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Earned in Blood: My Journey from Old-Breed Marine to the Most Dangerous Job in America
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Earned in Blood: My Journey from Old-Breed Marine to the Most Dangerous Job in America

by Thurman Miller, Richard Frank (Foreword by)

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Born in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia in 1919, Thurman Miller was the sixteenth of eighteen children in a family so poor, the local coal miner's kids looked down on them. His father was a subsistence farmer and it was rare for the Miller family to have enough food for everyone. But for Thurman, Appalachia was not just a region: it was a culture, a


Born in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia in 1919, Thurman Miller was the sixteenth of eighteen children in a family so poor, the local coal miner's kids looked down on them. His father was a subsistence farmer and it was rare for the Miller family to have enough food for everyone. But for Thurman, Appalachia was not just a region: it was a culture, a frame of mind, a being. Fighting, playing, and hiding in the hills would soon serve him well.

In 1940 he enlisted and served in World War II with the legendary unit K-3-5 of the First Marine Division. He was involved in some of the most horrific and famous battles in the Pacific Theater, including Guadalcanal and New Britain, where as Gunny Sergeant he sent men to their deaths and narrowly escaped it himself. From harrowing battlefield experiences to the loss of comrades, his powerful combat experiences would stay with him forever. Upon returning stateside, he taught at the prestigious Officer Candidate School at Camp Lejeune, preparing young officers for the horrific battles to come on Okinawa and Iwo Jima. After the war, suffering badly from the malaria and other diseases he contracted in the Pacific and unable to find work, Miller took a job in the coal mines in his home state of West Virginia, where he toiled in darkness for thirty-seven years. The blackness of the mines fed the terrors he lived with since the battlefield and the backbreaking labor ate away at his already compromised body. Bowed but unbroken, Miller survived because of his strength and lifelong devotion to his beloved wife of sixty-five years—a relationship that shines brightly in this distinctly American journey.

With uncommon wisdom, intelligence, and humility, this member of the Greatest Generation spins a gripping tale through peace and war, work and family, love and redemption across ten tumultuous decades.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Afrontline view of a tough-as-nails life—by a man who came out the other end smiling . . .An impressive, riveting, and harrowing addition to the history of the Pacific Theater.” —The Charleston Gazette

“T.I. Miller is as fine a Marine as ever put on the uniform. In training and in combat, he was my mentor, my example, and my inspiration.” —R.V. Burgin, author of Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacifi

“At the end of this book I am left with a profound respect for this man, and filled with awe and gratitude. The levels of horror that he . . . endured in the name of service to country, home, and freedom is simply unimaginable.” —Marcus Brotherton, bestselling author of A Company of Heroes

“A dramatic and compelling story, one every American should read and ponder.” —Homer Hickam, author Rocket Boys and October Sky

“Thurman Miller brings alive the humanity of those who fight our wars and the inhumanity of the wars in which they fight.” —Lt. Col. Dick Renfro, U.S. Army, Ret.

“In Earned in Blood, Thurman Miller takes us through his hard but rich Appalachian boyhood, his harrowing experience as a Marine in the battles for Guadalcanal and New Britain, and his lifelong struggle with the aftereffects of all he gave to serve his country. In addition to recurring bouts of malaria, he suffered flashbacks so powerful that, when working as a coal miner, he saw his dead buddies piled up on the conveyor belt. Only the sheer strength of his spirit, the support of a loving family, and the reunion with his brother Marines made Mr. Miller's survival possible. His heart-searing story reminds us that a grateful nation is never grateful enough.” —George Ella Lyon

“Thurman Miller, now in his 90s, tells the iconic story of his generation: Living off the land on a hillside farm in West Virginia during the Great Depression, fighting in the South Pacific during World War II, returning home only to face the difficult life of a coal miner. But at the heart of this searing, honest book is the terrible combat on Guadalcanal and New Britain, and the Marines of K Company, locked in a primal struggle with their Japanese counterparts. Even as he documents the horror, Miller never loses sight of the humanity of all concerned.” —Denise Giardina, award-winning author of Storming Heaven and Emily’s Ghost

