To walk the path of an officer and a gentleman

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Magen M. Reeves
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
The year is 1939. The United States is just a few years shy of entering into World War II. The U.S. Air Force isn't its own branch yet. Big Band music is in full swing. The University of Wisconsin is still named Steven's Point University. And William "Bill" E. Miller is in his third year of college, first chair on the French horn as a senior, and a company clerk in the Army National Guard.

Fast forward to 2015. Miller sits down at 95 years old, and tells the story of his life, which began in Steven's Point, Wisconsin, in 1920.

In late 1939, Miller was a senior in college, working towards a degree in a major he didn't know. But he knew he wanted something more; Miller wanted to learn to fly. Miller asked his superior in the Guard about whether or not his dream was possible. He was advised by his superior in the Guard to apply to the U.S. Army Air Corps to become an aviation cadet.

"I obtained a private pilot's license," said Miller. "I got my wings and became an officer and a gentleman."

However, Miller confesses, becoming an officer was not the defining moment in the young second lieutenant's life.

"The most important thing in my life was on Memorial Day in 1941, I was married in Selma, Alabama," said Miller.

Miller married a girl he had known just before he left college to learn to fly.

"In 1940, she joined the band as a freshman on the French horn at Steven's Point," said Miller. "I knew her for three to four weeks before I went to cadet school."

Miller chuckles with the exuberance of a much younger man.

"But I wrote good letters," said Miller. "My wife used to say I was conceited. And I would say I wasn't conceited, I was just good and I knew it."

Little did Miller know, his life was set to change after his marriage.

"Five days later I was sent to Panama as a pursuit pilot," said Miller. "The Panama Pursuit in the Army at the time was flying P-36s and P-40s. I had a great time. I was the only married officer on base as a second lieutenant. I got my wife down there."

Miller stops. A shadow passes over his eyes as his voice lowers and the joy from his voice just moments before steels.

"And then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and we were suddenly at war," said Miller. "And believe me; I didn't know what war was."

Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault commanded an American volunteer flying unit in China prior to the American involvement in World War II.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, Miller got orders to China, where Miller's unit from Panama was sent to replace the volunteers. Chennault's command became an active military unit of 100 P-40s called the Flying Tigers.

"We sat on alert from dawn until dusk every day with those P-40s," said Miller. "Although, I did shoot down at least three Japanese planes."

The Japanese had declared war aside Germany and took over the coastal areas of China and French Indochina, which is now modern-day Vietnam. The U.S. defended the assent by returning the assault on Japanese aircraft and ground units.

"My first combat mission was escorting B-25 bombers over French Indochina on bombing missions," said Miller. "The B-25s would go past the coast to bomb islands. We had to escort six bombers through China."

Miller and the Flying Tigers had to protect the U.S. bombers by intercepting Japanese planes. Having not been trained in aerial combat, Miller was surprised when he aimed his bullets on a Japanese target, only to hit an unintended-target Japanese plane behind it.

After being in China for a little over a year, Miller received new orders.

"After that, they sent me to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to gunnery school and taught me how to shoot planes down because I didn't know how," said Miller.

In Baton Rouge, Miller was taught the aerial combat theory of harmonization. Back in the 40s, machine guns were located in the wings of the P-40s. Miller was taught that there are only two places on a plane to make a direct hit: directly in front of, and directly behind the plane. At a 1,000 foot distance between planes in-flight, and taking into account the distance through the air the bullet would travel before actually hitting a target, pilots had to calculate several factors before making a direct intended hit.

"I actually learned how to shoot down planes after I'd already shot down planes," said Miller. "It takes a lot of visualization to fly a fighter aircraft."

After Miller had successfully completed his training at gunnery ground school, World War II had ended.

But Miller's service in the air was not over.

"In 1946 I was ordered to the German Occupation," said Miller. "I was still a fighter pilot. I was there for two weeks and then the base commander told me I was the new legal officer. I was a pilot, not a lawyer. But the military wasn't flying fighters anymore. I said, 'Let me fly the planes. I already know how to fly.' But I was told I would need to be retrained to fly the big cargo planes.

"But then we needed pilots for the Berlin Airlift! I flew C-47s for the Berlin Airlift every weekend and was a legal officer during the week. It was over a year for the airlift and I did it the whole time."

Six months after the Berlin Airlift ended, Miller was sent back to the U.S. to go to Command and Staff School in Montgomery, Alabama. His next assignment was Langley, Virginia, which lasted for one year.

