Culver’s miracle recalls WW2 experience Veterans Day 2010
Culver’s Jim Miracle holds a small, faded notebook whose pages show the passing of more than 60 years.
It’s the diary that accompanied him on flight missions in Asia during World War II, and in which he made notes on every mission: which number it was for him, its date, and what happened. He kept it not only through the tumultuous six years he spent in the military during that period, but through moves to Culver — where he spent some four decades as a beloved instructor in the summer and winter schools at what would become Culver Academies — to Virginia in his retirement, through the death of both his first and second wives, and now back to the home in which he raised his children: 448 State Street in Culver, a home he shares today with son Tom, himself a graduate of CMA.
Miracle describes a “typical Midwestern Wisconsin” upbringing (he was raised and went to school in Oshkosh). He recalls teaching in famous Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hometown and meeting the man synonymous with the anti-Communist hearings bearing his name.
Even as a student at the Wisconsin State Teacher’s College, Miracle knew he would eventually be drafted and made plans towards that inevitability. Though he didn’t attend Culver as a student, 19-year-old Jim Miracle heard staff members at Oshkosh High School discuss the school and wound up as an instructor in the summer Woodcraft program in the late 1930s.
In October, 1942, he got the call to Chicago to be inducted into the armed services, with just “a fairly new suit and a toothbrush to my name.”
Miracle had always been interested in flight and the Army Air Corps (the predecessor of today’s Air Force), so he joined about 200 other young men at the San Antonio, Texas Aviation Cadet Center.
“I decided if I had to go into the war,” he muses, “I’d rather be in the air than slushing down on the ground. At San Antonio they put us through all kinds of tests, and I was classified as a potential pilot, bombardier aviator. I had no idea I’d wind up as an air crewman, but I did.”
On Sundays in San Antonio, Miracle indulged in his secondary interest, that of choral music, singing in the choir at the Episcopal Church. His musical acumen would come to the fore in Culver in later years.
After attending bombardier training school in another part of Texas, Miracle was placed with others in for training in a 10-man crew, eventually picking up their airplane in New England.
“They printed, ‘Innocents Abroad’ on the side of the plane,” he recalls. “I think I made that suggestion, and then each member of the crew had his name printed on the side near where he stood as we flew in combat.”
The plane left Langley Field, Virginia, on July 8, 1944, stopping in Newfoundland and crossing the Atlantic Ocean on “a bright, beautiful day.” The plane would land in the territory of Lisbon, where Miracle remembers heading into town with a group of others and spending the evening in an officer’s club listening to American jazz, observing signs warning them of rats carrying bubonic plague. He also recalls flying, later, over Bethlehem on the way to the crew’s destination, “and I thought how interesting it was to be in the air in the war, flying over Bethlehem.”
Also memorable was flying over the Himalayan Mountains before eventually flying into China and unloading the plane.
“The barracks were rat-infested in the basement,” he recalls. “At night they’d come up into the barracks proper, and I remember looking out of my mosquito netting and seeing rats out on the floor, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m sleeping with rats. At dawn we’d sit at the end of the building and try to kill rats (with our guns). That was my first combat!”
Looking back, Miracle says he feels fortunate to have had the combined abilities of the flight crew he had. “The good Lord who selected these crews must have been looking at it and said, ‘Hey, we’ll take this guy for this position; and that guy for that.’ There were four men on each craft that had (flight) ratings, and the rest were gunners, photographers, and so on.”
Missions were flown at night, says Miracle.
“What an experience, to be up in the nose which stuck out further from the rest of the plane, and see the stars go by!”
The Innocents Abroad patrolled the China Sea, and there were always targets to find, he notes.
“Our crew found some to bomb and sink, so we got a reputation. They always called on (our) crew to go. I felt kind of proud about that. We flew all over the north, south, east, and west of China, all over the coastline and into China.”
The plane was equipped with the relatively new invention of radar, and targets could be bombed through the clouds for protection. Always there was the threat of Japanese bombers, which destroyed several US B-24s.
The most important mission the Innocents Abroad flew, says Miracle, was on August 29, 1944, when 14 B-24s were assigned to attack a Japanese-held harbor 300 miles off the China coast where Japanese ships were repaired.