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St. Martin's Press
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Carving a life



BEING A UNITED STATES MARINE came to define my life, but Appalachia defined me first. My family has deep roots in southern West Virginia. My great-grandfather on my father’s side, Franklin Sizemore, was one of the earliest settlers here, part of a large migration from North Carolina in the mid-nineteenth century. He cleared the land that eventually became my hometown of Otsego. He was born in North Carolina in 1817 and migrated to Virginia about 1840. He became a postmaster and started a one-room log-cabin school near the mouth of Cedar Creek in 1874 and raised a very large family, including a son, William, my grandfather.1 My father, Eli Center Miller, was one of William’s many sons.

I come from a very large family, both my parents having been married and widowed with several children before finding each other. My mother, Elvira Rinehart, lost her first husband to malaria around 1915, the same disease that would play such a large role in my own life. His death left her alone and penniless, with seven children between the ages of one and twelve and still another on the way. My father lost his first wife at about the same time, probably to influenza, leaving him to care for their five surviving children alone. Perhaps mutual loneliness drew my father and mother together after each of their spouses passed away. They proceeded to add children of their own, four of us surviving to adulthood. I was fortunate to have had the joy of so many brothers and sisters.

Not all of us lived in the cabin on Cedar Creek, of course. As often happened in those days, relatives stepped in to take care of some of my mother’s children; there were just too many to feed and care for. Even with those who remained, my parents’ oft-repeated lament was “Your kids and my kids are beating the hell out of our kids!”

I was born on November 26, 1919, in a time of great upheaval. The world had just endured a war designed to make the world safe for democracy—a war, it was said, to end all war. The Roaring 20s were not so loud for us, for although nature provided plenty of fruit and fish during the warmer months, how much food we would have during the winter months was left up to us, as money was scarce and what we ate we had to grow. We were, after all, just simple farm folk and lived mostly from the hillside plots and a small amount of bottomland, with plantings of corn, potatoes, and other staples.

One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather hoeing corn; his arms, long and powerful, drove the hoe forward, upward, and back again in one smooth motion, shoulders broad and rippling, tireless muscles moving with precision. Before I was old enough to help, I played among the cornstalks as I watched him. Grandfather’s gnarled hands would wrap around the handle of the hoe as he worked along the row, the six-feet-plus of man blending perfectly with his tool, defining economy of motion as his hoe cut its way smoothly through the dirt and replaced it without leaving weeds or piles. He was a giant to me, a crease in his brow, a handlebar mustache curling about his lips. He knew how to carve a living from the land and preserve it for coming generations. When he spoke, which wasn’t that often, I hung on his every word. I wish I had more of them to recall.

There were so many mouths to feed that children were put to work early then. I was eight years old when my father gave me my own hoe. I took my place at the end of the line, because hoeing in the mountainside was truly an adventure. My dad was first to start a row, and then the next best worker and so on down the line. The work was difficult, and it made my hands hard and rough and my back stiff. My mother worked the fields alongside us. We stored up corn for the winter to feed the livestock and poultry.

My father was a carpenter and a subsistence farmer; my mother would can and pickle and dry-preserve the garden’s produce. We sat down to a table full of food we had raised ourselves, by the grace of God. We didn’t go hungry, but we didn’t get fat either, and we knew of many who had much less than we did. It was a life that was echoed throughout West Virginia, throughout all Appalachia. My Dad never prayed aloud much in church, but he said thanks at the table. I will never forget the humility and sincerity of his blessing, “Dear Lord, we thank Thee for this food as a nourishment for our bodies.” Sometimes the larder would be empty of almost anything except the corn before the long winter months ended, but Mother would take the corn and turn it into some kind of meal.

