Family remembers Pearl Harbor hero
Memory of fallen Pearl Harbor hero lingers
“All honor to him and the deep gratitude to the parents who gave him to the cause of freedom. The torch of liberty he carried has fallen from his hands to the hands of his comrades and to us. It is ours to hold high until the cause for which he died shall be realized in victory. He went out from among us in answer to this country’s call. He has made his contribution and his part of the task is done.” — Former Thomasville Mayor R.L. Pope during the christening ceremony for the USS William C. Miller in 1943.
William Cicero Miller
Born: July 18, 1919 in Thomasville, the oldest son of Melvin and Ora Jane Kinney
Enlisted: U.S. Navy as an apprentice seaman at Raleigh Oct. 20, 1937 after graduating from Fair Grove High School the same year.
Deployment: After instruction at the Naval Training Station, Norfolk, Va., Miller was advanced to the rate of seaman 2nd class on Feb. 21, 1938 and joined Scouting Squadron (VS) 6, attached to the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV-6), on Sept. 30 of that year.
THOMASVILLE — Pearl Harbor is a generational memory for a local family who lost a beloved family member in the attack that started World War II for the United States.
William C. Miller became a Thomasville hero. His memory has been held closely by his nieces and others. The U.S. Navy honored his sacrifice by naming a warship after him in World War II.
“We have this memory for Pearl Harbor Day, and I don’t see why more people don’t remember the day,” said niece Rebecca Miller Gilliland, nutrition program director at the Guilford County Department of Public Health. “So many of us in the family were so young when W.C. died. But he has been a real presence for us, and he is a hero to us. We always think of him on Dec. 7.”
Gilliland lives across the street from Liberty Baptist Church, where Miller’s remains are buried. Miller died in a Sunday attack that claimed nearly 2,500 lives.
Dec. 7, 1941
Radioman Miller boarded a Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless, a Navy scout aircraft with Lt. Clarence E. Dickinson, Jr., also a North Carolinian, who died in the 1980s, for a scouting flight to Wake Island. Their ship, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, together with the rest of Task Force 8, would return later that day.
Dickinson and Miller, who manned the rear seat, arrived over Oahu to discover the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The order came to return fire with the onboard 30-caliber machine gun.
Attacking Japanese Zero fighters riddled the aircraft and wounded Miller, who shot down one enemy plane and ultimately exhausted his ammunition defending his aircraft. With the airplane afire, Dickinson called for Miller to bail out but received no answer. The pilot managed to get out of the falling plane, but Miller remained with it until it crashed into a cane field, according to action accounts.
‘Oh no, oh no! They’ve bombed Pearl Harbor!’
For his devotion to duty, despite his wounds, Miller was awarded a posthumous commendation by the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
After hearing of the bombing raid on the radio, Miller’s father Melvin ran out into the barnyard screaming. Gilliland recalled in a recent newspaper column: “Oh no, oh no! They’ve bombed Pearl Harbor!”
Miller’s family learned of his death the following January.
“He had been listed as missing in action,” Gilliland said.
The story of Miller’s bravery was mentioned in a 1942 Saturday Evening Post story and in the “Flying Guns” book Dickinson wrote about his Pearl Harbor experience.
Miller’s death also cut short a promising future. Miller was to marry his high school sweetheart, Pauline Walker, in San Francisco on Dec. 14, 1941, according to the family.
The remains of W.C. Miller were returned to Thomasville in 1947. Bells tolled as the train bearing his body arrived at the train station where hundreds of local residents stood in respect.
The Mighty Miller
More than 2,000 people attended Miller’s funeral. His only surviving sibling is Mrs. Beatrice Miller Hicks of Pine Ridge Nursing Facility. His nieces Jane Hicks Dillard, Rebecca Gilliland and Susan Miller Wall, often participate in Memorial Day activities.
“We also have some of his personal belongings,” Gilliland said.
There are no male heirs to carry on Miller’s name, but he is remembered by the community. In addition to the U.S. Navy destroyer, a VFW post also carries the Miller name. In 1943, the USS William C. Miller (DE-259) was christened at the Boston Navy Yard. The Thomasville Junior Chamber of Commerce sponsored the Miller family’s trip to Boston. The ship, sometimes called the “Mighty Miller,” earned seven World War II battle stars and was in Tokyo Bay for the Sept. 2, 1945 surrender of Japanese forces.
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