Searching for Harry Miller, a Swarthmore Hero and D-Day Flying Ace
The unabridged version of this story is available here.
Think of the stereotypical World War II flying ace: dashing, handsome, focused, fearless, tireless, and beloved by everyone he knows. You’re imagining a Swarthmore native known to the Miller family as Uncle Harry. He was handsome and slight, full of swagger and charisma. His heroic tale started more than 75 years ago, and the last chapter is still being written.
In 1998, the patriarch of our clan, Pete Miller, was reading Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, a tribute to heroes Brokaw came to know at the 50th anniversary of D-Day. The stories started him talking about his brother Harry, a heroic pilot in the Army Air Corps who had been lost over France in 1944 and never recovered. In that first conversation, my father-in-law talked about Harry as a young man, and then revealed that he had had dreams ever since that Harry had suffered a concussion and was still alive somewhere but didn’t know who he was. There was deep emotion and loss. I thought, “Well, this won’t do.” We knew a retired general and he surely could help us get some information about Harry. A casual offer to see what could be unearthed launched decades of sleuthing.
The general at first insisted on doing the search strictly by the book, filling out forms and filing them with the bureaucracy. But when months passed without response, he’d had it with waiting. He ordered some poor private to go through 6,000 rolls of microfiche records, and he soon was impressed: “Dammit, Harry was a hero. You get your first Distinguished Flying Cross for flying 50 missions over enemy territory. To get a second one, you have to have done something incredibly heroic.” In the records was the answer: Harry had infiltrated a nest of German Messerschmitts and shot one down, then turned his P-51 Mustang back to base and outrunning the five remaining German fighters on his tail.
We also found out that Harry had been in a squadron called the Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney (a former Royal Air Force Station located near Norfolk), whose members found Harry’s photo in a book they gave us about the squadron. Harry is standing next to his plane, named Jean Louise after his wife whom he had married just one year before the war broke out. The book was another discovery that brought tears to my father-in-law’s eyes.
Harry’s 50+ missions in 1943-1944 included two a day missions leading up to and immediately following D-Day. Before that famous June 6, Harry was taking out bridges and transportation hubs to slow down the German supply chain. After the invasion, he was flying clean-up sorties. Harry had earned the right to return home for leave, yet despite missing his young bride and family immensely, he elected to stay where his skills were needed.
On his last day, Harry was over Rouen, France, with 11 other pilots, strafing German convoys. He flew into a cloud, records show, and never came out. Though he was described in commendations as an extraordinarily brave and accomplished pilot, most likely, exhaustion and vertigo got the best of him, and he crashed. But where? It was assumed he had turned back to the RAF base, but no evidence of his crashed P-51 was found along the axis from Rouen to Bodney.
Twenty Years Passed
Our lives went on, and 20 years after the first spate of discoveries, we’ve found other avenues for research that may yet yield clues to Harry’s last landing site. We met a genealogist who freelances for the U.S. government, finding family members to notify when remains are recovered from various conflict sites. This search would go in the opposite direction from the normal process, but she suggested that my father-in-law might be able to put his DNA on file with the government agency in case they can find a match with unidentified remains.
She also put us in touch with a specialist in the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Division of the U.S. Army Past Conflict Repatriations Branch. Saying “I’m the WWII guy, so let’s go at it,” he showed me how to pull up Harry’s (then empty) public file online. Cutting right to the chase, I asked if they would be testing Pete’s DNA against specific remains and he quietly replied, “I’m not saying a word until we’re done here.”
It takes about a year to work through the science of matching the mitochondrial DNA used to match remains to living family members. The specialist also said that we should fax him everything we had on Harry so far, and an analyst on his end would build a story in about three months. The genealogy folks noticed that a report included Harry’s IDPF — the number of his personal file — and we ask the government for those files. An hour after making the request, 95 pages of Harry’s file came in, and every single thing the government had about Harry Miller was now in our hands - minutes from every meeting they had about him, his dental records, the contents of his locker when he died.
The report also revealed some new information that prompted the government to reopen the investigation, and to cover a larger radius from where Harry’s plane was last seen. Calculating the amount of fuel remaining and the range of the plane from where he was last seen, Harry could have ended his flight anywhere from Spain to Scotland; Italy to Denmark.
Another part of the report said that they would compare Pete’s DNA with the X Files. Those are the DNA profiles that the government has on a small portion of the 71,000 WWII MIAs from the European theater. So now we wait, praying for a match with the X Files that could take upwards of a year and of course may never happen. However, we are hoping that Harry went down someplace where his remains can be found, hoping that the records are not buried in a dusty file…hoping that the universe brings forth more of the extraordinary.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (dpaa.mil) was established ten years ago to help families do this type of research. Family members can request a DNA kit and register their genetics to look for a match. You also can request the service member’s IDPF and attend the DPAA’s organized family meetings held eight times a year throughout the country. And be patient. There are answers out there, and a chance that your family can be reunited at last.
Gene Allen Miller is daughter-in-law to Peter Miller, Harry’s brother. She and husband Dave Miller live in the Boston area.