Despite having no money, my parents had a deep sense of dignity. My mother’s last-born child, a boy, lived only a few hours. My father and uncle took a large poplar board from the fence to make a tiny coffin. We couldn’t afford sandpaper, so my father used bits of broken glass to smooth the wood down. My mother took a pillow from the bed to make a pad for the bottom and sewed tiny, perfect pleats around the border of a scrap of white cloth for the lining.

*   *   *

Although my family had been in West Virginia for a century and a half, like a lot of Appalachian families we never owned the land on which we lived. We were raised on a leasehold; large coal or timber companies owned all the land in our part of the state, and I lived on our leased land until I had a family of my own.2 For now, we lived peacefully with the land and it sustained us. There were moonshine stills in the dense forests above our home, and as I explored the woods one day looking for straight weeds to make arrows I stumbled on a sack full of half-gallon fruit jars. I took the sack home and gave it to my mother, not realizing the jars belonged to moonshiners. We couldn’t afford to ignore anything of value, but I soon learned that moonshiners weren’t shy about defending their property, and I never again disturbed their stills.

Houses back then were mostly plain lumber, many of the “Jenny Lind” design, with the walls consisting of wide boards nailed to two-by-sixes and narrow boards covering the seams. The insides usually had no studs, and as the vertical boards began to cure, gaps would appear. These were covered with whatever people could find to keep out the cold wind. My mother, after lining the walls with large pasteboard boxes or scraps of fabric, would carefully tear up old magazines and, after making her own paste from flour and starch, would “wallpaper” entire rooms, including the ceiling. As we grew up and had nothing much else to do, we would start reading different articles on the walls. Some were incomplete and we would have to search for the rest of the article. We would pencil “continued in the kitchen” for the next reader. In addition to the comics and casual articles, our walls told a broken but engaging story of a world in the grip of economic malaise, with war and rumors of war in faraway places with names we could not pronounce.

During the twenties and thirties, we had no electricity, no heating system, no plumbing or running water in the house. All heating and cooking were done on either coal or wood stoves. As a small child I found refuge behind our large cookstove and lay there and napped when it was cold. As the youngest boy in the family, I was given the chore of building all the fires in the morning. In winter this was a hard job because of the number of fires I had to build. We had two heaters, one for the living room and another on the other end of the house in the big room that served as both a sitting room and bedroom. I had to get a good fire started in the cookstove first, because my mother was an early riser and always had breakfast on the table before daybreak. My mother told me I would have to build the morning fires only until we heard the first whippoorwill of spring.

Poor as we were, and with so many of our own mouths to feed, I never knew of our mother turning anyone away from our door. She fed them all, whether a relative or just some old man without a home. Our family would let them stay in a little shed close by, and when Mom got a meal on the table they always had a place and were treated like family. Many itinerant preachers would visit our town and sometimes stay with us, and occasionally they would organize an all-day revival with music and “dinner on the ground.” We children loved these because we could eat our fill.

We bathed using a big pot of water on the kitchen stove, a washpan, and some soap. We washed our upper body and then closed the door and warned everybody we were washing the rest. We’d brush our teeth with baking soda or with just plain soap and a rag. In the summer months, we usually had a small swimming hole nearby and would take along some soap and bathe while swimming.

By the age of ten, I had begun tending our cows, and this chore kept me close to nature year-round. I grew up under the old rule that children should be seen and not heard, so while around adults I kept silent, but while I tended the cows I sang, loud and long, and some say they heard me all over the mountains. Singing as I drove in the cattle, I was sometimes lost in a dream world, and these times were carefree and simple.

When early spring brought new life to the land, everything began to bud and bloom. Sap began to rise in the maple trees, and my father would begin to plan for that year’s crops. Here in Appalachia, there was little or no bottomland on leased farms where families such as ours lived, so the mountainsides became our cornfields. (A friend from another part of the country described us as farming “land you could fall off of.”) Clearing tillable acreage was arduous, backbreaking work. To make a plot suitable for farming, the trees had to be cut down, eventually to be turned into fence posts, and the stumps removed. All the underbrush was grubbed out with a mattock and hoe. The brush and small saplings were piled in several stacks throughout the field to be burned after they had dried out. Rocks also had to be cleared and piled. The entire process of clearing new ground took about a year from start to finish.

