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Floral City veteran honored for heroics during World War II

BROOKSVILLE

For Harrison Miller, it's all still a blur.

On Jan. 31, 1944, the Navy radioman was aboard a two-seater observation plane that had been hit by Japanese antiaircraft fire over the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Harrison reached up to the pilot to tell him fuel was leaking into the cockpit and that they were in trouble.

Ordered to jump by the wounded pilot, Miller, who had never flown a plane before, realized he had another option. Grasping the rear rudder stick, he began mimicking the pilot's actions, which he had seen dozens of times, and aimed the pontoon plane toward the water.

Then he braced himself for whatever would happen next.

• • •

For more than 68 years, Miller's heroic actions were barely known to others outside his family.

The long overdue recognition came Wednesday at a ceremony at the Brooksville office of U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Spring Hill.

Surrounded by family members and friends, as well as Marine Maj. Josh Vance, who helped Miller obtain his commendations, the Floral City resident was presented with an Air Medal for meritorious service, signifying his 17 combat missions during World War II.

Briefly overcome with emotion, Miller, who will turn 95 on Sept. 25, gazed and smiled at a shadowbox presented to him containing all of the military medals and ribbons representing his six years of military service.

"I'm very honored to have it," Miller said. "It means so much to know that other people think I deserve this."

• • •

Miller joined the Navy in 1939 knowing that he would likely see combat. When war broke out in the Pacific, he relished the opportunity to transfer to the 32,000-ton USS New Mexico, a battleship assigned to the naval assault force in the southwest Pacific.

As the radioman on the ship's Kingfisher observation plane, Miller's job was to relay information about enemy strongholds to the ship's gunners during bombardments.

The duty was hazardous. Flying at 3,000 feet, the plane was easy prey for enemy antiaircraft guns.

"You learned to get in and get out fast," Miller said. "You didn't wait around for anything."

Miller and pilot Lt. Forney Fuqua had just completed their mission in January 1944 when their plane was attacked.

To this day, Miller isn't sure how he brought the plane down. Fuqua fell unconscious with his hand on the throttle when Miller took over the controls.

"I just worked it the best I knew how," Miller recalled. "Somehow, I made it down."

The hard landing tore off the wing-tip pontoons, causing a rush of saltwater into the cockpit. Miller desperately tried but was unable to free Fuqua, who died just before the plane capsized.

Miller, who was in the water for nearly two hours awaiting rescue, suffered only some gasoline burns on his stomach.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross aboard his ship, but Miller never applied for any of the other commendations until about a year ago, when he met Vance, a military history buff and avid scuba diver who is involved in efforts to locate long-sunken warplanes around the world. Miller's two sons, Andy and Jim, encouraged their father to work with Vance to pursue the honors he was due.

Vance said that many World War II veterans never have received the commendations they deserve because the required documents and research is daunting.

"I was just glad to help him get what was due to him," Vance said. "I think it's important that we recognize the people who sacrificed so much for our country."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1435.

Floral City veteran honored for heroics during World War II 09/05/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 10:11pm]
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