Bill Miller, 21 years old, got out of the rocking boat. He hadn’t thrown up like some of the other soldiers.
With his heavy pack, he slogged through the water and scrambled across Utah Beach, taking cover when he could from the Germans’ machine gun, mortar and artillery fire in occupied France.
This week, 75 years later, Miller, now 96 and a longtime resident of Fairlawn, returned to Normandy, France for the fourth time since the invasion of June 6, 1944, when he was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
With D-day veterans in their 90s, the 75th commemoration could be the last milestone gathering for many of them. Miller made the trip with a handful of family members.
“You say, `My God, did I do that,'” Milller said last week, before he left for France, recalling memories conjured up during his earlier trips.
“I knew we were going to be fired on,” he said, recalling what he was thinking as he made the the trek across the English Channel to Utah Beach, the westernmost landing beach for the invasion.
“But you’re never prepared for something like that. So what you had to do was do your best to keep your head down,” Miller said.
“When you hit the beach, there was no place to go [and hide],” he said. “You had to get off… and you’re falling down ” in the sand.
He recalled at one point having to wait behind some kind of barricade to get through a passageway the Allies, with their bombing, had created in the sea wall or dunes.
Miller began returning to Normandy about ten years ago. On two of the trips, Miller, a former longtime scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 380 in Fairlawn, went with a group of former scouts — adult men — who had earned Eagle Scout rank.
The trips, he said, are about reliving and sharing his memories and honoring those who fought.
Earlier this week, Miller went to the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach with family members, including his son Tim Miller.
Tim Miller, in an email about the cemetery visit, wrote that his father “was very contemplative,” remarking that each cross and Star of David represents someone who never had the kind of blessings he has had in his life.
Tim Miller wrote that his father said, “It’s important for me and all Americans to remember the amazing cost that has paid for our freedoms.”
Allied casualties on D-Day were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead. Among troops landing on Utah Beach, there were relatively few American casualties — less than 200 dead and wounded.
That compares with Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the five landing beaches, where the U.S. troops suffered 2,400 casualties.
Bill Miller didn’t talk much about his war experiences until the past ten years or so, Tim Miller and his wife, Deborah, said last week before leaving for France.
Tim Miller said that even after the movie “Saving Private Ryan” came out in 1998, his father “didn’t tell us he had been in D-Day — he just said `Oh yes, that’s a pretty realistic movie.’ We didn’t really know” he was part of the invasion.
“When you have three kids and a lovely wife,” Bill Miller said, “you don’t want to burden them with that kind of stuff.”
Then about ten years ago, Miller spoke to a group of high school students. They were almost disbelieving when he told them about the horrors inside a concentration camp near Gotha, Germany, he helped to liberate in April 1945.
It was about 14 months before then that Miller landed on Utah Beach, and with 40 men under his command, he went south to Carentan, France.
The men pushed east, engaging in difficult hedgerow fighting. Hedgerows, mounds of earth that separated fields — could often conceal the enemy.
Miller’s company joined Gen. George S. Patton before the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle of the war fought by U.S. troops. It took place in France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
“We were told that was going to be a rest area [for the troops],” he said of the Ardennes region of forests where the battle took place. “It turned out, that’s where the German Panzer (tanks) units came roaring through.”
Eastward the soldiers went into Germany, eventually crossing the Rhine.
About a week before VE (Victory in Europe) Day May 8, 1945, Miller was hit in the leg with shrapnel from a mortar while after entering Czechoslovakia.
Along with the Purple Heart, he received two other military awards for heroism during the war.
After he returned home, he finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Akron. He had left college to enlist in the Army in 1942. He earned a law degree at Case Western Reserve University and in 1958 began a successful career in insurance and financial planning. He and his wife, Alice, were married 61 years before she died in 2009.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Miller said. “I’ve been so blessed.”
© 2019 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
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