“They gave us a special bomb called an acoustical bomb because it...only functioned when the right sound triggered off the detonating device,” Miracle explains. The 14 planes took off at dusk for the islands, with Miracle’s plane ninth in the trail. He recalls seeing Japanese searchlights, which enabled them to knock American planes out of the sky.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, is this what we’re getting into? We decided we would fly just over the water so if they were going to fire, they would have to fire from the ground at each other...they fired at us; and I could hear the noise as it went through the fuselage into the mechanism of the airplane. I thought, ‘This is it; they really got the bead on us.’ But we kept on flying and flying, thank God we were still in the air.”
The Innocents Abroad dropped several acoustical bombs — which could be triggered even weeks and months later by the sound of the right airplane overhead, Miracle says — before returning to base. The crew later learned that one of the planes had struck a mountain and exploded near the end of the runway, though the other 13 planes returned relatively unharmed.
“I’ve got pictures that show our plane when it landed at the base,” Miracle recalls, “with holes in the fuselage and big holes in the edges of the wings. That was mission number 29.”
The Innocents Abroad’s crew flew the 30 missions that made B-24s eligible to be pulled off combat status and head to a rest camp, later flying back to the US by a different route than they’d flown on the way. Miracle served the remainder of his time on active duty at Langley Field before completing his education at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
After the war, then-Superintendent of Culver Military Academy Col. W.E. Gregory said the school could use Miracle in its biology department. He would spend his summers teaching in the Woodcraft camp leading the nature study program as well as teaching music, and winters teaching biology and life science.
“I led the camp singing (at Woodcraft), which was my major reason for being (involved in the camp’s Indian lore program). I still can do that, but I don’t intend to anymore.”
Miracle retired from Culver Academies in 1986. His first wife Ethna (known as ‘Eckie’), whom Miracle met in Virginia during the war, had passed away in 1964 after a lengthy battle with cancer. She was active, says Miracle, in what is now known as the Wesley United Methodist Church, and traveled to various communities lecturing to women’s groups among her other activities.
Miracle remarried a year later and moved the family to Hampton, Virginia, where his second wife, Martha, operated a thriving voice and piano studio and joined him in integrating into the community and church life there. Jim came back to the Academies in the mid-1970s to complete his teaching career and remained on the faculty there until his retirement. Jim and Martha then returned to their home in Virginia Beach and lived there until she also passed away, following a stroke, in February of 2008.
Jim Miracle returned to Culver two years ago Labor Day, to the very house where he brought home and raised their three children: a daughter, Laura, who lives today in Wilmette, Ill.; the youngest son, Jay, who’s involved in the film industry as an editor, writer, and producer/director; and Tom, with whom Jim Miracle lives.
“I couldn’t possibly exist without Tom being here,” says Jim, “and he’s so good at doing technical things.
“This is the family home,” he adds. “They were ecstatic to learn Dad was going back to 448 State Street!”
And generations of former Academies students remember with great affection Miracle’s role as song leader over those many summers. So much so that, at the last Culver Academies alumni reunion, David Culver and other alums from the class of 1959 asked if Miracle would lead a group of alumni in the former CMA library (the Legion Memorial Building) in some of the old camp songs.
“I was really thrilled,” Miracle smiles. “I stood in the center of that group and I was just overwhelmed by the enthusiasm. Some of the people I used to know as little kids sang those songs we sang at Council Fires. That is my major contribution to the Academy. Nobody’s around who can really appreciate how different it was back in the 1930s, `40s, and `50s, to have music like that. You don’t hear about camp songs much anymore.”
Miracle has those — and many other — songs to cherish, and flipping through his small book of handwritten memories going back nearly 70 years, he has memories of his role in what has been called ‘the greatest generation,’ those who fought and persevered in World War II.
“I can ‘t explain what’s going through your mind (during combat),” he says thoughtfully of his experiences in the war. “I’ll tell you, I said all my Sunday School prayers over and over and over.”
(Editor’s note: A detailed account of the flights of the Innocents Abroad can be found in Elmer E. Haynes and A. B. Feuer’s book, “The B-24 in China: General Chennault’s secret weapon in World War II,” 1986, Stackpole Books. The first-hand accounts in the book mention Jim Miracle several times).