Jack Miller loved his P-51D Mustang fighter. Twice he was shot down when he was a 20-year-old 2nd lieutenant serving as a member of the 354th Pioneer Mustang Group, 9th Air Force stationed in France during World War II.
The 80-year-old former Englewood fighter pilot said, “The P-51 had more of an effect on WWII than any other fighter. Some say it was the top fighter plane of the century.”
“On Sept. 12, 1944, we were on a fighter sweep. I was flying with 12 other P-51s out of our base on the Brest Peninsula in France into Germany,” Miller said. “We’d already lost three fighters in our group that day.”
Fighter sweeps provided pilots a chance to shoot “targets of opportunity” they found during a mission over enemy territory. The P-51 pilots spent lots of time turning enemy fighters into Swiss cheese while the Fuhrer’s planes were sitting on the ground at air bases.
“Flying in the same direction as we were was a group of about 20 German Messerschmitt-109s and Focke Wulf-190s. They were followed by another 30 or 40 enemy fighters.
“We jumped ’em, and a big dog fight ensued. There were 13 of us and 50 to 70 of them. By that stage of the war, most of the German pilots were very green.
“We were flying along at 12,000 feet when we broke into them. They scrambled in all directions. On my first pass there was a 190 coming head-on as we flew through their formation. He did a roll and I followed him down. I got enough hits on him that he bailed out.
“As I looked down I could see another Focke Wulf-190 running around underneath me. I rolled in behind him, got hits on him and he went into the ground.
“As I started to gain altitude I ran into another 190. I got in behind him and got hits on him. He bailed out too.
“At the instant the third German fighter went down, I got hit by a 20 mm shell from a FW-190 I hadn’t seen that was on my tail. My engine exploded from the impact of the enemy cannon shell. When it did, my whole instrument panel fell in my lap.”
Miller had shot down three German fighters in five minutes of aerial combat before he became prey himself. He had four kills, but only one of them would be officially confirmed because he lost his fighter over enemy territory. When he went down his plane’s nose camera, which would have confirmed his three new kills, was also lost.
Six weeks earlier his fighter had been hit by German anti-aircraft fire during another fighter sweep. That time he limped back across Allied lines. He bailed out in Normandy over St. Mere Eglise, the first French town liberated by the Americans on D-Day.
This time Miller landed in the woods next to a Luftwaffe air base near Frankfurt. He was a prisoner of war minutes after his feet hit “The Fatherland.” The first questions an English-speaking German soldier asked him: “Are you injured? Do you need a doctor?” He wasn’t and didn’t.
The soldiers who captured Miller took him to their barracks and searched him. They had all his possessions laid out on a table when the base commander arrived.
The commander was a colonel in the Luftwaffe. Before the war he had spent time in California as a representative of a German company. His English was flawless.
“He introduced himself and looked at the stuff I had in my pockets when I was captured,” Miller said. “He handed me back my pack of cigarettes and some candy.
“‘You’re going to be needing these things,’ he said. Everything I couldn’t use to escape with, he gave me back.”
The captured lieutenant accompanied the colonel back to the base headquarters building. Adjoining the commander’s office was his private bathroom.
“He let me go in and get cleaned up. The whole time I was in the bathroom he was reminiscing about California,” Miller recalled.
“Then I went with him to dinner and sat as his table. They poured wine for the officers, including me.
“One of the Luftwaffe officers stood up and started speaking in German. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but everyone stood up with their glasses in hand, so I stood up with my glass of wine. They drank a toast and so did I. Then they all raised their arms and shouted, ‘Heil Hitler!’
“I had drunk a toast to Hitler!
“I turned to the base commander and said, ‘Sir, I would like to propose a toast.’ He stood up again and so did the other officers, and they all raised their glasses.
“‘To my commander-in-chief, Franklin Delano Roosevelt!’ I said.
“The colonel had a smile across his face from ear-to-ear. The Luftwaffe base commander emptied his wineglass and so did all the other officers at the table,” Miller remembered.
Stalag Luft 1
That night the colonel drove him to the Luftwaffe’s central interrogation headquarters for all Allied air force POWs. Ten days later he was sent to Stalag Luft 1 near Barth, Germany. It was along the Baltic Sea in Northern Germany where upward of 12,000 Allied air force officers were held in three huge enclosures.
Conditions at the camp were generally good. The food supply was adequate, as long as the monthly Red Cross packages arrived for each prisoner. These packages contained powdered milk, margarine, sugar, chocolate bars, SPAM, corned beef, tuna, sardines and cigarettes.
“We pooled our food and had one guy who did all the cooking. He combined what we got from the Red Cross with the cabbage and dark bread the Germans fed us,” Miller said.
They even had a library at the camp. The Red Cross provided the books for the Allied prisoners.
“I don’t know how many times I read ‘Dusty Rides Again.’ They even gave us Bibles,” he said.
Just like in the movie “The Great Escape,” some of the POWs tried to bust out of Stalag Luft 1. They dug a 300-foot tunnel big enough for a man to squeeze through.
“The tunnel started beneath one of our barracks. It went under the barbed-wire fence around the camp and under a rarely used access road. It came out behind a clump of bushes.
“Five guys were picked to go out. They had all spent time in Germany (before the war) and could speak German fluently,” Miller said. “The average POW couldn’t escape because he had no knowledge of German or the country.
“When the five ‘tunnel moles’ climbed out of the passageway behind the bushes, the Germans were waiting for them,” he said. “They knew all about the tunnel, but they let us dig it to give us something to do.
“The five who were caught trying to escape were given 10 days in solitary.”
By Christmas 1944, food for the POWs had become a serious problem. The number of Red Cross packages were first cut in half and then stopped entirely by January.
With the loss of the Red Cross food, Miller and every other POW in the camp began losing weight.
“Shortly after the Red Cross packages stopped coming, the Germans reduced their food allotment, too,” he said. We would make a concoction out of one loaf of dark German bread and water that fed 18 guys. I went from 215 pounds to 148 pounds by war’s end in early May.”
They knew the war was over when their German guards disappeared one day in early May 1945.
“The Russian Army was approaching from the East and the Allied armies from the West. The Russians were first to arrive at the camp. The day before they showed up, our German guards took off. We were told to stay put,” Miller said.
“When the Russians came, they came like a swarm of bees. They had everything from tanks to horse-drawn taxi cabs,” he said. “They drove some cows and pigs into our compound to feed us.”
Ten days later, the American 8th Air Force landed transport planes at Barth, the little village outside the gates of the POW camp. The former POWs were flown to Camp Lucky Strike at Le Havre, France. This was the camp from which they departed Europe for home.
As Miller completed his World War II tale, he reached for his wallet in his back pocket. He fished around in the cards he was carrying and pulled out a battered piece of gray steel, 2 inches by 3 inches. On it was the inscription:
John S. Miller
“That was the POW tag I wore around my neck,” the old aviator said as he sat at his dining room table recalling his war deeds when he was young. ” Today I carry it as a good luck charm.”
2nd Lt. Jack Miller flew a P-51 Mustang fighter in the European Theater of Operation during World War II. He was shot down twice and spent nine months as a POW.
He was awarded the Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, Air Medal and World War II Victory Medal.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, October 20, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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