When new life burst forth in the spring, it meant fishing in Cedar Creek and an abundance of small game. There were rabbits, groundhogs, coons, foxes, and all manner of wildlife. Maybe it was my imagination, but they never seemed afraid of me in the woods. The squirrels kept their distance but were not disturbed by my presence. I guess this may have had some bearing on why I never hunted much as I grew up. My dad told of bigger game when he was a boy, plenty of bear and wildcat. Whatever nature could provide us to eat, or trade for something to eat, we didn’t have the luxury of turning down. We saved seeds year to year because we couldn’t afford to buy new; we made medicine from catnip and sassafras and crushed jewelweed; we harvested wild blueberries and blackberries and huckleberries.

Though hillsides were hard to till, the ground was fertile, and paid off in the fall with an abundant corn crop. Fall was kicking my bare feet in a pile of leaves and eating the wild nuts of the woods, a time to gather the fruits of our labor. We wore no shoes until very late in the year, and on frosty fall mornings I would run the cows up and stand where they had lain all night to warm my feet. I hasten to say this was not cruelty on the part of my parents but rather was a way of life for many.

The mountain also gave us heat for the winter. Coal was so abundant that many dark outcroppings of it—coal blooms—could be seen along creek beds and hillsides. Just in front of our house a seam of coal was sometimes exposed when Cedar Creek was very low. We would all pitch in and shovel the dirt off a portion of the coal seam. My older brothers would obtain blasting powder—we didn’t ask where they got such things—and blast the seam apart so we could shovel out the coal.

It’s been said that those of us from Appalachia were “born fighting.”3 I’m not sure about everybody else, but it certainly worked for me. Fighting, and playing, and hiding in the hills. Appalachia is not just a region: It’s a culture, a frame of mind, a history, a family, a being. For over a hundred and fifty years my family has lived in the same villages—and even the same cabins—as our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-greats. The land is dense and steep and impenetrably wooded with oak and hickory, with maple and pine and locust. The mountains seem to muscle in upon one another. Cabins are built on whatever flat land can be found, almost always alongside a creek, which carries the runoff at the base of the mountain. If five or six cabins will fit, we’ll call it a town and give it a name. Our homestead on Cedar Creek, where I was born and raised, was a holler, which is essentially a valley, a valley only yards wide.

Even in the chaos of our busy house, it was a glorious time to be a boy in the mountains. I often played in Cedar Creek. Naked or clothed, it didn’t matter to me. They say I once clad myself in only a necktie. The railroad men must have found this very amusing, because the tale has followed me down to the time of this writing. The railroad was installed along Cedar Creek for timbering up the mountain, so track was laid up by where we lived. As small children, we all enjoyed watching the log trains come and go and waved at the men working on them. After the logging was completed, the lumber company left the track for a few years. They also left some little flatcars they had used for hauling supplies. When I got older, we would push these cars to about a mile above our home, load them with wood, and ride them back down.

A small boy remembers small-boy things. I was an imaginative child. Sometimes I was a cowboy. Sometimes I was a soldier and went off to war. I remember visiting my much older brother-in-law, Fountain Sumner, and seeing his World War I doughboy uniform hanging up in the closet. I was always in awe of it. I realized even then that he belonged to an exclusive club, one in which membership is paid not in money but in the price asked of those who must seek out another human and cause him to die. He was a coal miner after the war, and I would study Fountain’s face and try to look beyond the coal grime. Coal miners acquire a ring of black around their eyes, and Fountain’s seemed magnified, so one could look deep into his soul. In church I would steal glances from the shaped-note hymnal back to him, wondering what was in his mind. From time to time, I would catch a bleakness, a despair, and I could only imagine what he must have been thinking. Now I know, for only those who have been similarly tried can truly understand.

