Decorated Metro-East WWII veteran recalls crash landing during war

Published: Nov. 11, 2022 at 6:48 PM CST
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FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS (KMOV) -- Don Miller grew up in Geneva, Ohio and joined the U.S.. Army in 1943 as soon as he turned 18. He said he wanted to avoid being drafted.

He signed up for the Army Air Corps because he liked planes.

“My dad used to take me to Cleveland to the air show,” he said.

Miller, who now lives in Fairview Heights, may have legally been an adult when he enlisted but physically he wasn’t quite there. He said he only shaved once a month and that got him in trouble in boot camp after his drill sergeant had instructed troops to shave every day.

“Pointed me out and said ‘Soldier, did you shave today?’ And I said ‘No, I didn’t know I had anything to shave,’” he said.

Miller trained to be a radio operator on a B-24 Liberator and eventually was stationed at an air base in northern England.

In the 30 missions that his crew flew over Germany, Miller said they never lost any of their crew members. But there were dangers. Less than 50 percent of aircrews in World War II survived the war.

One of the dangers that bomber crews faced was from German fighter jets. Six of the 10 crew members on B-24 bombers were gunners.

“Each man in that airplane is looking in a different direction with their guns. And as a radio operator I had time to look a little more,” said Miller.

Another danger was from flak, exploding artillery shells fired into the air by artillery guns. On the crew’s 30th and last mission the plane was badly damaged by flak.

Miller’s B-24 dropped out of formation and attempted to limp back to France. Eventually, three of the four engines went out and the plane lost its hydraulics and electrical systems.

“My pilot, who was a super pilot, he aimed us toward a pasture in France,” said Miller.

Miller said the plane crash-landed in a pasture without the use of landing gear, and remarkably no one got hurt. The crew worried they might be in occupied territory and would be captured by the Germans. But the area had been liberated just one day earlier by the 4th Armored Division under the leadership of Gen. George Patton.

Villagers took in the tired aircrew members and gave them a place to get some rest.

“It was a feather bed and you went oh, we hadn’t slept on anything that soft in months,” said Miller.

It took eight days for the crew to get back to its base in England. Eventually, the men returned to the U.S. on the RMS Queen Mary ocean liner.

Among the military honors awarded to Miller for his service with a bomber crew was the Air Medal with three oak clusters. He also received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the nation’s highest award for extraordinary aerial achievement.