Jeff Jardine

Pearl Harbor survivor still among us in Turlock

Pearl Harbor survivor Herb Miller sits with his wife, Wilma, at the Covenant Village retirement community in Turlock.
Pearl Harbor survivor Herb Miller sits with his wife, Wilma, at the Covenant Village retirement community in Turlock. jjardine@modbee.com

One by one, they passed on, until there were none.

The local Pearl Harbor Survivors Association hasn’t included a true Pearl Harbor survivor for a couple of years now. When the group meets, remaining members are surviving spouses, children or others with a connection.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still those living among us who were there and lived to tell about Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and drew the United States officially into World War II. Or not to tell about it. Or simply didn’t join the survivors group before they died.

The Bee’s obituaries over the past decade have included the names of numerous survivors who didn’t previously surface as members of the regional group.

So I cannot say I was shocked when Marcia Carota of the Covenant Village staff emailed last week to tell me about a Pearl Harbor survivor and resident of the care center who soon will celebrate his 100th birthday.

Herb Miller will hit the century mark March 21. He’s never been an outspoken gent at any point in life, according to his wife of 69 years, Wilma. He did pay dues to the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, but never got involved at the local level.

“He’s not a group person,” she said. “He likes to listen, not to talk.”

A native of the Watsonville area and the 12th of 12 children in his family, Miller served as a gunner’s mate in the Navy throughout all of World War II and then in the Navy Reserve after the war. He was on the USS Detroit, a light cruiser based at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese launched their attack. The ship got out of the harbor relatively unscathed and then went looking for the Japanese attack force.

He also served on the destroyer USS La Vallette and the aircraft carrier USS Franklin, which got closer to the Japanese mainland than other U.S. carriers but took two torpedo hits in the process. The explosions and flames killed 724 sailors and wounded 265 more, many either knocked overboard by the impact or driven into the water by the fire.

Miller went into the water with a net to help rescue fellow survivors, according to his wife.

Deeply religious, Miller didn’t drink, smoke or gamble, which set him apart from many of the other sailors aboard his ships. “He’s not a social person – never has been,” Wilma Miller said.

One night aboard the USS Detroit, crewmen were gambling and drinking and making a racket. So he broke up their card game. “I guess I did,” he said quietly and with a smile while sitting in a dining area at Covenant on Wednesday.

The Millers met via U.S. mail. Wilma Miller worked at an iron ore factory in Minnesota and accepted the dare of a co-worker, who knew him, to write Herb Miller a letter.

“I took the dare,” she said. “I sent him a note.”

He wrote back, and they continued this way throughout the war, until he was ordered to report to a gunnery school in Washington, D.C., in 1945. He decided to make a swing north through Duluth along his way east.

“My father didn’t know I’d been writing to a sailor,” Wilma said. “(Miller) stopped on his way east, and when he met the folks, it was the first time I’d met him, too.”

He came prepared, carrying along a diamond that would later become the marquee stone in her wedding ring. They were married two weeks after the very first moment she set eyes on him.

After the war, they settled in Redwood City, where they raised three daughters and lived for nearly five decades while he worked as a watch repairer. They retired to Covenant Village in Turlock in 1996 and, true to form, several years passed before anyone else in the retirement community knew he’d survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Millers returned to Hawaii about 25 years ago and visited the USS Arizona Memorial. But they talked little about his memories of the attack, Wilma said.

“We were there on vacation,” she said. “I’m not much of a history buff. We weren’t there for the reminiscing.”

But there will be some remembering come March 21, along with a cake for Miller’s 100th birthday. Carota and other Covenant staff members will make a big deal out of his service, and especially when and where he served.

An official at the USS Arizona Memorial told the Washington Post in Deccember that there might be as many as 2,500 of the original 60,000 Pearl Harbor survivors still surviving.

That one of them, soft-spoken Herb Miller, still lives in the Turlock retirement complex is worth celebrating.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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