After Langley, Miller requested a new assignment. Having joined the Army Air Corps before he could finish college, Miller felt it was time to finally finish his degree.

Miller accepted an Air Force Recruiting Officer Training Corps assignment at St. Louis University in Missouri in 1950. As a three year assignment, Miller intended to teach during the day and attend classes at night to finish his college degree he had started in the late 1930s. Miller taught AFROTC at St. Louis, and obtained a teaching degree as well as a master's degree in psychology from Washington University in Missouri.

"If there had been no war, I would have been a band director and an English teacher," said Miller. "I discovered when I went back to school that I had been an English major. I had no idea! I was just taking classes and having a good time."

A new college graduate, the Air Force assigned Miller to training once again.

"I was to be a B-47 pilot, which is a six-engine jet," said Miller. "I had never flown jets or bombers before. I was trained and assigned to Lincoln, Nebraska, as a squadron commander for the B-47s as a lieutenant colonel for two years."

The 1960s had just begun, and Miller was about to see his career change yet again.

After being in command for two years, Miller became the maintenance commander's deputy officer for the next four years.

Miller laughs.

"My mechanic skills were at the lowest level they could possibly be," said Miller. "I completed my mechanics course by correspondence."

The nest assignment for the newly promoted Col. Miller was Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.

"Whiteman in 1962 was when the Minuteman missile started going into the ground," said Miller. "I was the inspector for maintenance and material for the Minuteman missiles, B-52s, and Titan missiles in Kansas."

Miller made it through his missile assignment to receive his last orders: Vietnam.

"From 1966 to 1967, my last assignment was Saigon, Vietnam," said Miller. "I was the Chief Material Advisor for the Vietnamese Air Force. I had to train them on maintenance and supply on the C-47s and Navy bomber planes they had."

Miller spent one year in Vietnam until he retired in Tuscan, Arizona, March 31, 1968. Miller retired as a colonel, still married, a father to four girls, and traveled the United States with his wife.

In the 1980s, Miller took up yet another skill.

Miller's wife wanted to learn to be a photographer.  After purchasing all the equipment, she decided she did not like the teacher, so Miller became the student.

"For 15 years I did nature photography of animals and scenery," said Miller. "And this was all on film. I used to carry five or six different lenses. I've been coming to Malmstrom Air Force Base for years."

Miller would go hiking with his wife in Glacier National Park, Montana, and take pictures of nature and wildlife.

"I liked photography; such beautiful pictures and animals," said Miller. "But I thought, 'you've got to be doing it for a reason', and after my wife died, I had no joy for it anymore."

Miller's wife passed away in 2000 of lung cancer. She spent nine months in chemotherapy in Wilford Hall Hospital in San Antonio, Texas at Lackland Air Force Base.

"She was a wonderful woman," said Miller.

Tears glisten in Millers eyes as he remembers the woman he spent more than half a century being happily married too.

"I have four daughters; one in Oklahoma, one in Missouri, and two are deceased (2003 and 2005)," said Miller. "I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I am very blessed that way."

One of Miller's grandsons followed in his military footsteps. He graduated from the Air Force Academy and commanded in England as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.

These days, Miller travels the United States in his truck with camper and modest trailer. At the same time his wife was diagnosed with cancer, Miller was also diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He doesn't believe in taking prescription medications for his diabetes. He doesn't own a computer. His cell phone is still a flip-phone, which takes pictures, but he's not sure how it works.

Miller walks approximately six miles each and every day.

"It's probably what's keeping me alive!" laughs Miller.

Miller's walk begins every morning before daylight when the temperature is still cool. At 4:45 a.m., the 95-year-old World War II, Vietnam and Cold War veteran and retired officer begins his first of several, 55-minute walks of the day. He travels Perimeter Road, past Building 500, down past the commissary and back up to the base campground. Miller completes this route two to three times a day, alternating directions.

"I've spent probably six months here at Malmstrom," said Miller.

Miller has been coming to Malmstrom AFB every summer for the past five years to walk and enjoy his life.

At the end of August, Miller will be leaving Malmstrom to make his way in his truck with camper and trailer to a family reunion in Arkansas hosted by one of his granddaughters. Then Miller will head to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, during the winter months.

Miller acknowledges how long his life has stretched. He has outlived his wife and two of his daughters. He has experienced most of the last century of the second millennium. He has survived three American wars, seen the world surge in population growth, and witnessed the birth of the digital revolution.

Miller laughs as the passage of time settles in his mind.

"I hope to be back next year," said Miller. "This is a good place to walk."