After a 3-mile drop from a B-17, Del Miller found himself behind enemy lines
Tech. Sgt. Del Miller of Napa is a World War II veteran who beat death.
Drafted into the Air Force in 1941 at age 19, Miller trained to become a radioman. After learning his new trade, Miller said, he was assigned to a plane and received a monthly military salary of $204 during active duty.
On Feb. 21, 1944 in the late morning, Miller, now 86, was the radioman for a mission aboard a B-17 and flew with nine other men, including a bomber, navigator pilot, co-pilot, engineer and others. From an area north of London, England, the men took off and entered German air space.
“It was supposed to be an easy run that day. … Our escort planes left us and the Germans knocked the right wing off. I went into a spin and he blew me out.”
The craft blew up and Miller regained consciousness after freefalling for nearly three miles, he said.
“When I came to, I thought I was dead. When I realized I was falling, I pulled the cord.”
Once he landed on German soil, he realized his bloodied left arm was hit with shrapnel and his watch was broken. Incredibly, he suffered no further injuries.
He hid his identification in the snow so the Germans couldn’t find it.
Miller had no food or water. To stay hydrated, he ate handfuls of snow.
Amazingly, Miller then met up with his tailgunner, Orvin Miller, the only other survivor of the attack. The men walked for six days, attempting to head toward Holland. During the journey, they were found by farmers and were eventually taken to a German airfield.
After being interrogated in Frankfurt, Germany, Del Miller was taken by boxcar to a camp in what was then East Prussia — an eight day journey. Miller said at the camp, the Germans listened for conversation “but there was not much brutality.” Still, he was often very hungry, receiving only dark bread and vegetable soup, usually once daily. Miller said he also got half of a Red Cross parcel each week, a package containing cigarettes, canned goods and other items.
A prisoner of war for more than 14 months, Miller said he spent much of the second half of his time in a camp in Poland. He got there by taking a cargo ship across the Baltic Sea in July of 1944. Both camps, he said, held approximately 9,000 men.
“The barracks were fairly large — about 16 feet by 60 feet. There were double bunks on either side of the room and it held close to 50 men,” he said.
For the last 90 days, Miller said, he and other prisoners marched from one area to another because the Russians kept closing in on the camps. During this time, he said, he slept primarily in barns and fields. For several months during Miller’s experience as a prisoner of war, he was unable to bathe and had only the clothes on his back. On March 23, 1945, he wrote in his journal, “Today, I bathed in the Elbe River, Germany. Forty-five (days) without one bath. Some dirt.”
During Miller’s time in the camps, he said, there was mail call every day. Miller’s journal contains letters from Americans at home to fellow prisoners of war — including questions about the conditions of the camps and pleas that the men stay true to their girlfriends and wives in the states.
To pass the time in camp, Miller said he played baseball and bridge and read a lot.
Two weeks before the war was over, he said, American planes flew over the site and dropped pamphlets which notified the Germans of surrender protocol.
On April 26, the Germans marched Miller and the other prisoners to their freedom in Halle, Germany. Miller said the first thing he ate when he was freed was peaches. “But we were only supposed to eat so much, because we weren’t getting a regular diet,” said Miller.
Miller set foot on American soil again when he landed in West Virginia in June of 1945. He then returned to his hometown of Spencer, Iowa.
When he returned to America, he said, “prisoners of war were treated like any other soldiers” and Miller received six medals for his service during World War II, including the Purple Heart.
Miller married his late wife, Opal, in 1947. The couple had three sons and after relocating to Sacramento for five years, the family moved to Napa in 1965.
Buying out what was then Napa’s Bell Products in 1968, Miller ran a sign business out of the building, where he specialized in neon and painted signs. He ran the shop for approximately 30 years and Bell Signs remains on First Street in Napa today.