Hometown Heroes

Saipan Survivor’s Surprise Gift

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LISTEN to Ken Miller on Hometown Heroes
92-year-old William “Ken” Miller of Oakhurst, CA appears on Episode #320 of Hometown Heroes, remembering his World War II service in the U.S. Marine Corps. Born in Maryland and raised in Dover, Ohio, Miller was a high school basketball star turned apprentice carpenter before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Ken enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, leaving behind his young wife Ruth as he headed overseas.


Ken Miller with a book about the banzai charge he survived on Saipan.

You’ll hear him describe the gruesome duty he carried out on Tarawa, hauling dead Japanese soldiers out of bunkers after the battle there had concluded. More than 1,000 of his fellow Marines died in the fight to capture Tarawa, and his experience there brought him face to face with the reality that in war, “life isn’t very precious.” After more training in Hawaii, Ken headed to Saipan, receiving word just before the battle began that he had become a father. Ruth had given birth to a baby girl, Karen, back in Ohio, and Ken believed he would get to meet that bundle of joy someday. More than 30,000 Japanese troops defended Saipan, but by July 7, 1944, that number had been reduced to somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000. That remnant was ordered by General Yoshitsugu Saito to launch a “banzai” attack in the early morning darkness. Ken Miller and about 300 of his fellow Marines were the target of that charge, and fought off the endless stream of enemy soldiers for ten hours, until American tanks finally arrived. You’ll hear Ken remember being wounded early on in the clash, and using parts from abandoned airplanes to construct a makeshift shelter for the wounded. When he ran out of his own ammunition, he used weapons taken from enemy casualties in his desperate quest for survival. More than 3,500 Americans died in the Battle of Saipan, and among the hundreds from Ken’s 3rd Batallion, 10th Marines (2nd Marine Division) who perished that day was Ken’s good friend, Eric H. Johnson. You’ll hear Ken remember his boxing buddy and share one way he decided to honor his late friend after the war.


The John Hamilton painting “Saipan Bonsai Charge” depicts Ken Miller and his fellow Marines fending off the seemingly endless tide of enemy soldiers on July 7, 1944

Ken survived the battle, participated in the subsequent conquest of Tinian, and if he had any doubt as to whether he would have participated in the planned invasion of Japan, perhaps the fact that his sea bag ended up there when he headed home is an indication. Miller would receive the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, but a reward even more meaningful to him was the chance to meet his 18-month-old daughter Karen when he returned to Ohio. Ken and Ruth continued to grow their family, which now includes eleven great-grandchildren and even a great-great grandson. You’ll hear Ken thank God for protecting him through those perilous moments on Saipan, and for the adventure he experienced nearly 70 years later. Ken wasn’t sure what to expect when he signed up for the inaugural Central Valley Honor Flight, but his trip to Washington, D.C. in October 2013 included an unexpected gift. For decades, he’d been in possession of the book “The Last Great Banzai,” by fellow 2nd Marine Division veteran Brad Gates. On the cover was a small black and white reproduction of the John Hamilton painting “Saipan Bonsai Charge,” depicting Ken and his fellow Marines holding off the waves of Japanese troops. Ken had wondered where the original painting was, and if he could ever see a full-sized color version. After experiencing the National World War II Memorial, the Central Valley Honor Flight enjoyed lunch at the Library of Congress, and at the tail end of that lunch, Congressmen Jim Costa and David Valadao, on behalf of Miller’s representative, Jeff Denham, presented Ken with a 12″x20″ reproduction of Hamilton’s painting. Rep. Devin Nunes joined with Costa and Valadao to provide lunch for the group of veterans and their trip “guardians.”

Ken Miller after receiving a framed reproduction of "Saipan Bonsai Charge" by John Hamilton.

Ken Miller after receiving a framed reproduction of “Saipan Bonsai Charge” by John Hamilton.

Listen to Hometown Heroes to hear Ken describe what that painting means to him, as well as what the entire Honor Flight experience was like for him. Central Valley Honor Flight is part of a nationwide network of volunteers committed to help World War II veterans experience their memorial in Washington, D.C. To find an Honor Flight hub in your area, visit the Honor Flight Network website. Ken’s local newspaper, the Sierra Star, provided excellent coverage of his latest adventure, before and after his trip. For more photos relating to Ken and his story, visit the Hometown Heroes facebook page, and make sure to watch the video below of the moment he received that big surprise. If you ever have the privilege of meeting Ken, please thank him for serving our country, and make sure you ask him about his work on the famed Crystal Cathedral.
Paul Loeffler


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