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World War II pilot shares realities of war with Vance airmen

By JAMES NEAL | Enid News & Eagle, Okla. | Published: January 25, 2018

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — Student pilots and their instructors at Vance Air Force Base had a chance to hear the realities of war Monday, thanks to a visit by a veteran bomber pilot from World War II.

Ferman Miller, a 99-year-old retired major and veteran of bombing campaigns in Germany and Eastern Europe, was invited to address airmen of the 71st Flying Training Wing by Lt. Col. Brendan Voitik, a reserve instructor pilot with the 5th Flying Training Squadron.

Voitik said he was introduced to Miller through a family member, and after hearing his stories was inspired to have Miller speak at the base.

"The stories I got to hear from him — I just couldn't see keeping them to myself," Voitik said.

Junior officers filled the 8th Flying Training Squadron auditorium Monday morning to hear Miller's experiences.

Col. Darrell Judy, commander of the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance, thanked Miller for coming to speak with the Vance airmen.

"It's an absolute honor to have you at the base to tell our young airmen here what you did," Judy said. "The work that was done by the Army Air Corps, and the brave work you did is the reason we have the freedom to be here today."

Miller, who was born more than a year before the First World War ended, enlisted in the Army and rose to the rank of first sergeant in an artillery unit by the time the Second World War started.

His path to the cockpit started when he was cornered by an officer searching for experienced enlisted soldiers who could be trained and promoted to serve as pilots and navigators in the new war.

Miller said he took several aptitude tests to see if he'd be well-suited for flight training, and soon had his answer: "'Sergeant, get your walking shoes on — you passed the test.'"

He was selected for training as a bomber pilot, and was sent to train in the PT-17 biplane training aircraft in Union City, Tenn.

Because of his senior enlisted rank and past experience, Miller soon was put in the position by his unit commander of training other student pilots, despite his lack of flying time.

"He put me in a cockpit and told me, 'Teach those people how to fly,'" Miller said. "I only had two hours flying time. You had to catch on fast."

After earning his wings Miller was assigned to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress from a makeshift airfield with a sod strip near Foggia, Italy.

The base in Italy became a staging field for raids deep into Germany and Eastern Europe, thanks to it being much closer to those targets than the Eighth Air Force fields in England.

After several "milk runs" to lightly-defended targets, Miller and his crew got their first tough assignment: a bombing run deep into Germany.

"They were mad at us down there," Miller said, recalling the thick flak and fighter cover around the target. "Our .50 cals were making holes in them, but they were making holes in our aircraft, too."

Resistance was even stiffer when Miller's group was assigned to bomb oil refineries near Ploiesti, Romania, one of Hitler's primary sources of oil for the war.

Miller said he and his fellow airmen expected heavy fighting over Ploiesti, since a previous raid had lost almost half its complement of B-24s in one of the most costly single days of action for the Army Air Corps.

"Sure enough, they were waiting for us at the target," said Miller, recalling heavy anti-aircraft fire and swarms of German Me-109 fighters.

"They were having a ball with us," Miller said. "On missions like that, you just take what you get. We lost a hell of a lot of airplanes on those missions."

On a mission to bomb an ammunition plant near Munich, Germany, Miller's group became acquainted with the new German jet fighter, the Me-262.

The German plane was faster than Allied escorts, and had 20 to 40 millimeter cannons in its nose, in addition to machine guns, with an effective range outside the bombers' .50-caliber guns.

"They were just staying out there, outside the range of our guns, firing into us," Miller said. "I noticed a lot of planes being shot down. They were exploding right then. They weren't going down very far before they exploded."

Miller's aircraft was hit repeatedly on his more-than 50 combat missions during the war, but he was never injured. The most serious damage to his plane was an incident in which enemy fire blew off part of the wing.

"I had about 6 feet of wing blown off the right wing," he said, "and the aircraft still flew pretty good."

Out of all his combat missions, perhaps the closest call Miller had during the war was on takeoff from the field at Foggia.

He was assigned to take off side-by-side with another B-17, allowing the first plane to get ahead before starting his own takeoff roll.

The other aircraft took off ahead of Miller's plane, but subsequently lost an engine, causing it to lose speed and altitude. About the time Miller's plane took off, he discovered the other plane was immediately above him, and closing in.

To avoid a collision, Miller dropped his plane low to the ground, narrowly missing buildings and other obstructions.

"I flew between the group headquarters building and the squadron headquarters," Miller said, "and then between two trees."

He was able to regain altitude after the near-collision and went on to successfully complete his bombing mission.

After completing his tour at Foggia, Miller returned home and was trained as a communications officer.

The war in Europe was won, and he was reassigned to fly the B-29 Superfortress in anticipation of being sent to the Pacific Theater for the invasion of Japan.

The unconditional surrender of Japan in August 1945 prevented Miller having to return to combat. He went on to complete 23 years of service in the Air Force, and another 20 years in the Federal Aviation Administration.

Looking back on his time in the war, Miller shared with the Vance airmen the realities of combat.

"My combat experience was scary," Miller said. "It wasn't fun."

The memory of seeing friends die in combat stays with you, Miller said.

"You see airplanes blow up right next you, and you know nobody got out, and you see bodies falling out of airplanes — you don't forget that," he said. "War is hell, even for their people."

Miller said the German pilots, and their people on the ground, faced the same decision he faced.

"Combat is all the same," he said. "It's you, or it's him. It's not fun and games. You're going to be killed, or you're going to kill someone."

It's been more than seven decades since the war, but even at the time, Miller said he didn't hold anything personal against his German adversaries.

"The way I looked at the German fighters, they were doing their duty, and we were doing our duty," Miller said. "Their job was to shoot down B-24s and B-17s, and our job was to drop our bombs and blow the hell out of the target.

"They were doing the same job I was doing," Miller said of his German counterparts. "You don't hate their guts, or anything like that. They were just following their orders, and doing the same job I was doing."

©2018 the Enid News & Eagle (Enid, Okla.)
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