The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 17, 2013

Been there, done that

By John Blankenship
Register-Herald Reporter

— With uncommon wisdom, intelligence and humility, Thurman Miller, 93, a native West Virginian and a resident of Maple Fork Road near Bradley, is a member of the Greatest Generation. He spins a gripping tale through peace and war, work and family, love and redemption across 10 tumultuous decades in his autobiographical work “Earned in Blood.”

His book provides a highly personal, close-up look at the savage World War II battles at Guadalcanal and New Britain between U.S. forces and the Imperial Japanese Army.

Born in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, Miller was the 16th of 18 children in a family so poor, the local coal miners’ kids looked down on them. His father was a subsistence farmer and it was rare for the Miller family to have enough food for everyone.

But for Miller, Appalachia was not just a region: It was culture, a frame of mind, a kind of being. Fighting, playing and hiding in the hills would soon serve him well.

In 1940, he enlisted and served in World War II with the legendary unit K-3-5 of the First Marine Division. He was involved in some of the most horrific and famous battles in the Pacific Theater, including Guadalcanal and New Britain, where as gunny sergeant he sent men to their deaths and narrowly escaped it himself.

From harrowing battlefield experiences to the loss of comrades, his powerful combat experiences would stay with him forever.

“I thought it would be good if someone, anyone, would write a book strictly from the foxhole and the coal mine — what it meant to be on the front lines.”

As far as the battlefront was concerned, things soon became brutal as patrols were literally slaughtered and horrific combat clashes ensued, Miller said.

“Practically speaking, we got down to a place where we conducted war like they (the enemy) did — we had no feelings for them. You have to get like that in order to fight a war. We really threw the book out the window.”

While pursuing a Japanese general up the coast of New Britain, Miller’s men sneaked up on a long hut full of laughing, card-playing Japanese soldiers.

“All of a sudden, we just tore into it. They had been told they were winning the war in New Britain. They were so surprised that the first thing they did when they realized we had captured them, they got down on their knees and put their heads all the way down on the ground. And they expected to be killed right there.”

With the toe of his boot, Miller nudged one of the Japanese on the head, told him to stand.

“I was standing there, scarcely 2 feet away, and he was looking me in the eye. And I realized right there that he was doing what I was doing — they sent him up there, and they sent me over there.

“And I got a little different feeling. I got the feeling I didn’t want to kill him because I felt sorry for him. And I guess along about there that I began to realize that it was not the Japanese race as a whole that we were waging war against, but it was the Imperial Japanese Army and their radical outlook on life and their desire to conquer all of Southeast Asia.”

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Upon returning stateside, Miller taught at the prestigious Officer Candidate School at Camp Lejeune, N.C., preparing young officers for the horrific battles to come in Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

After the war, suffering badly from malaria and other diseases he contracted in the Pacific and unable to find work, Miller took a job in the coal mines in his home state of West Virginia, where he toiled in darkness for 37 years.

The blackness of the mines fed the terrors he lived with since the battlefield and the backbreaking labor ate away at his already abused body. Bowed but unbroken, Miller survived because of his strength and lifelong devotion to his beloved wife of 65 years — a relationship that shines brightly in this distinctly American journey.

An honest profile of Miller recounts his experiences in the savage island battles of World War II, as well as decades of work in the mines of the Mountain State.

An excerpt from Thurman Miller’s battlefield experiences in “Earned in Blood” reads in part:

“Darkness caught up to us just before we reached the river. Word came down the line. ‘Dig in where you are.’ In the darkness you never knew if you were in a foxhole with a friend or foe. We slept, when we did sleep, two to a foxhole because early on in the campaign the Japanese were so close and so quiet they could creep into a foxhole and kill one man without the other man detecting them.

“Robert Leckie aptly said of the deep jungle darkness, ‘Everything, all the world became my enemy.’ We had been advancing more or less on our stomachs and knees. I happened to wind up on a pile of dry bamboo and every time I moved I sounded like one of the large lizards that came crawling out of the jungle at night; I couldn’t dig a foxhole or risk giving away our position. I lay quietly for a long time, scarcely breathing.

“During the night a small Japanese patrol crossed over the sandpit. Suddenly, we were in a hot close-quarters fight, and amid the noise I rolled over several feet and found myself in a deeper hole of sorts, which I proceeded very quickly to deepen further, providing me cover until the Japanese abandoned the skirmish.

“At dawn the firing dropped off to an occasional burst. I raised up to survey my surroundings. I could hear the river to the front. A few yards to the side I saw a young marine lying on his back, his neck under his shoulder and his head resting on a rotten log as if asleep. A closer look told me he had died in that position. His wound had been sudden and sufficient to drain all his blood from his body and he was very white. Nature had already begun the process of returning his body to the dust from which it had come.”

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Miller was involved in some of the most horrific and famous battles in the Pacific Theater. From those harrowing experiences to the loss of his comrades, his powerful combat involvements would remain with him forever.

But even as he documents the horror, Miller never loses sight of the humanity of all concerned. His heart-searing story reminds us that a grateful nation is never grateful enough.

Miller’s book isn’t just about war, but of a generation’s struggle to find itself among the turbulence and turmoil of total conflict. Critics hail the book as an honest, if brutal, account of what a real U.S. Marine Corps rifle company really experienced in the fierce South Pacific action.

That Miller returned stateside to teach future officers at Camp Lejeune and then struggled mentally and physically for years to overcome his war service gives the book an even greater resonance.

You could say that “Earned in Blood” provides the reader with a vivid panorama told with directness and honesty of an exceptional personal journey through peace and war — a peace and war both without and within.

“Earned in Blood” (St. Martin’s Press) is available at Tamarack and other major bookstores as well as through Amazon and other online stores.

Miller, meanwhile, believes his youth in the West Virginia hills of Wyoming County near Otsego helped him survive his rough road to becoming a wizened, forged-in-battle “Old Breed” of Marine.

“My dad gave me my own hoe when I was 8 years old, put me in the field hoeing corn,” he recalled. “It wasn’t anything for me to run halfway up the side of a mountain. I was a whole lot tougher going into boot camp than a lot of the city boys coming out of boot camp.”

— E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net