Memoir tells true-blood tales from island combat to coal mines
MOUNT HOPE, W.Va. -- Nowadays, the savage island-hopping battles in the Pacific during World War II may seem merely tales glimpsed via grainy documentaries while fast-forwarding through cable channels.
But for Thurman Miller, a 93-year-old West Virginian, these battles -- most specifically, the titanic struggles over Guadalcanal and New Britain between U.S. forces and the Imperial Japanese Army -- were personal, intimate and devastating.
In May, St. Martin's Press released Miller's "Earned in Blood: My Journey from Old Breed Marine to the Most Dangerous Job in America." The book offers a frontline view of a tough-as-nails life -- by a man who came out the other end still smiling.
"I thought it would be good if someone, anyone, would write a book strictly from the foxhole and the coal mine -- what it meant to be on the front lines. The kind of situation the mud Marine had, so to speak," Miller said.
Miller, who has self-published several memoirs about his life, finally landed a national publisher working with his son, David, on what is an impressive, riveting and harrowing addition to the history of the Pacific Theater.
In "Earned in Blood," Miller's grunt's-eye view of hand-to-hand island warfare is bookended by the stories of a youth spent growing up poor but strong in the West Virginia hills and followed later in life by nearly 40 years of work beneath those hills as a coal miner.
The book has earned high praise, including a remark by "Rocket Boys" author and fellow West Virginia native Homer Hickam, who describes "Earned in Blood" as "A dramatic and compelling story, one every American should read and ponder."
Slaughter and horror
Miller enlisted in 1940 and served with the legendary K/3/5 (K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment) rifle company, under the 1st Marine Division. The unit's members were among the first off the boat as Allied forces sought to uproot the Japanese army's toehold in the Pacific.
In unsentimental, unadorned prose, Miller -- raised in a Christian household but feeling he had no personal God to call out to -- witnesses atrocities and savagery for which no amount of training could have prepared these young Americans.
On a slow day at Marine boot camp back at Camp Lejeune, they might take you out under a big tree and school you on the Articles of War and the Geneva Convention on handling prisoners, Miller said.
"As we arrived at Guadalcanal, we went in there with that in mind -- that we would do it by the book. It wasn't long after we got there that we found out our book and their book were far different," he said.
"They focused on who they could get rid of the quickest that helped us the most. We had corpsmen there with the Red Cross on their arm. They were noncombatants -- they didn't have any weapons. If they had a Red Cross on the arm, they became an automatic target.
"Their primary aim was to get rid of us any way they could, whereas we went ashore there, and when we captured some we intended to treat 'em like the enemy."
That changed as patrols were sometimes literally slaughtered and horrific battles ensued, he said.
"Practically speaking, we got down to a place where we conducted war like they did -- we had no feelings for them. You have to get like that in order to fight a war, I mean to put it bluntly. We really and truly threw the book away," he said.
"We waged it by their standards that they set early on. That's putting it sorta brutally, I realize. But it's true."
Then, came a moment when Gunnery Sgt. Miller had an insight into who the real enemy was.
While pursuing a Japanese general up the coast of New Britain, Miller's men sneaked up on a long hut full of laughing, card-playing Japanese grunts.
"All of a sudden we just tore into it. They had been told they were winning the war in New Britain. They were so surprised that the first thing they did when they realized we had captured them, they got down on their knees and put their heads all the way down on the ground. And they expected to be killed right there."
With the toe of his boot, Miller nudged one of the Japanese on the head. Told him to stand.
"I was standing there, scarcely two feet away, and he was looking me in the eye. And I realized right there that he was doing what I was doing -- they sent him up there, and they sent me over there.
"And I got a little different feeling. I got the feeling I didn't want to kill him 'cause I felt sorry for him. And I guess long about there that I began to realize that it was not the Japanese race as a whole that we were waging war against, but it was the Imperial Japanese Army and their radical outlook on life and their desire to conquer all of Southeast Asia."
Hill-bred and 'Old Breed'
Miller believes his youth in the West Virginia hills of Wyoming County near Otsego helped him survive his rough road to becoming a wizened, forged-in-battle "Old Breed" Marine.