In 1931, when I was twelve, a great drought swept across the land, although knowledge of what was happening outside our hills came to me only years later, for we had no radio or newspaper. The great Dust Bowl movement in the West had begun. The nation’s breadbasket dried up, and the wind began to destroy the land on which people depended. The drought began slowly, scorching farms and everything else in its path from Mexico to the far North. It brought an end to many small farms in the Appalachians and along the Blue Ridge. Water became scarce; streams dried up and became dusty troughs smelling of dead fish. There was no corn, no wheat, no rye, no feed for the livestock. Our cattle began to die, so there was no fresh beef or milk. The horses began to die. There were no pennies, nickels, and dimes lying around unclaimed as there are today; money simply went away.

This was a war for which there were no weapons, only prayer. The churches filled up, as the fulfillment of the Bible’s prophecy of “famine and pestilence in the land” appeared imminent. Depression and drought were the Axis powers of our first war, for we were to fight it alongside our parents. The elements themselves had become the enemy. The harsh rays of the sun beat down to wither anything green. Even the ground dried up and blew away on winds created by the terrible heat. That year the forest on Cedar Creek became tinder dry, and inevitably came the fires. Every mountain seemed ablaze. For days thick smoke filled the air and it was difficult to breathe. Even the roots of the trees dried out and began to burn. Small game came out of the woods in search of food and water, the different species no longer having the energy to prey on one another but rather searching for some mutual relief from the heat and thirst. I watched as a groundhog ambled slowly by, completely unaware of anything else around him. No fear even as I picked him up. Only fur and bone. Nature’s delicate balance had been upset, and as the year went on, she failed to replenish herself.

I watched Cedar Creek become small pools of water here and there. These filled with fish that flopped around until the water dropped even more, and finally Cedar Creek died. There were no victors in that war.

It just slowly came to an end as the rains returned, leaving the land scarred. One summer’s drought was broken very dramatically. My brother Buck and I were standing by a creek near our home one day when the sky grew an angry purple and the wind picked up and the trees on the mountaintop began to sway crazily, as if they didn’t know which way to bow. Then a small vortex seemed to gather all at once and came racing down into the valley, turning, twisting as it came. It hit bottom, swirled the waters in the creek, and continued across and up the other side. It suddenly turned to run along the hollow, and as it did it began twisting the trees and breaking them, large oaks and hickorys, as easily as a dry twig. Buck and I stood speechless. We turned to run, but the small storm raced after us. Buck was trailing me by a few yards, and as I looked back I heard an awful crack as a huge dead tree came crashing down between us. Buck emerged from the other side unhurt. Our wild run brought us safely out of the timberline, and we crossed a low bridge leading to an open field. Now the sky lit up and lightning surrounded us on all sides. Our hair began to crackle, and the storm seemed to concentrate over this one little spot. Lightning struck a wire fence just a few yards away and discharged into the earth. We lunged onto the safety of my sister’s porch. When the storm subsided we went back, found our cattle, and started for home. The late-evening sun playing on the mountaintop seemed to spread its calm. The mountains slowly turned green again over that summer but were somehow never the same.

Perhaps our fight against the greatest of foes, nature, tempered our generation for the great war to come. We learned the lessons of making do with whatever was at hand, or doing without.

I grew into my teens much the same as any boy. Girls began to be pretty instead of boring, and grown-ups seemed to get dumber as I became wise beyond all expectation. My grandfather began to falter, not quite as steady and broad shouldered as I had always known him.

I attended a little two-room schoolhouse in Otsego, down the valley from our Cedar Creek home. Otsego had about two hundred people, and in the sixth grade there were only two of us in my class. For seventh grade, which was considered high school, Otsego kids were bused into the town of Mullens, a big city to me with a population of several thousand spread out across a long and wide valley on the Guyandotte River. The first day I went to catch the bus to my new school, the driver wouldn’t let me on. I was a scrawny kid, and he said I was too small to be going to high school. I should have agreed with him and just skipped it altogether, because when I did show up at Mullens, it was not to a warm welcome. Most in the school I attended looked down on the children who were bused in from the coal towns, much less those of us from the hills. A student who happened to be the child of a superintendent or foreman had it made, while plain coal miners’ children were barely tolerated. I didn’t even live in a coal town. We were “them kids from up the holler.” As we walked up the street, we knew we were being sized up and our appearance compared to that of the kids from the towns.

