Joseph W. Miller


This is part of an article from "The Wild Cascades - The Journal of the North Cascades Conservation Council" Winter 2006

Joseph W. Miller was born May 7, 1915, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Family trips to the colorado mountains planted seeds of adventure and love of the outdoors. As a teenager Joe once set out on his bicycle for the colorado mountains, until after five days the 110 heat of a Kansas summer brought him to his senses. Dreaming of becoming a writer, he graduated from the University of Kansas in 1936 with an English degree. Jobs for English majors were scarce during the Great Depression and when an opportunity to work for the federal Railroad Retirement Board came up, Joe took it. He once described working for the federal government as "like peeing in your pants while wearing a dark suit. It gives you a warm feeling, but no one notices." With time out for the Army in World War II, he worked for the Board for the next 31 years, eventually retiring as a district manager. Before the war intervened, Joe spent summer vacations hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, climbing 14,259-foot Longs Peak several times, as well as lesser peaks there.

Drafted in November 1941, the English major was sent to Officer Candidate School and turned into a 2nd Lieutenant and a combat engineer, then sent to train with a regiment of black soldiers in Augusta, Georgia, and then assigned to the 20th Engineer combat Battalion. Besides building roads, bridges, fortifications, port facilities and whatever else is needed, combat engineers blow things up, clear minefields and barbed wire obstacles, disarm bombs, booby traps and land mines-often at the front and under fire. The Army did give Joe a chance to do some writing: He was assigned the job of writing the WW II combat history of his battalion.

In November 1942 Joe left Staten Island with his unit aboard the "cristobal," a converted banana boat, and, with a great flotilla of troop and cargo ships and their escorts, crossed the Atlantic, headed for North Africa. He landed at casablanca, where his battalion spent several weeks working on port facilities, training, and providing security for the site of the momentous Roosevelt-churchill casablanca Conference in January 1943. With his unit he then crossed Morocco and Algeria, and went on into Tunisia, building roads and clearing mines. In Tunisia his unit was temporarily attached to the corp Franc d'Afrique, a Free French unit manned with Frenchmen, Moroccans, czechs, Poles and Russians. After the Germans were driven out of North Africa he landed with his battalion on Sicily on D-Day in July 1943 and campaigned across Sicily with Patton's 7th Army, defusing land mines and replacing bridges destroyed by the retreating Germans.

Dawn of June 6, 1944 found the lover of Shakespeare and poetry a 1st Lieutenant and leader of a platoon of 37 men heavily laden with rifles, ammunition, radios, mine detectors, TNT, Bangalore torpedoes, machetes, picks, shovels, and other tools of his trade on a landing craft plowing through heavy seas off the Normandy coast of France toward a place called Omaha Beach. Surviving a direct German artillery hit on his landing craft, he waded ashore with his platoon, into what a unit citation would later describe as "savage artillery, mortar, rifle, grenade, machine gun and small arms fire," through bodies, wreckage and barbed wire for a long day clearing a path across the beach for infantry and vehicles and getting himself and his platoon across a few yards of sand. He repeatedly led his reluctant men, a few at a time, under fire and exposed, to safer ground in the dunes behind the beach. He would later be awarded a Bronze Star and cited for bravery and leadership in getting all of his platoon through the landing alive and completing his assignment of opening an exit road from the beach to the hedgerows above. He dismisses the award as a "good conduct medal, for doing my job."

From France Joe continued across Belgium and Luxemburg, through the murderous Huertgen Forest battle and the snow and bitter cold of the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest, across the Rhine into Germany and on to czechoslovakia, at the end of the war in Europe. He would finish the war as a Captain, with eight battle stars and a longing to get back to Longs Peak and the mountains in colorado, the happy memories of which he had carried with him through four years of war.