As Matt Miller settled under a walkover to the beach at Mayport Naval Station, he apologized to the folded American flag he had carried with him to get to this resting place. It was a cold, misty March night, and he would need to use it as a blanket. Just until first light, just until he could carry out his mission.
He was awakened at 6 a.m. by the rumbling and rattling of a white pickup truck on the road nearby. Military police? No, just someone going by with fishing poles.
Miller refolded the flag, picked up the two pieces of his flagpole and resumed his mission, walking north up the beach. He was nervous: He didn’t have permission for what he was about to do, and he feared someone would see him and stop him.
But no one did, so when he reached the big rocks that form the St. Johns River south jetty, he climbed up and started making his way east, into the Atlantic. About 200 yards out, he found the right spot to fulfill his mission: A huge boulder with a natural wide ledge on it. He settled down on the ledge and waited for the USS Saratoga to finally come home from war.
So he was ready several hours later when the aircraft carrier loomed into view, growing impossibly gigantic, a floating city whose thousands of residents manned the rails, with hands folded behind their backs.
Miller, on his ledge out in the ocean, stood as tall as he could. He thrust his right hand into the air as if in greeting, or triumph. In his left hand he held aloft his flagpole, and an east wind unfurled the American flag on it, stretching it out to its full length and width.
In a helicopter flying just to the south, Florida Times-Union photographer Dennis Hamilton Jr. captured the moment with his camera. It was an iconic tableau: the Saratoga and its sailors at parade rest, two Coast Guard escorts, a seabird just in the frame, a wave peeling off the jetty toward the beach.
And there on the rocks, a single figure, waving the American flag.
The photo was taken March 20, 1991, and the Saratoga was coming back to its home port after almost eight months in the Persian Gulf during the first Iraq war.
In a Navy town, the Saratoga’s homecoming was a big deal. At Mayport, 30,000 people waited to greet the crew and the newspaper had rented a helicopter so that Hamilton, a staff photographer, could get aerial shots of the carrier as it neared the jetties. As the helicopter followed the ship in, Hamilton saw the man with the flag on the rocks.
Can you go lower? he asked the pilot.
He could, and Hamilton got his shot. In those pre-digital days he couldn’t immediately see what he had, but he figured this was going to be good.
“You see it through the lens and you think this looks like a good A1 photo, but you never know until you get back and run the print,” said Hamilton, who left the paper in 2001. Indeed, the photo was worthy of A1, and ran across the entire front page. It was also turned into a popular poster.
The image has long outlasted that day’s news cycle: When Miller meets someone with a connection to the Saratoga, they usually remember that photo. There are many in Jacksonville, still, who have that connection. After all, the aircraft carrier spent 37 years at Mayport, the only home port it knew, and thousands served aboard it at any one time, and many of them had families with them …
“They know the picture,” Miller says. “They just don’t know me.”
BACK TO THE SARA
Miller is 60 now, and on a hot morning this week he drove to Mayport Naval Station, carrying that same flag with him too. He wore a teal Jaguars Nick Foles number 7 jersey and a Saratoga cap given him by a Saratoga veteran after Miller told him he was that guy in the photo.
This time he didn’t have to sneak onto the base: The Navy had readily agreed to allow him to visit the Saratoga’s nameplate. At 16 feet long and three feet high, it is just about all of what remains of the carrier, which was decommissioned in 1994 and then scrapped.
Miller took the folded flag and touched it to each of the black letters that spelled out the ship’s name. He paused in prayer, then broke into big smile.
Over and over, he said how amazed he was that this was happening, how humbled he was to be there.
And he told his story of that day 28 years ago: How he parked at an Atlantic Beach condominium at 3 a.m., how he left a palm frond on the beach to show him the way back, how he took the long walk by the ocean, fearing that he would be stopped, how he rested near the jetty, wrapped in the flag for warmth.
“I did ask the flag for forgiveness,” he said.
He had not thought everything out: He’d brought a sandwich with him, but ate it too soon, and he forgot to carry water, so his thirst grew. And he stumbled over a few times on the slimy rocks of the jetty — quick violent falls.
He had not counted on his mission making the front page, had not figured that anyone other than the sailors on the carrier would see what he had done. But that photo clearly means a lot to Miller, who carries prints of it with him most places he goes. He gives them to Desert Storm veterans he encounters or to those who served on the Saratoga.
He knew thousands would be at the base on that March day to greet the Saratoga, but he wanted his flag to be the one the sailors saw first. Several times he said he felt as if God was calling him to do it, to take the flag through the night to the jetty. “All glory goes to God,” he said.
As for himself? Miller says he was just someone who was at the right time and the right place, doing the right thing.
© 2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.