Supply Corps Heritage: The World War II Experiences of Lt. Cmdr. Robert L. Miller Sr.

As told to Lt. Hobart K. Kistler, SC by Judge Robert L. Miller Sr.

Born December 5, 1920, Judge Robert L. Miller is the youngest of seven siblings. His father ran a hardware store in Wilkinson, Indiana, where the Millers lived throughout the 1920s. Among other activities, Miller enjoyed hunting with his family. Unfortunately, with the onset of the Great Depression, the hardware store “went under,” and in 1930 the family moved to Indianapolis, where the elder Miller found a job as a salesman for Sherwin-Williams Paints. Tragically, he died a year later, leaving the family “poorer than Job’s turkey!” Miller recalls that his mother worked hard to ensure the family could continue living on the city’s north side, away from the ring of slums to the south.

Miller attended Shortridge High School, a “silk stocking” establishment, from which most alumni attended college. The judge’s family was so poor, however, that he joined the school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program in order to get the free uniform that was issued to all participants. “Other than my Sunday clothes, that was all I had,” he remembers.

Considering his difficult situation, it came as a blessing when Miller was offered a full scholarship to play guard on the Notre Dame football team. He matriculated and entered the university’s commerce school in 1938. Less than a year in, though, the football end didn’t seem to be playing out. “Coach (Elmer) Layden said, ‘I’m gonna have to let you go,’ but they let me stay on in school, provided I worked all sorts of jobs in my off-time—mopping, cutting flowers, all kinds of work. For that reason, I’m fiercely loyal to Notre Dame to this day.”

Judge Robert L. Miller

 

Miller was home celebrating his 21st birthday on December 7, 1941. “When the war hit, Mom says, ‘There goes my boys!’ and she was right. I’m unable to describe the climate that existed simultaneously,” he explains. “We were infuriated; not a single one of us at school didn’t want to fight the Japanese! Guys started to join right away, and they had their hands full trying to calm us down and finish the semester.” Miller, coming as he did from a patriotic family, was eager to do his part, and signed up with the Naval Reserve.

With the Navy’s rapid expansion in the war’s early months came “massive logistical requirements, and the Navy needed qualified supply officers badly.” Consequently, Miller was able to arrange a deal between military and academia, by which he would receive a commission as an ensign in the Navy Supply Corps upon graduation. When he earned his diploma in May 1942, he received a direct commission and shipped out for the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Navy Yard.

In Portsmouth, Miller witnessed the construction of new submarines and “learned to eat oysters at the receptions the admiral had each time there was a launching party.” He was impressed by the submariners’ fare, including steaks and strawberries, but did not join their ranks; instead, Miller reported to the Harvard School of Business, for a several-month course for general supply officers. The program used Navy-specific textbooks. Miller, with his background in athletics, was selected to lead calisthenics for his shipmates.

Finishing up at Harvard in the summer of 1943, Miller was told that there existed “a cryin’ need for us to have specialty training.” Accordingly, he received orders to Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville, Florida, for, among many others, a course in anti-aircraft gunnery. The men trained on 40mm quadruple-mount anti-aircraft guns, like those often found on aircraft carriers. “I thought it all irrelevant, but had to do it,” he says of the instruction, which also took place in Melbourne, Florida.

Next, Miller was finally afforded the opportunity to serve overseas, but the assignment was not to the South Pacific or North Atlantic, but NAS San Juan, Puerto Rico. For the better part of six months, he worked both at San Juan and, later, NAS Trinidad, in the procurement of airplane parts. All in all, it was not particularly exciting or challenging duty, according to Miller. It was while at Trinidad, in early 1944, that Miller “made the mistake of saying I would be interested in carrier duty! They jumped on that in a hurry, and I was on my way to the South Pacific!”

The ship to which Miller was initially assigned sank while he was en-route. As such, he received new orders to USS Essex (CV 9), and began “the lengthy process of chasing her across the Pacific. She only came in to port to pick up more ammo, so it was a difficult thing to do.” He received his last leave of the war in Hawaii, in transit. Boarding one of the “generals” (a series of Army transports named for generals) in Pearl Harbor, Miller pursued Essex to Guadalcanal and up through the Solomons, toward the Philippines. At each stop, it seemed they had just missed the carrier. At last, on October 30, Miller reported aboard Essex, at Ulithi. She had just come through the second Battle of the Philippine Sea, better known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

USS Essex (CV-9) under attack after a Japanese Kamikaze aircraft crashes into the carrier’s flight deck. –photo courtesy of the Naval Historical Center

As Miller moved his personal effects aboard, so were the survivors of Carrier Air Group 8. Their ship, USS Princeton (CVL 23) had been sunk by a kamikaze attack on the 24th, necessitating a new assignment.

