TALKS ABOUT HONOR, HUMOR & A LIFE WELL LIVED
WRITTEN BY MAUREEN WERTHER PHOTOS PROVIDED
AT AGE 93, JOHN P. MILLER FITS INTO HIS US ARMY UNIFORM AS IF HE WAS STILL 18. That’s how old he was when he received his letter from the United
States government, informing him that he had been called to duty. Given the fact this his son is the well-known chef, Dale Miller, John’s trim appearance is even more of a feat.
I recently had the honor and privilege of spending time with John and members of his family at Dale Miller’s home, seated comfortably around the kitchen island with
a charcuterie board and the most amazing tomato soup to keep us warm on a bitterly cold winter afternoon.
John was in full uniform, his cap placed at the same jaunty angle in evidence in the old photos that lay spread across the nearby dining room table. Alongside the photos is a picture frame that holds the many medals John received during his tour of duty, one that took him from Casablanca to the beachhead at Anzio and eventually into France. During that time, John was wounded twice and both times returned to the battlefront to fight alongside his fellow soldiers.
John shows no signs of slowing down any time soon and his jauntiness is not confined to the rakish angle of his cap. His sharp wit and keen sense of humor cannot help but bubble to the surface, as he regaled me with stories from his time in service to his country. It was on a June morning in 1943 that John received his diploma from Amsterdam High School. That same afternoon, a draft notice arrived in the mail at his home in the small town of Tribes Hill, NY. John officially entered the United States’ Army 34th Infantry, 168th Regiment, Company B on July 1, 1943 and was assigned to the weapons platoon as a machine gunner.
By February 1944, John and his regiment were transported to Casablanca, eventually making their way to Anzio Beach, where the Americans had been taking a shellacking and were badly in need of reinforcements. John describes the beach as a flat 10 square-mile stretch, packed with troops, artillery, ammo dumps, evacuation hospitals and wartime suppliers.
“LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) arrived nightly loaded with even more supplies. When the ships left in the morning, they carried the wounded soldiers back to Naples.”
The surrounding hills were crawling with German troops and guns. John recalls one powerful gun the Germans had, which was mounted on a railway car and pulled into a train tunnel during the day to keep it safe from American pilots searching for targets on the ground below.
“We called the gun ‘Anzio Annie,’ and one shell could demolish a stone building or sink a ship.”
John recalls that the Germans were in a perfect position to spot any movement on the beach below and, during the day “nothing moved.” But at night, the area turned into a “beehive of activity.” A German radio propagandist – Axis Sally – liked to report that the entire 34th Division would be returning to America in a
Piper Cub and that they should surrender and save themselves from certain death.
By May of that year, John received his first wound, a mortar shell that ripped through his thigh.
“The shell was so hot that it cauterized the wound,” he recalled with a grin on his face that belied the gravity of the situation that he and his fellow troops endured.
“A buddy got me into a Jeep,” he said, adding that they didn’t realize until later that they had made their way to the Jeep by walking on the wrong side of a tape that separated them from a mine field. Talk about luck.
John spent his first convalescence at a hospital in Napoli where, ironically, Mt. Vesuvius happened to be erupting. He recalled watching the lava flowing down the side of the mountain, just a few miles from the hospital.
A short three months later, John returned to action, this time in Fauglia, Italy. John recalls that they were positioned in an olive orchard. It seemed fairly quiet, so John opened a can of Army-issue beans to eat. About that time, the Germans opened gunfire on the troops and John felt something wet and sticky on his right ankle and left buttock. He’d been hit with shell fragments.
Each time John was injured, his mother received a telegram saying that her son had been “slightly wounded in action” and that they would keep her informed of his condition as they received more reports. Small comfort.
By the third time John re-entered the field of battle, his Company had been sent to Firenze (Florence). As the troops progressed across Italy throughout the long winter, John recalls one of the highlights was finally receiving parkas to wear, instead of the bulky brown
Army coats they’d been wearing. Men would cut holes in their sleeping bags for their arms, so they could stay warm as they were shooting at the enemy.
By the following April, the German Army was in chaos and his Division succeeded in blocking off the escape routes heading to Austria. The American 34th Division had succeeded in capturing the German 34th Division.
There is so much to John’s story, it would take a book to do it
justice. And John knows how to tell a story! He entered the war fully believing that he would not return alive to American shores. When questioned about his survival, John shrugged his shoulders and attributed it to luck. However, he also recalled how anxious he was to return to his army unit.
He felt guilty about being in the hospital and he was in a hurry to help his fellow soldiers, who had also become friends.
But John’s stories aren’t all sad. He loves to joke about becoming something of a wine connoisseur during his time in Italy and France. He also talks, with a twinkle in his eyes, about the lovely ladies
he met abroad. It doesn’t take much time with John to see what a charmer he is. Dale jokes about taking his dad on a trip back to
Italy and Switzerland about ten years ago. “We were always on the
lookout for people who resembled my dad,” laughs Dale, referring to his father’s “winning” ways with the opposite sex.
Despite his joking and his seeming nonchalance, John understands – perhaps better than most – the fleeting nature of life and how
quickly it can be taken away from us. “Nobody knows. It can happen in the next thirty seconds.” But his philosophy is, “When you stop laughing, you might better be dead.”
It wasn’t easy for John to see so many of his comrades dying on the beaches, in the countryside and in the worn-torn cities of Europe.
“A lot of the guys with me who were killed should’ve been the ones to get those medals. I firmly believed that I would not make it home alive.”
But John did make it home and he went on to become a wonderful husband, father and grandfather. After being discharged from the Army, John worked for the NYS Canal System until his retirement in 1983.
He has also served as a volunteer in his local fire department. While he no longer goes on calls to put out fires, he and another veteran stay behind to make sure the firefighters have hot food waiting for them when they return from a call.
John has also proudly ridden in the annual Tribes Hill Memorial Day Parade ever since the town started holding a parade. And he was invited to be part of the “Honor Flight” to Washington D.C. a few years ago, where he and other veterans were honored for their service.
Most importantly, John’s children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren cherish him. “He has been the most amazing Dad that anyone could ask for,” says Dale proudly. SS
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