Tale told for Modestan killed at Pearl Harbor

jjardine@modbee.comDecember 5, 2011 

— It's a window into history, the Dec. 12, 1941, story in The Bee telling of the area's first serviceman killed in World War II action.

"Modesto Youth Is War Casualty" read the headline below the photo of a smiling J.B. Delane Miller.

Five days before — 70 years ago tomorrow — the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Reading that five-paragraph story today, I found it intriguing by what it didn't reveal. The story didn't specify that Miller, 23, died during the actual attack, which wasn't all that surprising.

A day or so after Pearl Harbor, the government announced it would not immediately release names of those killed in the attack, fearing the information might help the enemy.

In fact, the name of his ship — the USS Tennessee — embroidered on the front of his Navy cap had been blacked out for the photo released to the newspaper. Family members were discouraged from revealing much of what they knew.

No story detailed Miller's all-too short life. Did he grow up in Modesto? Attend local schools?

Amid the immediate hysteria of the war, and with local men enlisting by the dozens, Miller's death didn't get the same kind of coverage those who subsequently died in Iraq or Afghanistan received. He was buried in Honolulu. His family, it seems, held no memorial service for him in Modesto.

Like so many others at the time, Miller's story quickly dissolved into the background, held only in the hearts of those who knew and loved him.

Who was he? His parents, brother and two sisters all are deceased. So my Nov. 29 column included a note asking any surviving kin or friends to contact me, not really expecting to get a response.

Late last week, Marjorie Miller of Modesto called. Her late husband, Theo Miller, was J.B.'s younger brother and there are numerous other relatives in the area, though most were born after J.B. died. In fact, she owns an album containing photos, letters and official military correspondence regarding J.B. Her memorabilia includes the last letter he wrote to his parents and his death notice from the Navy Department via Postal Telegraph, a Western Union competitor of the day.

Marjorie, who knew him in Oklahoma before marrying his brother and later moving west, filled in the details of J.B.'s life. (J.B., by the way, stood for John Bert).

He was born March 24, 1918, in Oklahoma. He graduated in 1937 from Gould High — where he was voted "most handsome" — in Harmon County, Okla., on the Texas border. Dust Bowl migrants, his parents came to the Central Valley in the mid-1930s and eventually settled into a house at 1209 S. 10th St., south of Modesto.

J.B., though, remained in Oklahoma to attend junior college and lived with the family of his cousin, Clarence Miller.

"He was a really neat guy," said Clarence Miller, now of San Diego. "Everybody liked him. The last picture I saw of him, he was in Long Beach and he sent a picture of him and his girlfriend (circa 1939). He was about 10 years older (than Clarence). I wish I could have known him longer."

J.B. Miller eventually joined his family in Modesto for a brief time before enlisting in the Navy in 1939, and his parents' address became his own.

In that manner, he became a Modestan — hence the only one known to have died in the Pearl Harbor attack.

"He was a very energetic fellow," Marjorie remembers. "A lot of fun to be around. He was a really nice brother-in-law."

In one letter home, he wrote that he hoped to be home for Christmas. But the Navy and particularly Hawaii, she said, became his real home.

"(I'd) stay here the rest of my life before I'd pick another bale of cotton," J.B. wrote.

One of J.B.'s letters noted a visit from brother Theo, who was heading home to be discharged from the Navy. Their visit happened Dec. 2, five days before the attack and the day Theo had reached San Francisco to muster out. Already married to Marjorie, Theo went on to Oklahoma to reunite with his wife.

Over the years, Theo and Marjorie talked often about J.B., but never about how he might have died.

"(Theo) didn't talk about it," she said.

The Navy didn't offer details and the family didn't pursue them.

Now, of course, information is available on the Internet. Records show J.B. Delane Miller served on the USS Tennessee, moored alongside the USS West Virginia when the Japanese attacked. Of the two bombs that struck the ship, one hit a gun turret. It failed to explode but broke apart. Fragments of the bomb and one of the gun barrels, according to survivors' accounts, killed three of the five USS Tennessee crewmen who died that day.

J.B. likely died at that time, Marjorie Miller said.

"We were told J.B. was there when a bomb was dropped on the deck," she said. "It didn't explode, but the concussion got him."

A satellite now pinpoints his gravestone at the National Cemetery Memorial of the Pacific in Honolulu.

Likewise, seven decades later, J.B. Delane Miller is among the names etched in stone on the monument in downtown's courthouse park, listing Stanislaus County residents who died in World War I and subsequent wars.

It doesn't say when or where he died. It doesn't tell you he was the only known Modesto resident, however tenuous the connection, killed at Pearl Harbor.

It represents a story that, like all the rest, deserved to be told.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383.

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