"My dad gave me my own hoe when I was 8 years old, put me in the field hoeing corn," he recalled. "It wasn't anything for me to run halfway up the side of a mountain. I was a whole lot tougher going into boot camp than a whole lot of these city boys were coming out of boot camp."
But Pacific island warfare took its toll by the time he was done. Malnutrition and island rot chewed at his body.
"While on Guadalcanal, all of my toenails and all of my fingernails shriveled up, and I'd take my service knife out, reach down like that and just pluck 'em off. Every one of them came off. Both hands, both feet. And they never did come back good," said Miller, staring at the knotted nubs of some of his fingernails.
"When I went ashore at Guadalcanal, I weighed about 170. When I left there, I only weighed 115 pounds. As did many more. So everything about your body began to shrink."
After returning Stateside, Miller worked as an instructor at the USMC's Officer Candidate Applicant Battalion at Camp Lejuene. His job at this "glorified boot camp for future officers" was to breed lieutenants for the terrible battles anticipated at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
He returned to West Virginia and headed into the mines, where he was sometimes haunted by hallucinations of his dead mates back in the islands, stacked on conveyor belts. Dark moods plagued him as island ailments followed him below ground.
"About the first 10 years, I went through a period of time where I actually got to a point where I wished I was dead. Malaria and hepatitis and all that junk. The fungus -- it worked on me to an extent where I didn't see any future."
His wife, Recie, who died a few years ago, was "one of the prime movers in getting me away from that attitude," Miller said. "Had I not married her, I don't know where I would have wound up. She was one of these girls that was able to understand and cope with what I was going through."
Working above ground one summer was an opening door to a brighter life that has been full and rich for many a decade now.
"They shut the mine down one time and I brought my toolbox home and she asked me, 'What are you gonna do?' And I said, 'Well, I tell you I'm not going do anything. I'm gonna spend this whole summer out in the sunshine.' So I went into it hard and heavy. And working hard as I could all day. That's how I coped with it.
"Back then they didn't have -- what do you call it? Post-something?"
Post-traumatic stress disorder?
"Well, they didn't have none of that."
Work was his own form of therapy and it seems to have worked quite well and has kept on working. He also has spent decades traveling to reunions and linking up with fellow Marines. And he keeps busy daily. Most days, you'll find him writing or out back tinkering in his shop, handcrafting things like miniature wooden outhouses, complete with Sears Roebuck catalog.
Asked how he feels about the phrase awarded the men and women of the era through which he lived -- "the Greatest Generation" -- Miller demurs a bit.
"I don't know as I would classify myself as the Greatest Generation. It may be that the generation today might be the greatest. All I can say is we were there when the need came. And we had already been toughened up by the Great Depression.
"We were a generation who was ready to go," he added. "And that's the way it was."
• • •
Excerpt from Thurman Miller's "Earned in Blood":
Darkness caught up to us just before we reached the river. Word came down the line, "Dig in where you are." In the darkness you never knew if you were in a foxhole with a friend or foe. We slept, when we did sleep, two to a foxhole because early on in the campaign the Japanese were so close and so quiet they could creep into a foxhole and kill one man without the other detecting them. Robert Leckie aptly said of the deep jungle darkness, "Everything and all the world became my enemy." We had been advancing more or less on our stomachs and knees. I happened to wind up on a pile of dry bamboo and every time I moved I sounded like one of the large lizards that came crawling out of the jungle at night; I couldn't dig a foxhole or risk giving away our position. I lay quietly for a long time, scarcely breathing. During the night a small Japanese patrol crossed over the sandpit. Suddenly, we were in a hot close-quarters fight, and amid the noise I rolled over several feet and found myself in a deeper hole of sorts, which I proceeded very quickly to deepen further, providing me cover until the Japanese abandoned the skirmish. At dawn the firing dropped off to an occasional burst. I raised up to survey my surroundings. I could hear the river to the front. A few yards to the side I saw a young marine lying on his back, his pack under his shoulder and his head resting on a rotten log as if asleep. A closer look told me he had died in that position. His wound had been sudden and sufficient to drain all the blood from his body and he was very white. Nature had already begun the process of returning his body to the dust from which it had come.
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at email@example.com or 304-348-3017.