
On June 6 at 6:30 a.m., he recalled watching from the deck of a ship, about 3 miles from the French coast. A U.S. destroyer fired upon German fortified embankments. He saw many landing craft deployed, taking waves of allied troops and supplies for their duty to take the beaches. Aircraft dropped many paratroopers behind enemy lines. Miller went ashore on June 7, 1944.
Like many others that day, Miller waded through choppy waters, holding his gun above his head, to get on shore. The carnage was so traumatic he thought to himself, “nothing is worth this.”
He remembered training exercises in which the amphibious-designed Sherman tanks, a new piece of tactical equipment, with two-man crews, had special gear so they could maneuver under 3 feet waves of water. Unfortunately, the waves were 3- to 4-feet high and as a result only a handful of the original 35 tanks he saw made it to shore with the crews alive. Nearly all of the two-men crews drowned.
Miller said when he reached Omaha Beach the scene was unbelievable for the 21-year-old sergeant from central Kansas.
“Dead men in every condition that you cannot imagine were lined up along the beach road,” Miller said.
More than 9,000 allied soldiers died or were wounded on D-Day, according to the U.S. Army. The invasion force included 160,000 allied troops, 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft.
On June 8, 1944, he could recall walking on the beach and there was sporadic gunfire, a burning ammunition truck with lots of exploding shells and German prisoners of war huddled together.
In the days that followed D-Day there was much confusion. It was easy to get lost and Miller was one of them for one day but fate led him find his company commander.
“It was like finding your dad,” Miller said.
The commander assigned Miller with the task of reporting casualties, which was a job he performed over the next few weeks.
One of the difficult duties was finding out about the 149th Engineer Combat Battalion because 17 enlisted men died when the ship had been hit with a German shell causing the ship’s fuel to burn. Among the casualties was Sgt. Collins, the Moreland brothers, who Miller termed were two of finest specialists he had ever met, and other men who had become friends.
“That was tough,” Miller said. “We had 17 men out of my own company who had burned to death and I knew every one of them.”
Among the casualties he counted in the aftermath of D-Day was 1st Sgt. Collins.
Even today, he can remember how they all looked and acted when they were alive.
One of the casualties was Corporal Jack Lee, a teacher from Topeka, Kan., who had taken Miller’s place.
“He died instead of me on that day,” Miller said. “He was such a nice person. Why I am living, and he isn’t, I have no idea. I guess it is the luck of the draw.”
His duty was gut-wrenching work. He remembers an Army truck with the bed filled with bodies of GIs.
“What gets to you is that everyone is dressed like you,” he said.
Miller saw large separate graveyards. One had the bodies of 1,510 American soldiers and other had 606 Germans. It is tough to talk about, he said.
A general’s decisive action
He credited Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, an Abilene, Kan., native and five-star general who lead the Allied Forces in the European Theatre.
“Gen. Eisenhower had a tough task and he did a good job of pulling the allies together,” Miller said of the chief architect of the D-Day invasion.
He knew Ike carried the burden of assembling and ordering the invasion. The general’s decision to delay the start of the invasion by two days was risky, but proved to the right one. Ike knew that delaying the invasion carried a risk in that German leaders could be tipped off, Miller said. Fortunately that did not happen.
The invasion had been scheduled for June 4, but had to be delayed two days because of poor weather. German Chancellor Adolph Hitler and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had decided because of the weather they did not believe there was an opportunity for an invasion on June 6 so made other plans. Hitler wanted to rest and took a sleeping pill and Rommel planned to celebrate his wife’s birthday in Ulen, Germany, about 500 miles away from the landing.
The invasion started 6:30 a.m. on June 6 and Hitler and Rommel did not know about it until 3:30 p.m. As brutal as the fighting was, Miller said the head start was crucial because it kept German tanks under Rommel’s watch from attempting to drive the allies off the beach.
The wage of war has a high price tag.
“I realized the infantrymen battled the Germans, not the engineers,” he said. “I still remember when I walked up and around the beach there were dead men everywhere. The destruction was unbelievable of men and equipment.”
The success of D-Day allowed the allies to gain a foothold and continue marching onward toward Germany and ending the war 11 months later.
Miller was thankful the war ended May 8, 1945. Like many of those he served with, Miller did not immediately go home. He was promoted to master sergeant and could joke years later “that’s probably why I am an appraiser, I was good with numbers.”
Miller thought he would be transferred to the Pacific Theatre but when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s unconditional surrender.
After World War II
With the conclusion of both war theatres, Miller had to make another decision.
After all he experienced on the war front, he was ready to return home and get on with his life. Miller noted that many GIs made the same decision.
When he was discharged he had reached the rank of a master sergeant, a remarkable achievement for his young age.
“I should not have been a master’s sergeant but I was so good in math,” he quipped. “I almost stayed in the Army. I was so young and probably had a bright future.”
With the help of the GI Bill, Miller enrolled at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in business at the age of 27. He moved to Dodge City where he was involved in mortgage lending and eventually started his own appraisal service, which he continues to operate today. He has lived in Dodge City for 64 years and is active in the community. His years of public service included serving as mayor and being a selfless and tireless promoter of Dodge City’s western heritage.
It was a good place to raise his family, he thought, and continues to be proud of them.
Miller has been on the Honor Flight to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. He was encouraged by a friend in the community to go. Blessed by good health, he took his son, Mike, with him earlier this year. The intra-generational experience is a cornerstone of the Honor Flight program. Bill Miller liked that aspect and was glad he traveled to the nation’s capitol. He encourages veterans and their families to participate in the program.
Miller has not returned to Normandy, France. He never thought much about it, but with the 70th commemoration of D-Day set for June 6, 2014, it has crossed his mind.
He thinks about friends like William N. Marshall Jr., a member of the 336th Engineer Combat Battalion, who wrote in gripping details in his memoir “Omaha Beach Remembered.” Marshall received a Silver Star for clearing mines on June 6, 1944.
“Incredible,” Miller said about Marshall’s duty and many others who fought valiantly. “How he could remember every detail while not knowing if his next breath would be his last is amazing to me.”
The two men went to college at KU and remained friends until Marshall’s death in May 2011.
“Sometimes you do wonder why you’re still living,” he said, adding that Veterans Day is a time for him to remember his fellow soldiers who burned in the ship, robbed of their future by the pain of war. “Any one of my 17 friends who died never had an opportunity to see what was ahead for them like I have.”
As for himself, Miller eschews any thought that he was a hero.
“I did my job,” he said.
Miller will give a presentation, “Landing on Omaha Beach,” at 7 p.m. Nov. 11 (Veterans Day) at the Dodge City, Kan., Public Library.
Dave Bergmeier can be reached by phone at 620-227-1822 or by email at email@example.com.