A Life Cut Short Over Europe

A Life Cut Short Over Europe

THIS “FIRST BIRTHDAY GREETING” card was given to infant Leroy Miller on Feb. 27, 1923, by the Cradle Roll superintendent for the Sunday school at Broad Creek A.R. Presbyterian Church.

A Life Cut Short Over Europe

A 1943 PHOTO of Cpl. Leroy Miller is surrounded by his USAAF lapel wings, his posthumous Purple Heart and his Service Prayer Book.

A Life Cut Short Over Europe

THIS FAMILY photo of the Millers dates from about 1930: Leroy is the tallest of the young boys, wearing all white. His parents, John W. and Annie (Ayers) Miller, are at left. Of the 10 Miller children, the only one not pictured is Edith (perhaps taking the photo), Leroy’s most frequent family correspondent during WWII.

A Life Cut Short Over Europe

ABOVE is the final page of Sgt. Leroy Miller’s U.S. Army Air Forces Force Flight Log, 1942-1944, in which he was listed as missing in action following a mid-air collision on Sept. 21, 1944. AT RIGHT is an April 1944 photo of Leroy Miller and Frances Conner during his only leave home to Natural Bridge. On the back, she writes, “With all my enduring love, Frances.” Family members said they expected the couple to get married. AT FAR RIGHT is the last Letter written by Leroy Miller, addressed to his eldest sister Edith, in Lexington, postmarked the day he died.

A Life Cut Short Over Europe
A Life Cut Short Over Europe
A Life Cut Short Over Europe

SGT. LEROY MILLER (kneeling front row, third from left) is seen with fellow soldiers and visiting family members in this photo taken outside a delicatessen near their training base in Casper, Wyoming, June 7, 1944, one day after D-Day, and a month before he would deploy to England for active combat.

WWII Airman’s Story

This profile continues the Rockbridge Historical Society’s summer-long series of articles commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, and is complemented by pop-up exhibits in local libraries running from V-J Day, Aug. 15, through September. It is written by Eric Wilson, RHS executive director, along with the others “frontpaged” at RockbridgeHistory.org.

It’s a puzzling entry in the log book, Sept. 21.

Then gut-wrenching, when you realize its abrupt end.

The more routinely logged numbers are punctuated by the last line, on the last page of this folder of personal flight records, bluntly inscribed: “MISSING IN ACTION.”

But the personally scripted letter, folded in with that same sheaf, would prove even more haunting.

On the night of Sep. 20, 1944, Natural Bridge native Sgt. Leroy L. Miller penned the last letter he wrote, from his air base in England. Writing eight neatly-cursived pages to his eldest sister Edith in Lexington, Leroy opens casually, gratefully itemizing the pieces of V-Mail and U.S. Mail he’d received that day: “five V-Mail from Frances, two V-Mail from you, one from mother. Then I also got a nice Air Mail letter from Marie, but I think I enjoyed yours most of all. It is so real just like you talking to me.”

Eagerly angling for more, and asking for news from Rockbridge, he wrote late into the night, unsure as always whether his own news would arrive back home in a similar cascade, or awaited delay. Movingly, in retrospect, he closes by sharing notice of a chapel service that the Army had scheduled for the first Sunday in October, timed so that families back home could join in synchrony, and in prayer.

That last letter was postmarked the next day, before Sgt. Leroy Miller climbed into his plane, the very day that he died in air combat, helping turn the European campaign from that summer’s Normandy invasion, toward the Battle of the Bulge that winter, and the final push to Berlin and V-E Day, May 8, 1945.

By the day of his death, Miller had completed 25 months of technical training and nearly 150 hours of airtime, from bases across the United States, Caribbean, and Pacific. Having volunteered to join the Army right after Pearl Harbor, he’d arrived in Europe that July to serve as a tail-gunner in a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber, 330th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bombardment Group. But after only three missions with his new team (which had routinely returned in about six hours) his Sept. 21 mission, headed across the English Channel to Germany, would last only 2 hours, 25 minutes.

We don’t know if the Miller family received their son and sibling’s last letter in time to join that religious service that he’d asked them to observe on Oct. 1. It was not until Oct. 5 that The Roanoke Times listed him as M.I.A., with the family informed that he’d been killed in action, later that month. His local memorial service would be held on Nov. 12, 1944. One day after Veterans Day.

Ten months later, another personally handwritten letter would arrive from a fellow airman, written by Sgt. D.A. Lennon on Aug 7, 1945, the day after another U.S. bombing squadron had dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima: “I left [Miller] and the crew on the morning of Sept. 21, 1944, the day he was killed in a mid-air collision over Belgium … And they are all buried beside each other there in Belgium. I really don’t know how to write a letter like this as I don’t want to hurt your feelings any more than they have already been hurt.”

The emotional torque borne by wartime families comes from many angles, each borne in their own ways. And it’s unclear whether Lennon’s candid message arrived before or after the celebrations announcing V-J Day, Aug. 15. Regardless, that coda to Sgt. Miller’s final mission must have arrived with cold comfort to the Miller’s family farm on Plank Road, still in a limbo of loss.

It was not until the fall of 1947, that his remains would be repatriated to the United States, part of a convoy of 125 coffins returned to families across Southwest Virginia. One of 10 children born to John W. and Annie (Ayers) Miller, Leroy Lauderdale Miller was finally buried in the graveyard of the Broad Creek Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church he’d been raised in, the very church founded in the 1770s by his Miller ancestors, among the earliest white settlers into the Natural Bridge area.

NBHS Report Cards

There’s another “log book” to reckon with, in the box of family mementos. But in counterbalance to that first tragic ledger, pointing to a young man fallen from the skies, these entries are positively uplifting.

