A vet’s tale of Terror
NAPPANEE — Monday is Memorial Day, when all Americans pause to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep this country the land of the free.
But it’s also a time to thank those who did make it home to friends and family after battling tyranny, repression and just plain evil around the globe.
As we move farther into the second decade of the 21st Century, the opportunities to honor those who fought in World War II and lived to become the Greatest Generation are getting fewer and fewer.
We’re losing nearly 600 WWII vets every day, as the youngest of them are now in their mid-80s, so the privilege of meeting one of those who helped save the world is becoming less common. But some do still walk among us, including right here in our own community, and this is the story of one of them.
Ed Miller grew up in an Amish family outside of Nappanee, the fourth of nine children.
“My Dad was a sharecropper working a number of small farms,” said Ed, a sprightly fellow with a friendly grin and infectious laugh. “We were always kind of poor and life was pretty difficult sometimes.”
As a teenager, Ed left the Amish community and went to work at Creighton Brothers, “…making as much in a week as I could in a month on the farm.”
Then came Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States was dragged into World War II.
“I had to be honest with myself,” Ed said. “Coming from an Amish farming family, I could have gotten a farm deferment or registered as a CO (conscientious objector) but I couldn’t do that.”
As a result, Ed’s number came up on the draft board in January 1943 and off he went to Indianapolis. In April 1943, he was inducted into the U.S. Navy.
“It just about killed my mother,” Ed said with a wince. “She had a soft heart, and she was just certain she would never see me again.”
After training at the Great Lakes Naval Station, Ed sailed for Hawaii aboard an aircraft carrier that had returned to San Francisco for repairs.
At Pearl Harbor in October 1943, Ed was assigned to his ship, the minelayer U.S.S. Terror. The Terror, 450-feet-long with a crew of 480 was the only minelayer in the U.S. fleet built specifically for minelaying. Soon it became the flagship for the Pacific minelaying fleet.
“The mines rolled off rails and out the back of the ship,” Ed said, “and they were pre-set for various depths. We laid mines in harbors and shipping lanes, and also delivered ammunition and supplies to the troops assaulting the islands.”
Ed’s job was as a fire controlman, operating and maintaining the ship’s weapons systems.
A review of the voyages of the Terror reads like a history of the Pacific war: Funafuti, Espiritu Santo, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Marshall Islands, Ulithi, Iwo Jima, Saipan, Okinawa.
If a battle was fought in the Pacific, the Terror was there, laying mines, tending smaller minecraft, delivering supplies and even assisting in bombarding the Japanese defenders on one or two occasions.
“Tokyo Rose (the Japanese propaganda radio broadcaster) had us sunk a couple of times,” laughed Ed. “But we obviously knew better.”
Ed vividly recalled one of the shelling incidents off Iwo Jima as the Terror’s 5-inch guns joined the 14-inchers of the nearby battleship Nevada.
“Before long, shells from the shore batteries started splashing all around us,” he said. “I started praying as hard as I could and I promised to serve the Lord all my life if he would just get me out of this alive.”
It’s a promise Ed has kept to this day.
In between these days and nights of terror on the Terror, there were a few light-hearted memories for Ed.
“It was incredibly hot below deck and you spent most of the time sweating,” Ed said. “One guy – he was kind of a chunky guy from Detroit – decided he was done with taking showers. He started smelling pretty bad but we couldn’t get him to clean up. Finally we had enough so four big guys stripped him, held him down and scrubbed him with deck brushes until he was pink as a newborn baby!”
Ed also recalled a time when he was allowed to take the helm of the ship, steering the mighty vessel to the next island destination. “The captain asked me, ‘How are you steering, seaman?’ But I think he knew I was on the right course,” Ed laughed.
As the war wound toward a bloody conclusion, Ed and his crewmates found themselves off Okinawa in April 1945, helping in the assault.
The Terror crew labored long hours to maintain the supplies of oil, water, gear and ammunition required by smaller mine-laying craft plying the shallow waters.
To make matters worse, the desperate Japanese were resorting to kamikaze attacks, with planes splashing daily – one less than 600 yards away.
“We were just constantly at battle stations, sometimes for hours,” Ed said. “You couldn’t get any good sleep.”
A review of military records proves Ed’s memory to be sharp as a tack, as the Terror was shown to be at battle stations 93 separate times during the month of April 1945, for periods ranging from 7 minutes to more than six hours.
“And then, on May 1st, 1945, it happened,” Ed said. “It was four in the morning and we were blacked out, sitting at anchor when a kamikaze plane came in with its running lights on, hoping someone would panic and shoot, giving away our position. Well sure enough, somebody on our ship opened up on him with a quad 40 (40 millimeter anti-aircraft gun) and those tracers just lit up the sky.”
Ed was at his battle station on the stern of the ship and had a front-row seat for what happened next.
“As soon as he (the pilot) saw those tracers, he swung around our stern, laid his engine wide open, and came right over our port beam, less than 100 feet away from me,” Ed said, his eyes widening as he retells of the tale. “He hit in the after (rear) stack and there was a tremendous explosion, fire everywhere, guys screaming and yelling. It was terrible.”
One of the bombs on the kamikaze went off in the Terror’s communications platform, while the other penetrated the main deck before exploding. The engine of the plane tore through the deck as well, ending up in the wardroom (officer’s quarters).
“We got the fire under control pretty quickly and flooded the magazines so they didn’t explode,” Ed said.
Nevertheless, the damage was done as the Terror suffered 171 casualties, including 41 dead.
“After making repairs the best we could, we limped back to Hawaii and then on to San Francisco for more repairs,” Ed said. Fortunately for the Terror, the day they departed San Francisco to return to the Pacific was Aug. 15, 1945, when the Japanese finally surrendered, ending the war.
“We did a lot of cleanup-type operations over around Japan after that,” Ed said. “We also had to ride out a couple of typhoons.”
Ed finally made it back to Nappanee in mid-1946 and was welcomed home joyfully by local residents.
“People bought me food and drinks everywhere – they treated me so great,” smiled Ed.
After the war, Ed briefly returned to farming as a hired man, working on a mint farm. He soon met and married his wife Velma, and shortly thereafter answered an ad in the newspaper for a job at a local feed mill where he worked for many years.
Ed also did maintenance work for the Wa-Nee school system, and spent 17 years as one of the legendary Fuller Brush men, icons of post-war America. He and Velma raised five children and currently live in Goshen, where at Ed still puts in one day a week working at a local hardware store.
It’s because of guys like Ed that America is free today. On this Memorial Day take time to thank a veteran.