Seventh grade was a big cultural change for me. That was the year I first used that mysterious object called the telephone. I was summoned to the principal’s office one day with the message that I was wanted on the phone. Well, by golly, that was something! Very timidly I picked up the phone and said hello, but there was no one there. Gently the secretary took the receiver from my hand and reversed the ends, and I heard the caller clearly.

The other students were mostly from Mullens, with parents who were merchants or trades people, and were far better dressers, and I always felt out of place. In grade school, we were for the most part all the same, children of farmers and coal miners. I decided it wasn’t for me. I lied to the principal, told him I had the itch, and he was glad to get rid of me when I dropped out. My dad said nothing, but he introduced me to an array of farm tools and put me to work. I learned that year that I didn’t want to be a subsistence farmer. I went back the next year and took the seventh grade over again, determined to graduate from high school, come hell or high water. Biology was the most interesting subject to me, for I grew up amid nature’s bounty. I was very popular with girls when it came time to gather bugs and leaves for school.

During my high school years I had to buy my own books. There was no extra money, and I had to resort to whatever means I could in order to get them. I cut corn in the fall and dug potatoes and did anything else that came my way. For this I received a dollar a day. Believe it or not, this was considered good money for a boy. I cannot conceive of a modern boy doing this kind of work, tolerating the worms, or the big ears of corn banging you in the head. I once cut thirty-five regulation shocks of corn in a single day, and the man I worked for couldn’t believe it. He raised my wages to a dollar and a half a day.

My brother Buck and I were appointed janitors for the school, a job our father had previously held. It paid eleven dollars a month. At the end of the month, we would get several large flour sacks and walk down to Mullens, to Shannon’s General Store. We bought the entire eleven dollars in staples we couldn’t raise at home. We didn’t even ask our parents; we just took the money and bought the food we knew our family lacked. One of us carried a twenty-five-pound sack of meal and the other a twenty-four-pound sack of flour, and we filled our extra sack with salt and sugar and other items we knew our parents needed. We carried our sacks as we walked the several miles from Mullens to our home in Cedar Creek. During the spring and summer months we peddled fresh vegetables, eggs, and anything else we could sell to the people of the community. My primary job was to deliver the produce and collect a little money for Mom that she in turn used to purchase staples we could not raise. Sometimes I thought this beneath my dignity, but I did it, and later I was proud to have contributed to our family’s survival in those hard years.

After three months in the eighth grade Buck decided he’d had enough of school and convinced my father to let him quit and get a job with the Works Progress Administration. The wages were small but did help the family. After a time, he went back to school, but our need was great, so he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. He made $30 a month, $25 of which was automatically sent to our parents. The Corps gave him a uniform, and he looked good in it. The CCC fought fires and built roads and observation towers, and he stayed with the CCC for sixteen months.

Some teachers recognized that the kids from the hollers needed special help. Once Buck stayed home from school and the teacher asked me where he was. I told her the truth, that he had no shoes to wear. She told me to tell James (she always insisted on his proper name) to come in the next day and wait in the hall. That morning, before school started, she gave him a pair of shoes that would do until my father could afford new ones. Kindness such as this helped dispel the feeling that everyone was against us.

One Christmas my dad came into a bit of extra cash. With it, he walked to Mullens and purchased each of us, boys and girls alike, a pair of boots with a knife scabbard on the side. All of us prized this gift very highly and wore them until they were completely worn out. I learned the art of “half-sole” at a very young age, and when my boots wore thin my dad would give me exactly enough money to buy leather, along with a box of brads, and I would resole my shoes. This was the norm in those days; we did what we had to do in order to live.