This chart gives a glimpse into Leroy’s younger years: his 10th grade report card from Natural Bridge High School, spring of 1939. The Nazi invasion of Poland was still a summer away, a long way from Rockbridge County.

Leroy’s marks were a bit up and down. No grade inflation here, during the tail end of The Great Depression. D’s and C’s in English; C’s and B’s in Algebra; mostly A’s and a stray B in both Latin and European History, the courses where he earned his highest grades.

Save one.

None of us want to be merely remembered as the sum total of our report cards, nor that of the military or professional evaluations we receive. But it’s hard not to dwell on the final entries of this revealing record, at bottom right.

At the age of 17, Leroy Miller earned straight A’s on the line reserved for “Character.”

Letters Home, And Poignant Photos

The box holding all these documents came to the Rockbridge Historical Society in 2019, thanks to the family bequest of Sgt. Miller’s nephew, Col. John R. Miller, who was raised in Rockbridge, a graduate of both Natural Bridge High School, 1963, and Washington and Lee, 1967, and a career army officer himself.

This donation to RHS’ archives included a wealth of other materials with which to flesh out a life. Highlighting them all is a large U.S. Armyframed service portrait of Sgt. Miller in full, formal dress, complemented by several jauntier wallet-sized snapshots of him in uniform; most memorably, in the spirits of youth, one shows him in a sombrero. Other candid photographs show him in easy company: laughing with fellow soldiers, sometimes with guests visiting their bases, as well as a few images captured back home during his first and last leave home to Natural Bridge, March 1944.

A few dozen letters reveal Miller’s everyday thoughts as he wrote home, still folded carefully in their red-whiteand-blue Air Mail envelopes. His words are rarely tinged with concern, laughing about how his leg had fallen asleep sitting the wrong way while writing, more focused on the humdrum of military routine, not to mention the unforgiving sand that coated everything in Alamogordo, New Mexico. First based in New Orleans, he earned his wings by spanning the globe: training in Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, Trinidad, Papua New Guinea, even the wilds of Casper, Wyoming, before shoving off to England … and his crushingly brief four flights over Europe.

After visiting home, he thanks a brother for his wherewithal in rounding up a battery and car tags that allowed them, during that brief stay, to ride their way around Rockbridge for a playful spin: “we’d never have had so much fun if you didn’t.” That note reminded John Miller of his uncle’s particular love for cars, for tinkering with all manner of things. And in a postscript to that letter, Leroy once again shows his character, his family conscientiousness during a wartime economy, reminding them they should go back to the car and siphon out its gas, before it evaporated.

With that technical acumen (which would clearly serve him well through his advanced aeronautical training), Leroy briefly worked for the Blueridge Company in Glasgow, between his graduation and shipping off, in January 1942. Among the more locally resonant items in the bequest was an impressively designed Souvenir Program marking the company’s earning the Army-Navy Award for War Production. Headlined by Virginia Gov. Colgate Darden and soon-to-be U.S. Sen. A. Willis Robertson, the commemorative pamphlet listed Leroy Miller’s name among the 178 local men and women currently serving in the war, as of February 1943.

In chronicling the public hallmarks of his military career, his family had compiled a range of regional news-clippings noting his enlistment, promotion, and obituary, as well as the one that hauntingly reported him as missing, while three of his brothers were still serving abroad. Most poignant of those yellowed clippings was an original 12-line poem titled, “In Memoriam.” Written by sister Edith (Miller) McDaniel on the first anniversary of her brother’s death, it’s prefaced with, “A year ago today, our blue star turned to gold.” Gold Star families were recognized for a member killed in combat.

Spotlighting his younger days are a first birthday certificate from his church; a card of loving thanks he’d given to his mother and father when he graduated high school in 1941; and the last picture taken with him before he left, the family gathered around the dining room table.

In another photo taken back at the Miller farm, during that sole 1944 homecoming, Leroy stands in uniform, smiling with his arm around his high school sweetheart, Frances Conner. Family members say they expected the couple to marry. Indeed, among those photos he still held at his death were three variously picturing her, each signed on the back, “With all my enduring love, Frances.”

For his part, Leroy had confided to his brother John in April 1943, “As you said in your letter that you believed Frances would be waiting for me, no matter how long, I am going well. From the letters she writes me, I think she will too. Anyway, I hope she does. I didn’t realize how much I did love her until I left, and I didn’t think that she loved me the way she does, until after I left.”

Two final objects stand in for the joint standards of religious and military service, so clearly valued by the Miller family: Leroy’s pocket-sized Army-issued Service Prayer Book; and, pinned together with his U.S. Airman’s lapel wings, the posthumous Purple Heart he was awarded, in final honors.

Exhibiting Online And In Glasgow

The descendant lines of Leroy’s nine siblings have since moved beyond Rockbridge. But nephew John Miller drove from Roanoke to the RHS Museum so these items could be stewarded here in the contexts of local history. Here, they can still be enjoyed by visiting relatives, descendants of the Millers’ neighbors and friends, fellow alumni and church members, residents whose own family histories resonate with memorial cues like this: before, during and beyond World War II. As an institutional donation of a family archive, they also stand as a model for which other families can entrust museums – or other libraries, churches, or schools – to sustain those personal legacies, their character.

In addition to articles like this (archived with others on the RHS website’s WWII Portal) RHS and the Rockbridge Regional Library have arranged to feature some of these artifacts and images in “Pop-Up Exhibits” that will run from the anniversary of the war’s close, Aug. 15, through Sept. 30.

Sgt. Miller’s display will remain at the Glasgow Public Library, near his home and former high school.

But by rotating other materials and sites in weeks ahead, RHS is proud to extend these 75th anniversary commemorations, while also making its resources and community histories more accessible, during COVID-19 constraints. For more information, visit RockbridgeHistory.org.

The News-Gazette

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