U.S. Eighth Air Force navigator Fred Miller, 91, was inducted into the French Legion of Honor at a ceremony in the French consulate in San Francisco.
About 69 years after serving on French territory during World War II, Fred Miller, 91, thought his tour was a distant memory remembered by only a select few.
But after receiving a letter in the mail in January, he learned his time spent as a navigator guided him back into the spotlight. Miller and three other United States veterans from World War II were inducted into the French Legion of Honor May 8 during a ceremony at the French consulate in San Francisco. The award is France’s highest distinction, and has honored extraordinary contributions since its creation by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. An estimated 93,000 people have earned the award, including generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur.
“It is extremely important for us to express our gratitude to those men and women who fought for our freedom,” said Melvin Karsenti, spokesman for the Consulate General of France in San Francisco. “The French will never forget what they did, and awarding the Legion of Honor to them is the least we can do.”
Although the consulate offered to present Miller with the formal distinction at his apartment in Antioch, Miller and his family turned the occasion into an event he’ll never forget, complete with a trip to San Francisco in a limousine.
“There were four chairs at the event,” Miller said describing the scene as if he were still a navigator. “Two on this side and two on that side. Each one had a name on it. There was one chair that was mine, and nobody was supposed to sit on it.”
Mention World War II around Miller and he’ll likely start telling stories of liberating France as a member of the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force beginning in the early months of 1943.
In just over a year, he flew 35 missions in a four-engine B-24 Liberator, dropping off everything from spies to ammunition to a million dollars worth of French francs.
Without the help of modern-day radar, Miller guided his giant aircraft using landmarks, celestial navigation and moonlight. His pilot flew the bomber low to the ground to avoid anti-aircraft weapons, dropping off supplies from an altitude of 400 feet and parachuting partisans from 600 feet. As missions ended, the Liberator rained down propaganda leaflets – not bombs – over the French countryside and cities in support of the resistance movement.
Miller’s service in France is more than 60 years in the past, but the memories remain fresh in his mind. Unlike many of his comrades, Miller was lucky. Despite several close calls, his plane was never hit by enemy fire in 20 daytime missions.
“I remember one time we had some German fighters following behind us,” Miller said. “We couldn’t shake them. We tried all sorts of evasive action, and were coming up on the edge of Paris, so we cut down to the corner and turned. They tried to follow us by cutting across their own city, but their anti-aircraft really cut loose at them. It didn’t down them, but they left us alone after that.”
Like so many other war veterans, Miller’s selfless attitude shines through when he talks about his work. He openly wonders who nominated him for the prestigious award, and downplays the special role he played in the liberation of France.
“I was just doing a job that I was trained to do just like the rest of the people were trained to do,” Miller said. “I was no better than any of the rest of them. Anyone with the right training could’ve done my job.”
Miller’s tone changes, however, when he speaks of the outpouring of respect he’s been shown through the years by members of the public and the armed forces. His apartment is adorned with about 25 medals of distinction that sit encased in a frame.
“I’m very lucky,” he said.
He completed his tour in France in September of 1944 and continued to serve as a navigation teacher and again as a navigator during the war in Vietnam. He retired from the Air Force in 1964 as a lieutenant colonel, 23 years after he entered as a 21-year-old in the middle of obtaining a chemistry degree from the University of California, Berkeley. After retiring from the Air Force he returned to the university, where he finished his degree and went on to teach math and social studies at Campolindo High School in Moraga.
Though his active flying days ended long ago, his passion for his service has stood the test of time. The vast history is stored in his mind, and extends to his closet, where a lone flying suit remains.
“That was a good experience,” Miller said. “I was helping win the war.”