Essex’s Chief Supply Officer Cmdr. Woodside told me there was really no need for another supply officer, even though I was probably the most highly trained guy out there! At that time, they didn’t have parts to fix the planes, and when it came time to launch, they’d kick ‘er over three or four times and if she didn’t start, then they’d jettison her over the fantail. It was as simple as that. Anyway he’d seen my record, and since I had anti-aircraft training, told me I should report to the gunnery department. So, I became battery officer on the Number Two Gun Mount, a quad 40 (mm) on the foc’s’le.”

Miller had only a short time to wait for the excitement his earlier assignments had been lacking. After a short period of gunnery practice, in which “the junior pilots towed target sleeves for us to shoot at, and some smartalick gunner would shoot in front of the tow plane to scare them.” The first real trouble occurred on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1944.

Essex was in the process of launching planes for a strike on Manila, when a lone kamikaze aircraft approached from her starboard quarter. “It was smoking already, and we had our whole aft end loaded with bombs and planes all gassed up,” Miller remembers. “We turned to starboard, and he overshot, hitting forward of the number two elevator. He took out a row of 20mm AA guns and a 5-inch gun as he went in, which were manned by our mess boys, killing them all. There was a lot of exploding going on, but our repair crew jumped on it. They were good; they got that deck patched with fire flying everywhere. We lost 21 men and a lot more wounded.”

After emergency repairs, Essex was back in action. Miller transferred to Gun Mount 5, on the aft side of the carrier’s ‘island.’ “We had so much action there,” he affirms. “It was really, really active. During one 72-hour period we were in action for 53 hours. Every carrier in our class was hit except one.”

Miller and his shipmates fought on, through five major campaigns, from Leyte to the South China Sea to Iwo Jima, until they arrived off the war-torn island of Okinawa in March 1945. By that time, Miller had been reassigned a third time, to Gun Mount 8, on Essex’s stern. “It was a ‘hot mount,’” he says. “We could really shoot now!” No serious damage had been sustained since the Thanksgiving hit, and the crew generally believed they would finish the war without another incident.

April 11, 1945 was, in Miller’s words, “the day that made me a life member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. The Japanese hit three of our four carriers that same day. The one that got us came from our port quarter, out of the clouds. The captain called for flank speed and hard-a-port. I was in the director operator turret, above my gun. The Japanese pilot released his bomb and it detonated right under our screws, and bent one of our props. It cleaned out my gun mount, men sprayed ever’ which way, but none killed. I got blown out of the turret and slid across the deck face down. Lucky I had my battle helmet on, or it would’ve taken my face right off. As it was, I lost my shirt and was bleedin’ like a stuck pig, but in no mortal danger. I was somewhat of a mess. No one can imagine it! The corpsmen got us all down to sick bay in pretty good time.” When his wounds had been bandaged, Miller and his men returned to the gun, and they were once again blazing away at the Japanese.

In August, the Japanese surrendered, and Essex made “a high speed return to the States.” Miller returned to his beloved alma mater, graduating in 1947 with a Jurist Doctor. He characterized his years of law school as “the hardest period of my whole life.”

“When Korea hit, I was called up to work in submarine supply. I cashed that negotiating experience lots of times in my law practice.” Miller was eventually placed on the retired list of the Naval Reserve as a lieutenant commander.

Miller worked many years as a lawyer, and as a former Judge of the Superior Court of St. Joseph County, Indiana. In 2009, he founded an organization called “Miller’s Vets,” to which indigent veterans can come to participate in color guards and honor guard activities. The organization has helped over 400 homeless vets, giving them a source of pride and support.

Looking back on his life, Miller is “consoled by the fact that there are very, very few things I would change about it. I am very satisfied with my life, Navy days included!”

For his service, Miller was awarded the Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, two Presidential Unit Citations, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with one silver star representing five major battles), World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal (with Asia clasp), Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, and Philippine Liberation Medal (with two bronze battle stars).

Winter 2019