The Personal Legacy of WWII

(Guest post from spouse.)

My namesake was James Miller Herren, Jr. – make that Lt. Col. James Miller Herren, Jr. The beloved baby son of my grandmother and the darling baby brother of my mother, “Mill” was a champion horseman, flying ace, the all ‘round perfect baby-faced charmer of the family…whose P-51 Mustang fell out of the sky over Celle, Germany, on October 30, 1944. He was 28. 

Cleaning out the basement yesterday, we came upon a treasure trove of letters, medals (including two Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross) and military “jewelry” that were from or about Mill. Through this stash, we have learned or confirmed some of his military history.  

While we don’t know exactly when Mill enlisted, by the fall of 1942 he was training pilots in Panama. He writes regularly over the next year that he is very, very busy (and often exhausted) training young men fresh out of high school to be fighter pilots. “They can think up more ways to wreck an airplane,” he writes, commenting more than once on their youth. At the time he himself is only 26 but a Captain in the Army Air Force. By August of 1943, he is a Major preparing his pilots for combat in Europe. 

His letters are hand-written on air mail parchment. They are sent from the 24th Fighter Squadron in Panama through an APO address in New Orleans to his parents in Ashland, Alabama. The ink may have been blue or black, but age has turned it sepia. They start “My dears,” or “My pets,” and always send love and sweetness…and often money. They conclude “Devotedly” or “Love to all.” He begs for letters from home. “I’m really gonna quit you,” he writes, “if you don’t sit right down and talk to me a while.” He buys a car; an old girlfriend marries someone else (he’s okay with it); he flies some buddies to Costa Rica for a little R&R; he meets the president of Guatemala at a reception. He works and works and works. He sounds content and extremely proud of his squadron. 

There is the suggestion from some earlier letters (undated, but probably around 1937 or 38 while he was a student at Auburn) that there had been a major disturbance in the family equilibrium…disturbing enough that my grandmother kept letters about it. “My dearest,” he writes to his mother. “It isn’t you that has failed us – if anything it’s I that has done the failing. I’ve realized for so long what was wrong at our house but I’ve rationalized to the point where I thought things would surely improve. If when realizing it I had done something maybe it would have helped, but it hurt me so much that I just couldn’t believe it was really happening.” He continues his profuse apologies and vows to leave school if his father remains set against him. “Mother darling,” he writes. “Words can’t express what you mean to me so please don’t give me up as a bad job.” We know my grandfather drank heavily and think he may have hurt Mill’s mother. This would have led to a major, unspecified confrontation. Subsequent letters arriving from Panama, however, do not address this incident and, in fact, send love, presents (a unique fountain pen) and offers of money to his father to help his struggling business ventures.  

Sometime around the late summer or early fall of 1943 Mill is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and his unit is incorporated into the newly-formed VIII Air Force stationed in Los Angeles. He became the commander of one of three (the 434th) Fighter Squadrons in the 479th Fighter Group* of the VIII Air Force in the European theater sometime before February 1944. The 479th was moved from California to England in May of 1944, in time for the 434th to patrol the beachhead in the Normandy invasion on D-Day. “I wouldn’t take anything for being in on this deal,” writes Mill on June 8, 1944. “The scope of the thing is darn near too much to believe, even when you see it.” 

The most moving letter comes from Col. Hubert Zemke, who, as commander of the 479th, was Mill’s commanding officer on October 30, 1944. The letter is dated 31 July 1945 and arrives in Ashland from Missoula, Montana. “As you probably know,” types Col. Zemke in an almost typo-free letter, “the mission that Miller and I went down on was to be my very last. [They were escorting B-24 bombers in a mission to take out an oil refinery north of Hannover.] Since it was my last I wanted to lead the best squadron in the Group so I chose Miller’s squadron. This automatically placed Miller on the ground that day. Of course this didn’t please him too much as he had been having a tremendous amount of success and the day’s prospects looked quite good. Miller was always that way. Perhaps too overeager.” So he lets Mill command a section of the squadron. 

Taking flak over Hannover, they turned east, running into a “terrific thunder cloud, which none of us knew existed.” At a radioed suggestion from Mill, they turn around, only, says Zemke, to enter “into the roughest flying condition that I’ve ever encountered.” His plane bounced around, iced up and started spinning. Zemke pulls out of the spin only to realize that he is in a “terrific dive,” severe enough that his wings snapped off. Somehow he is thrown from the plane; somehow his parachute opens; he lands “with a thud into a swamp.” The local village is aroused. Zemke is “overtaken by about twenty hunters armed with every sort of weapon. Their reaction towards me was of curiosity. In no way did they harm me and they went as far as washing the blood off my face at a farmhouse I was taken to.” Later two Luftwaffe Officers came and took him to their station in Celle. “While enroute there one of the two officers told me another American officer had been found near the spot where I had been taken but he had lived only an hour or two….It was later found that this flyer was Miller.” What happened to Zemke between October 1944 and July 1945 is left unanswered in this letter, but he tells that story in a book he wrote in 1991 entitled Zemke’s Stalag: The Final Days of World War II. 

The horror was that my grandmother received word in October 1944 that Mill was missing but waited in anxious hope for another six months until having his death confirmed in March 1945. 26,000 members of the VIII Army Air Force were killed in World War II. Mill’s story was, tragically, not uncommon. 

Gene Miller Jonakait (née Knopf) was born May 15, 1946. She is honored to be known as “Mill.” 

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*There were 22 Fighter Groups with varying numbers of Squadrons with the VII Army Air Force. Their numbering remains a puzzle to me.