Tales of a tail gunner — Vernon T. Miller

Published 2:17 am Sunday, July 13, 2008

“I will always have lasting memories of my flying experience as a tail gunner on a B-24,” wrote Pearl River County resident and WWII veteran Vernon T. Miller.

Miller was born on October 20, 1924, in Carson, Miss., in Jeff Davis County. He was the son of a sharecropper and “an old country boy” he says to down play his impressive school-aged accomplishments as President of his senior class and Captain of the basketball team. The team had an undefeated season with Miller at the helm. “We won 28 straight games,” he said.

It would seem that Miller enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in the cadet program even before the ink was dry on his high school diploma. Graduating from high school in Carson in 1943, he enlisted December 29 of that same year. He was called to active duty on January 17, 1944.

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While his military career seems brief, and he was still just 21 years old when he received his honorable discharge, Miller has quite the story to tell.

“After basic training at Miami Beach, Fla., it was evident that the cadet program was ending. However, they still needed aerial gunners for combat duty. I signed up immediately for aerial gunnery school, specifying tail gunner. I was sent to AAF Flexible Gunnery School in Laredo, Texas where I earned my aerial gunners’ wings and Staff Sergeant stripes.” He was assigned to the tail position on the B-24.

On September 16, 1944, Miller found himself headed to Manduria, Italy on a new B-24 — THE TULSAMERICAN. With many stops along the way he would not reach his destination until October 6, 1944. His crew was assigned to the 722nd Squadron, the 450th Bomb Group. The group flew B-24 “Liberator” bombing plans.

“I flew my first combat mission on October 13, 1944, bombing marshaling yards at Banhida, Hungary,” he wrote. His second combat mission took place 4 days prior to his 20th birthday.

“During my tour of duty we had several close calls. On December 17, 1944 we took off to bomb marshaling yards at Wels, Austria, but flying over the Alps mountains we encountered heavy overcast, snow clouds, and became separated from our BOX, or group, of six B-24’s and failed to locate our group after emerging above the overcast.”

The group briefly met up with a group from the 461st Bomb Group and flew with them until their pilot made the decision to return home — alone.

“Our plane’s #3 engine had been slinging oil for quite sometime, so we dropped down to 16,000 feet. By mistake we flew over Gyor, Hungary along the Danube River — Gyor was well protected with heavy 105mm flax guns. We were pounded from all sides above and below with flax. We lost #4 engine, being directly hit by flax, and we received quite a number of flax holes to the fuselage. The pilot was able to baby the plane along. In order to lighten the aircraft we threw out everything that was not part of the plane into the Adriatic Sea and #3 engine held out until the pilot made a safe landing at Manduria Air Field.”

During Miller’s time in service to his country there were other “close calls” both in training and in combat — all memories he will not forget.

Miller, just one of the brave of the U.S. Air Force, faced my challenges in WWII. The planes were not pressurized and the men aboard the crafts had to prepare for extreme weather conditions. Many men died, were lost at sea or went missing in action. He realizes his vital role in the war, and how extremely dangerous that role had been.

“I completed my 51 mission, flying my last mission on March 31, 1945…I called that my ‘whirlwind tour of duty’ — 21 months and 8 days,” he wrote. He was discharged on October 25, 1945.

For his bravery and service he was awarded the American Theater Ribbon, European Theater of Operations Ribbon with one Silver Battle Star and One Bronze Battle Star, an Air Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Presidential Unit Citations with one Oak Leaf Cluster and the Good Conduct Medal.

Miller then moved to Pearl River County to attend Pearl River Community College. It was there he met his future wife, Mary P. Miller. Today the couple has three children — two sons and a daughter. They are enjoying their retirement.