War memories recorded in black and white
Richard Miller, who served as a Navy radarman 3rd class, still has many of the letters he sent home during World War II.
Sailors and other military personnel could use Victory Mail or V-Mail, a service designed to keep secrets safe. Under the system, letters were censored, copied onto microfilm, then printed on paper when they arrived.
His family saved all the black-and-white letters, which are decorated with his sketches and drawings. Some show the scenery — peaceful tropical bays filled with warships and planes, for instance. Some show a young man from upstate New York, doing his part along with thousands of others to fight for their country in the Pacific Theater.
Miller, who now lives in McMinnville, also has plenty of other memorabilia from his years in the Navy, including his service awards — the American Theater medal, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, the Victory Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Medal, the Amphibious Forces Insignia.
And he has many photos, including one from 1943 taken just after he joined the Navy. In it, he looks almost too young to wear a uniform.
The photo was taken shortly after Miller, fresh out of high school, was sent to Hobart College as an apprentice seaman and officer candidate. He’d won a spot in the V-12 Navy College Training Program.
He was pleased.
“I always wanted to be in the Navy,” he said. “I was a young kid. I really wanted to get in on the action.”
But not long after he arrived at Hobart, he landed in the hospital with a badly broken right arm. It put him so far behind in his officer training that he and the school agreed he would seek other Navy opportunities.
Sent to Naval Training Station Great Lakes, he applied for training as a sonar operator, but couldn’t distinguish different sounds well enough to pass the auditory test. So instead, he opted for radar school, joking that it was the shortest school at the facility.
Radar was a brand-new technology, still considered strange and mysterious by many. Although it was a tremendous boon to the war effort, it worried some sailors. Rumor had it that it would make them sterile.
As a radar operator, Miller’s job was to plot everything that was approaching the ship or the ship was approaching — land masses, planes and other ships. He said he could tell if an approaching ship was an ally, because “only friendlies had IFF,” which stands for “Identification Friend or Foe.”
In 1944, he was sent to San Diego as a radar operator with the 7th Amphibious Force. He sailed on the USS St. Croix APA 231 attack transport ship, a personnel carrier built in the Kaiser shipyards.
The ship featured twin 40 mm guns at its bow, 20 mm guns along its port and starboard flanks and a 5-inch gun at its stern. Twenty-six small boats hung from its sides and a tall radar tower rose mid-ship.
From San Diego, he cruised up the coast to Astoria, then on to Seattle and Bremerton. After a night of loading ammunition, the ship and its 300-man crew returned to San Francisco to load its boats. Back in San Diego, it was fitted out with radar equipment.
“All night, we took turns guarding the radar,” Miller said, recalling concerns about spies stealing the technological secrets.
He had other concerns while in port.
“It was very hard to get a date there,” said Miller, who was 19 or 20 at the time. But he did find dates to accompany him to dances or Benny Goodman performances.
One day, the St. Croix sailed off on what the crew thought was a practice run and kept going. It had received orders to head to Guadalcanal on its own, without the protection of a convoy.
The next land mass Miller spotted on his radar was the Big Island of Hawaii, which lay to the north of the St. Croix’s route.
“We crossed the International Date Line and we polliwogs became shellbacks,” he said, remembering the ritual associated with first-time crossings. “The guys who’d been there before initiated us.”
When Miller’s ship arrived at Guadalcanal, where the U.S. had established a military base, he saw troops loading ships in preparation for the invasion of Okinawa. But the St. Croix was sent on to New Caledonia.
New Caledonia had served as both a penal and leper colony. Now it was served as a French base and a stopping point for Allied ships.
What young Miller noticed most of all, though, were the natives — some of them, anyway.
“Very attractive Javanese girls,” he recalled. “We Navy guys tried to flirt, but we couldn’t get anywhere with them.”
The weather was tropical, so the nights were hot and sticky. Miller said he would set up his hammock wherever he could find shade or a cool breeze, often on deck.
His ship was pressed into service ferrying replacement troops from New Caledonia to New Guinea and Manila. Every soldier he saw had yellow skin from the drug they used to ward off malaria, he recalled.
Later, the ship sailed to San Fernando, northernmost island in the Philippines.
Miller made friends with a sailor there who introduced him to basi, a fermented sugarcane beverage. “When I went back to the ship, I was saluting everybody,” he recalled, laughing.
The Saint Croix was gathered up with battleships and other forces in preparation for an invasion of Japan when the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“That changed everything,” he said. Instead of invading Japan, he said, “we went up there for their surrender.”
