- - Tuesday, June 21, 2016


By Stephen Harding

Da Capo Press, $25.99, 289 pages

Of all the combat veterans I have encountered in almost half a century of writing, not a single person has claimed the accolade “hero,” regardless of the number of ribbons he wears. I recall vividly the reaction of a much-decorated veteran of the Korean War when I suggested his actions earned him such a designation.

He uttered a terse curse word, then grinned. “Let the historians sort out that kind of stuff,” he growled.

One person who surely deserved the honor is a Navy lieutenant named Hugh Barr Miller Jr., who was 34 years old in 1943 when a Japanese torpedo sank his destroyer, the USS Strong, off the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. His remarkable story is told by Stephen Harding, a Virginian who edits Military History magazine.

Although only 5 foot, 9 inches and 140 pounds, the spunky Miller was prepared for adversity. Descended from two generations of prominent Alabama lawyers, he spent his boyhood learning outdoors lore — finding directions, tracking wildlife — from an uncle. Despite his size, he played on the University of Alabama football team that won the 1931 Rose Bowl.

Miller helped free trapped seamen, then jumped into the water — and disaster. The Strong carried depth charges for anti-submarine warfare. To prevent accidental detonation while aboard the destroyer, each was fitted with safety systems.

But fail-safe devices failed on at least four of the charges. As Miller gasped for air, clearing his face and nose from fuel oil, “a giant’s fist crushed his abdomen and slammed his testicles, his head was almost wrenched from his neck, and the seas around him roiled and bubbled as though a volcano were rising from the depths beneath him.” The exploding TNT warhead had “sent a shock wave outward at some five thousand feet a second.”

Miller and several shipmates managed to grab onto a “float net,” which although immersed in water was buoyant enough to support a dozen men. After four tortuous days, during which several men died and slipped away into the ocean, the net made landfall on Arundel Island, a few miles off the coast of the larger New Georgia island.

Miller could barely walk. His legs were paralyzed, and for several days he vomited fuel oil and blood. And numerous Japanese soldiers patrolled the island.

As he slowly recovered — but by no means back to normal — Miller made a decision. He regularly saw barges laden with Japanese soldiers in the strait separating the islands. He decided that “as long as he remained on the island, it was his duty to do whatever he could to gather useful information on the Japanese forces operating in the vicinity. Any details he could amass — the designations and strengths of units, the locations of heavy weapons and strong points, the timing of patrols — would be of immense operational value” to planners of the eventual invasion of Arundel.

Miller reasoned it would be easier to interdict the barges than it would be to fight the Japanese ashore. He fashioned a “look out position” a few yards from paths taken by Japanese controls and took notes.

At times Miller was so ill he could not move. He briefly considered cutting his wrists rather than suffer further. He ran out of water. He “made a promise both to God and himself: If the Lord would give him water he would get on his feet and move.” A heavy rain fell that night, and Miller filled several bottles with water. He slowly regained strength.

Then a break: An American PT boat shelled a group of Japanese near his hiding place, leaving bodies strewn here and there. Miller was unable to flag down the boat for rescue. But he did rifle the pockets of the dead Japanese and recovered a number of documents. And he snatched several hand grenades, one of which he used to ambush and destroy a five-man Japanese patrol.

Miller and colleagues eventually caught the attention of U.S. patrol planes that overflew the island. Using signals, a sea plane landed offshore. After 43 days, Miller was flown to freedom.

His first business was to turn over the material he had collected to intelligence officers, who preparing for an assault on Arundel. Miller’s intelligence contributed to victory, with more than 500 Japanese killed versus a U.S. loss of 44.

Adm. William F. “Bull” Haley, U.S. naval commander in the Pacific, was so impressed with Miller that he visited the hospital to hear his story. He directed that he be awarded the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor. Halsey called Hugh Miller “the bravest man I ever met.” Truly a man who deserves the term “hero.”

Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on military and intelligence affairs.

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