I made no great impression at school but did make good on my determination to pass. I also was determined to learn to use the typewriter, and this skill served me well over the years. (After the war I would develop the habit of carrying a notebook in my pocket and would jot notes to myself about my experiences and type them up as time permitted. I never intended for anyone else to read what I had written; it was just a kind of self-therapy, to give form to the ordeal I had experienced. Much of this book springs from those early writings.)

I borrowed a coat, dress shirt, and tie for my high school graduation and was proud to get my diploma. Now the big world was out there for me to conquer. Now I could be an active member of it. However, this was a world still in recovery from the Depression. As I saw the many empty, expressionless faces I wondered, What the hell will I do? I began by clerking in the company store, but this job soon ended, and I went to work for a power company and then a construction company. When a big construction job was finished I was laid off, and that proved to be the last job I could find for a while, no matter how hard I looked.

That summer my grandfather took to his bed and passed on without my telling him I loved him, but it was understood. He had taught me to love the land and to respect it, to be in partnership with it as it provided sustenance, and to understand that we are to preserve it for our children.

The beginning of the new school year came down on me hard when I saw the others going back. Only then did it strike me that I was now for all practical purposes an adult. Unlearned, perhaps, but an adult nevertheless. When I began to view the world from that perspective, I didn’t like what I saw. With the lack of jobs on our minds, one of my half brothers and I and a friend of ours decided to “go west, young man.” We hopped a freight train and started out for California. Our trip was short. On the first leg of the journey we pulled into Dixon yards just out of Charleston, West Virginia, and were picked up by some railroad dicks. One detective took us on a “tour” of Riverside Boulevard, past the governor’s mansion. He would always start his description the same dramatic way: “And this, gentlemen…”

The most impressive sight was the county courthouse. It contained many offices, including the place of confinement to which they brought offenders like us. The dick was still dramatic, “And this, gentlemen, is the county jail.” There was a bounty on the head of every hobo they caught, and we were just one group among many. Among the three of us I was the first in line, but there were plenty of other vagrants ahead of me. I listened while the justice of the peace dealt out justice to those ahead of me. Guilty or not? “Not guilty,” they replied. “Thirty days and costs,” came the sentence. Well, I knew I was guilty and would plead so. I was both surprised and pleased at being sentenced to only ten days and costs. (I thought to myself, I could do that standing on my head.) My total confinement amounted to fourteen days, apparently because I couldn’t pay the “costs”—even though it cost the county more to keep me there the extra days. It did me a lot of good to meet the seedy characters with whom I served my confinement. One guy paced and smacked his fist into his palm. “Hell,” he said, “you got to buy ’em off or bump ’em off. And I’ve bumped off thousands of ’em.” Pacing, back and forth. I learned the hard way not to put myself in situations where it would be necessary to be with these kinds of people, including some of my brothers.

It was an unexpected lesson, for between the ages of sixteen and twenty I had been the subject of much discussion in the community. During my high school years I had fallen under the influence of some of my older brothers who had become familiar with the local law enforcement agencies. I didn’t have the ambition to be a true criminal but was curious and mischievous. Law enforcement agencies had more than once come to our home looking for one of my brothers, or for me; sometimes it was a case of guilt by association, but sometimes their suspicion of me was well founded. It was probably no surprise for any of them to hear I had been in jail in Charleston.

I finished up my sentence, returned home, and loafed about with the other boys my age. By now, 1940, all of us were well aware of the gathering clouds of war and were discussing the probability of our being drafted. We had listened as our elders talked of Japan and Germany and, remembering Fountain, I wondered if there would be a time when I would be called to defend my country.