Miller and his fellow sailors then were sent to an American base in Northern China as part of a convoy.
On the way, they sailed through a terrible storm. Some ships broke up, he said, but not the St. Croix.
The crew went ashore at Tsingtao, a port city in eastern Shandong province, whose name was also spelled Qingdao.
“They were still using rickshaws,” he recalled. “We’d go out on the town, then get a ride on the rickshaw. Or we’d tell the driver to get in and we’d pull the rickshaws.”
It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Since the Chinese were tied up in a civil conflict pitting the communist rebels of Mao Zedong and the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, Americans were dispatched to deal with the Japanese invaders following Japan’s surrender.
The St. Croix sailed from Tsing Tao, heading for what was then known as French Indochina and is now known as Vietnam. There, Miller said, they picked up retreating nationalists troops and ferried them to what was then known as Formosa and now known as Taiwan.
Finally, they loaded up American troops and set sail for the U.S.
As they arrived in San Francisco, “WELCOME HOME” was spelled out in big letters on the hillside. Crowds lined the shore, welcoming them as heroes.
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
LIFE AFTER THE WAR
After he was discharged from the Navy at the end of World War II, Richard Miller decided to use his GI Bill to study radio announcing at the Fagan School of Drama and Radio in New York City.
“That was probably one of the best things I ever did. Knowing how to use my voice has helped me with everything I’ve done,” he said.
And going to school helped lead him to his wife, Ruth, who lived in Long Island and worked at Lord & Taylor in the city. They had met when she was staying with relatives in his hometown; his mother steered him in the direction of “a nice girl visiting at church.”
He was smitten. And with both of them in New York, they were able to see each other often.
“I’d take her to the Hotel Edison to hear the Blue Baron, ‘with the music of today and yesterday,’” Miller said in his radio voice. “Or we’d go to hear Guy Lombardo, ‘the sweetest music this side of heaven.’ We’d dance all night.”
Hired by a station in the Hudson Valley, he spent three years as a morning man, reading the news and announcing records as the engineer played them.
He even did the farm report, although it was a subject he knew nothing about, he said. “I’d pick up pamphlets from the county agent,” he said, admitting they often had little to do with local agriculture.
His favorites were the music shows, such as “Breakfast Bandwagon” and “Main Street Melody.” The latter allowed him to program a mixture of new music and established bands led by greats such as Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. He had quite a following, he said.
He also did man-on-the-street interviews, lugging the mic and battery-operated recorder with him. “The tape recorder was new then,” he said. “I had a great big reel-to-reel recorder with black paper tape.”
When television began to encroach on radio’s audience, stations started looking for ways to cut expenses. “They wanted announcer/engineers. I was never good at math, so I didn’t study for an engineer’s license,” Miller said.
Already married and a father, he figured he’d better look for a different career.
Remembering friends he’d made while he was stationed at a Navy base in Southern California, Miller, his wife and baby came west so he could look for a job. “I went to Pan Am thinking I’d get a job with the Clipper, but there were lots of military guys looking for work,” he recalled.
Finally he saw an ad for “Wanted: A salesman with push.” It turned out to be the MGM record company looking for someone to cover its Southern California territory.
Miller liked the job and was good at it -- due in part, he said, to his training at the Fagan School. Not only had he learned voice, diction and acting techniques there, but he’d also had an encounter that predicted his future line of work.
“The students all said ‘go to the Gypsy Tea Room; there’s a lady there who will read your fortune in the tea leaves,’” he recalled. “In mine, she saw palm trees and musical notes ... and I got into the record business.”
Carrying a sample case loaded with 78 rpm records, Miller visited music stores throughout Los Angeles and beyond. He enjoyed building up relationships with clients.
In one, the Music City store at Hollywood and Vine, he made a connection with the founders of Capitol Records. Eventually, he left MGM and went to work for Capitol instead.
Later, Miller switched careers again, becoming a salesman for Allstate Insurance. “I conned them with my voice and diction and made them think I had managerial experience,” he joked.
But whether he conned them or not, he found he had a natural talent for selling insurance. At first, he worked from a booth in a Sears catalog store, then moved up in rank. He stayed with Allstate until retiring in 1986.
The Millers moved to McMinnville for their retirement years.
He is active at the McMinnville Senior Center. He started and runs the Odyssey Club, which meets Thursday afternoons to reminisce and learn about the past. He often turns to his extensive record and book collections for materials for the club.