“Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground.
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
There are many veterans in Kinnakeet; a large percentage of men joined the service to take advantage of opportunities that were not available in this tiny village. And so, they were there, from the fiery hell of Pearl Harbor to the dense jungles of Vietnam. World War II sent many men home with medals for their bravery and memories of events that scarred their souls and still bring tears to their eyes.
In November of 1996, I spoke to Vernon Miller, who was a Pearl Harbor survivor (later serving in the Coast Guard for 23 years). Vernon was to turn 75 the next day; he’d been out fishing his nets and was taking the rest of the day to relax. We sat in the sun-drenched den of his home one Saturday afternoon and spoke quietly of the horrible struggle of war. He was 18 years old when he joined the Navy in June of 1940. In October, Vernon was assigned to the battleship West Virginia in Long Beach, California. After a month they went to Pearl Harbor. Vernon said, “Before the war I was 19 years old, having fun.” He had a little more than a year before his fun in the paradise of Hawaii would end.
On December 7, 1941, Vernon had just finished breakfast and had plans to go ashore on liberty when the alarms went off. The hatches were “dogged down tight” (fastened shut) and could not be opened until an “all clear” was sounded. To get to his battle station he used an escape hatch that led to the outside main deck. He made it to his battle station along with the other sailors. They felt the ship “buck and jump” and lost communication with the rest of the ship. They were told to abandon ship. Imagine the scene laid before this young man. There were 94 Navy ships in the harbor, so ships were tied up double. The Arizona, behind his ship, had sunk; the Oklahoma, in front, was on its side. His ship had been hit by three torpedoes and enemy aircraft was still overhead. The men needed to jump overboard but the oil-slick water was on fire. It must have looked as if the world was coming to an end.
The chief in charge of the battle station had the men throw a life raft overboard. This cleared an area for the men to jump into. He told the men to swim under water and when they needed to come up for air to hit the top of the water with their hand to see if fire was above them. Some of the men had been machine-gunned by a low-flying plane. They had to be left behind. Vernon was picked up by a small Navy boat and taken to Ford Island.
Vernon said he was wet and oily, but couldn’t take a bath, although he was given dry clothes. In looking back, he could laugh about the shoes he was given – he needed a size 7 and was given a size 7 and a size 9, both for the same foot. He wore those shoes for about a week. The survivors were housed at Pearl Harbor, segregated by the type ship they had been on. Field kitchens were set up and the line to get food was so long that once given breakfast they would immediately get back in line for lunch. Vernon said, “When she went down (the West Virginia), we were a bunch of sailors without a home.”
Back home, his family and his future wife, Hazel Scarborough, waited. Although Vernon’s father was stationed at the Coast Guard base in Cape Hatteras, he was unable to get any news on survivors. Mrs. Hazel Miller said, “We knew we shared the upset and felt that unity, but it was a horrible time.” It wasn’t until Christmas Day that Vernon’s card was received. It was a standard, printed card issued by the Navy that the men could check beside the words that they were all right. All mail was censored. The war was on and although Vernon said they were confident the United States would win, they didn’t know how long it would take, especially since so many ships had been lost at Pearl Harbor. As for himself, he didn’t expect he would ever go home again.
Vernon and another sailor went aboard the New Orleans and requested reassignment to that ship. They were given clean clothes, the use of the showers, and food, but were told they could not stay. However, the ship set sail that evening and the men were kept aboard. The New Orleans went to sea with two destroyers, to submarine hunt around Johnson Island. When the ship returned to Pearl Harbor ten days later, the men once again asked for reassignment. This time it was granted. Three days later they were back at sea.
This time they went to what Vernon called the “big scrap” – the battle for Midway Island. Midway was a naval base located northwest of Honolulu and was vital to the U.S. Pacific defense. On June 4, 1942, the U.S. naval force defeated the Japanese force. Four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk; one U.S. carrier, the Yorktown, was sunk. Vernon was there as his ship chased a disabled Japanese ship until she sank.
Vernon said that one time they had been at sea for 100 days and ran out of supplies. They lived for a week off of reused coffee grounds and rice. A supply ship came by and their skipper commandeered it and took the supplies. The first meal they had was horsemeat steak and eggs – the first and last time he ever had horsemeat.
From August of 1942 until February of 1943, fierce battle took place for Guadalcanal Island, the largest of the Solomon Islands. It was under Japanese occupation and was the site of the first important Allied offensive in the Pacific. The Japanese were finally forced to evacuate, and the Allies made Guadalcanal a major base.
As the Japanese tried to land 13 ships on Tulagi, of the Solomon Islands, the New Orleans attacked and destroyed them all. But the ship’s bow was shot to pieces. Vernon said that just before daylight two P.T. boats came and helped them get into harbor at Tulagi. They stayed there about 6 days. The ship was temporarily repaired with logs, then set out to be repaired at Australia. They went forward all day and backwards all night in order to repair each day’s damage to the bow. The 10 day voyage was harrowing for the men and the sight of the Australian Coast Guard to meet them a wonderful one.
While in Australia, Vernon had liberty in Sydney. He saw a Coast Guard man coming up the street who looked familiar, so he said, “the Hooligan Navy has hit town!” The man turned and said, “Who in the ###! Why, it’s a Kinnakeeter!” It was Manning Williams from home. Vernon also was able to see his uncle, Fred Miller, whose ship was dry-docked there. The New Orleans had a false bow put on it, then went to Washington State for permanent repair.
In 1943, Vernon went home for the first time since the war began. He was married to Hazel in a ceremony performed in Elizabeth City by his Uncle Sixby Miller. After 30 days leave, he left to go back to his ship but got sick and went to the naval hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. Once released, he reported to the naval receiving station and was asked if he wanted a shore job. Vernon said, “That was like asking me if I wanted to be rich!”
Vernon was sent to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to train for the blimp squadron. The U.S. was the only country in World War II to use airships. They were used in mine sweeping and anti-submarine patrols because they could stay aloft for 60 hours. Vernon said the days were long as they patrolled from before sunrise to sunset, seeing nothing but water for hours on end. If their sonar had possible submarine contact, they notified a Navy destroyer of its position. He served on blimp patrol in North Carolina, Florida, and California.
From California, Vernon was assigned to a squadron stationed in the Marshall Islands. He worked on a very small island airstrip doing repair work on damaged planes. When word came that the war was over, his first thought was to go home. They were told that if they had at least 17 months sea duty, they were eligible. Vernon left the next day.
Vernon Miller died on September 29, 2009 at the age of 87. His wife of 66 years, Hazel, died on July 21, 2011.
World War II was of another generation, but its consequences contemporary. It was fought by ordinary men called to be extraordinary. Families listened by the radio for 4 long years to hear the latest news of battle. There was cataclysmic loss of human life. At many points during the war, civilization stood at the brink of chaos. But the battle finally ended and the frayed edges of humanity were knit together once again. When the people of America stand united, there is no evil that can defeat them.