A purple heart and a bronze star are just two of the medals awarded William Kenneth Miller, 91, as the result of his heroic actions on Saipan during WWII. The Oakhurst veteran will be honored Oct. 29 as one of the 73 participants selected for the Inaugural Central Valley Honor Flight departing Fresno for Washington, D.C.
Miller, who goes by the name Ken, said the news of his selection for this honor, "was like a bomb. I hadn't heard anything about it," until he received a letter from Al Perry, the president of the Central Valley Honor Flight. Miller's granddaughter, Christy (Fullmer) Smith, had submitted his application for the honor without his knowledge.
Grandson-in-law, Larry Smith, will be accompanying Miller on the trip as each participant is allowed a guardian to assist them.
The itinerary for the trip includes the WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War and Lincoln Memorials, meeting with dignitaries, the Changing-of-the-Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, and the Iwo Jima Monument. But it is a painting on the wall of the Department of Defense Building that Miller wants to see the most.
The painting, The Counterattack of "H" Battery, depicts the fighting that took place on Saipan the day that Miller was wounded. British artist, John Hamilton, was commissioned to paint it and Miller has been told that he is the gunner in the painting. Miller has been assured that he will get to see this painting even if they have to put him in a taxi to get him there.
The Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit organization created to honor America's veterans for all their services. War heroes are transported to Washington, D.C. "to visit and reflect at their memorials," according to the program's website. Top priority is given to the senior veterans World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.
Only a dozen survivors from 300 troops after Saipan battle
Assigned to the Third Battalion, Tenth Marines, Second Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, Miller was one of about a dozen survivors of the 300 troops in his division that fought on Saipan on July, 7, 1944. Miller sustained a gunshot wound in his left thigh that day.
"The Japanese were ascending on us," Miller remembers. "As we got overrun, we had a move back into an airplane parts dump. We made a fortress out of airplane parts. We ran out of ammunition. I chose to stay and protect what was there."
The troops holed-up in the make-shift fortress were not only out of ammunition but also out of water. Miller and a buddy foraged out to retrieve five-gallon jugs of water that were on a bullet-riddled jeep. Before that, the only water they had was some that had collected on a tarp.
"For 10 harrowing hours, Sgt. Miller's howitzer battery was completely isolated from help as the screaming enemy overran the area," as reported in an article in the March 15, 1945 Leatherneck Magazine.
The ammunition running out "did not stop Miller. He held his final rounds until a charging Japanese was literally on the edge of his foxhole, then the Marine fired. The enemy tumbled down dead, and Miller seized the enemy soldier's rifle and ammunition. With this he resumed firing and continued to do so even though wounded, until reinforcements arrived and finished the job of annihilating the last of the organized resistance on Saipan."
The fighting went on until about 3 or 4 p.m. that afternoon, Miller remembers. "Here comes one of our tanks ... I can't tell you anything from there it went black."
Because of his actions, Miller was promoted from Private First Class to Sergeant before he left Saipan, a rank that usually takes 20 to 30 years to achieve.
Miller's service started in Cleveland, Ohio
With a tour of duty that began in Cleveland, Ohio, on Sept. 24, 1942, Miller graduated from boot camp in San Diego, and received special training at Camp Pendleton.
He soon found himself on a ship for New Zealand, and then went on to Tarawa, an eight-square mile island in the Gilbert Islands where the U.S. began its Central Pacific Campaign against Japan. Both the Japanese and the U.S. suffered heavy casualties during the 76-hour battle.
After Tarawa, Miller received additional training in Hilo, Hawaii, and was then assigned to Saipan, an island in the Mariana Island group.
From Saipan, Miller was sent on a ship that acted as a floating decoy first at Iwo Jima and then at Okinawa.
Born in Dover, Ohio
Miller was born (April 30, 1922) and raised in Dover, Ohio, a town on the Ohio Erie Canal, where he was a high school basketball star. He married his high school sweetheart, the former Ruth Weber, on Aug. 2, 1943 in Long Beach on a weekend furlough. She passed away in August 2011.
He saw his first child, Karen, when she was 18-months old. She was born on June 16, 1943, D-Day of Saipan. Miller got timely news of the birth since the captain of his outfit also received notice of the birth of a child on that same day.
Following the war, Miller worked construction. He landed a job with the city of Garden Grove, becoming the manager of building and safety, and was employed for the city for 29 years.
"The last building I worked on was the Crystal Cathedral," Miller said. "I worked on that building, on and off, for 25 years," due to various ongoing construction projects.
He retired in1986, and has lived in Oakhurst for about 12 years, currently living with his daughter, Karen Snyder.
Miller proudly lists others on his family tree including a son, William Miller of Anthem, Ariz. Two of five granddaughters live in the area: Christy (Fullmer) Smith of Oakhurst, and Alicia Hood of Coarsegold. Of 11 great-grandchildren, William Ryan Fullmer and Jessica (Fullmer) Koenen live in Oakhurst and Aubrey Hood lives in Coarsegold. A great-great grandchild, Josiah Joseph, was born Oct. 16 to parents Jessica and Peter Koenen.
"The only reward I'd ever wanted was a pat on the back from my buddies," Miller said. "It takes a lot of people doing a lot of different things. We're free. God made us that way. Don't let that get away."
Details: Alan Perry, (559) 970-9853.Miller and other honorees will return to Fresno at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 31 at the Fresno Air Terminal for a "Heroes Welcome." Those who wish to honor the heroes are invited to attend this event. Details: Alan Perry (559) 970-9853
"For 10 harrowing hours, Sgt. Miller's howitzer battery was completely isolated from help as the screaming enemy overran the area"
Leatherneck Magazine, March 15, 1945
"The only reward I'd ever wanted was a pat on the back from my buddie,"