Five of us boys were playing cards one day in a railway tunnel near our homes, and talking about our futures, and we agreed we would join the Marine Corps together. Why the Corps? I’m not really sure. I don’t recall seeing a particular movie that would have convinced me that it was the branch for me. I do know that the Marine Corps had a well-deserved reputation for being the elite branch, after its success at Belleau Wood and other battles. I also know that even though all the branches were seeking recruits, with the war just over the horizon, the marines had a special place in the armed services, the first to fight, capable of being sent anywhere (even, for example, the Halls of Montezuma, wherever they were). We made a pact: We would meet at eight o’clock Monday morning on the bridge that carried the main road over Cedar Creek and would go the nearly 100 miles to Charleston to join up.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but Appalachia has paid more than its share of the nation’s war debt. Our region continues to send our young people to the armed services at a very high rate, and I believe this is for two reasons. First, we tend to be a patriotic people, unashamed to demonstrate our love for our country. Perhaps this follows from our deep love of the land. Second, however, the armed services have offered a path out of the poverty that has marked both the perception and the reality of our most rural areas, a path that leads to a role commanding respect and rewarding hard work and self-discipline. Whether that promise is true for most young Appalachians is doubtful.4

My weekend was full of thought and soul-searching. I knew it would only be a matter of time until I would have to go into the service, and if I waited it would be on “their” terms. I decided I would enlist and go on my own terms.

Monday morning I found myself alone on the bridge. I decided I would go on by myself. I hitched a ride to Charleston—without getting into jail this time—and located the marine recruiting depot. The Marine Corps gave me a very stiff medical exam, finding only an overriding left little toe, which would have been enough to get me out of service, according to the doctor, but I wasn’t looking to get out. They gave me a few days to go home and set my affairs, such as they were, in order. As I was not yet twenty-one my parents signed a form consenting to my enlistment and “relinquishing all claims” to my service to them; they certified my date of birth, that I had not been married nor served in the military, and that I had not been convicted of any felony. I presume there was a silent agreement on all our parts to ignore my adventure in the Kanawha County Jail, a misdemeanor.

Leaving home for a few days or weeks was one thing, but leaving for a more extended stay was something else. The full import of my decision came to me a few days later as I walked out of Cedar Creek. I felt a lump in the pit of my stomach. What lay in the future? What of the old folks? My brothers and sisters? I took a final look, avoiding any tearful good-byes, but I felt an immediate loneliness I would carry to the far reaches of the world. I felt my leaving was barely noticed by my peers. He’s gone was all I imagined they would say. I had been a thorn in the side of some, but now I would trouble them no more.

I left home wanting the adventure that lay ahead and at the same time coveting the mountains of my childhood, with my secret caves and trees and hiding places. What of the girl I loved but had never really told? Would she remember me? Would I be a hero in her eyes, or would my absence cause her to find someone else?

The long walk to the Mullens bus stop to head back to the recruiting station and then on to boot camp gave me time to reflect. Once aboard the bus, I leaned back and rested my head on the seat and accepted what the future would hold. One thought gave me the determination to make good. My father had said, “Son, I’m afraid you’ll spend all your time in a guardhouse.” He was justified in thinking that. I had been pretty wild for a few years, and from my habit of just taking off and bumming my way here and there, I guess it was natural for my dad to think what he did. My reply came easily and naturally. “Dad, if I don’t go, these people will make a criminal out of me anyway, so where I’m going will either make or break me. If I make good, I’ll be back; if not, I’ll stay away.” I meant it. I loved my mother and father passionately, and the largest scar I carry is the guilt of causing them concern.

With these thoughts swelling in my breast, I checked in at the recruiting depot. I raised my right hand and they administered the Marine Corps oath. So help me God, I promised to defend these shores.

Then I shipped out to Parris Island to become a marine.


Copyright © by Thurman Miller

Meet the Author

THURMAN MILLER, a native of Otsego, West Virginia, served as Gunny Sergeant with the First Marine Division in World War II and was one of the first Marines ashore on Guadalcanal. He fought in several other historic South Pacific battles, including New Britain, and returned stateside to teach at the Officer Candidate School at Camp Lejeune before beginning a three-decade career in the coal mining industry. He formerly served as president of the West Virginia Chapter of the First Marine Division and lives near Beckley, West Virginia.

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