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Missing Fly Boy Finally Laid to Rest

The remains of 1st Lt. Philip Miller were found in 1999, 54 years after he disappeared.

October 25, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

David Miller buried the father he never got to know on Friday.

Under an afternoon sun obscured by coastal fog and smoke from inland wildfires, a five-member rifle squad fired off a 15-shot salute at Wood- lawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.

They were honoring an Army Air Forces pilot who had survived nearly two years of service in the Pacific during World War II, only to die on a routine flight just weeks after the Allies declared victory over Japan.

It has been 58 years since 1st Lt. Philip Miller took the controls of his B-25 bomber for the last time. On Sept. 8, 1945, he and seven crew members were flying to the Philippines after ferrying some officers to Hawaii. They never arrived at the small island where they were to refuel.

Back in the States, David Philip Miller was a toddling 2-year-old when a military review board declared the disappearance weather-related and listed his father and the others as "presumed dead; body not recovered."

The pilot's widow was tortured with the thought that her husband had plowed into the ocean. She grieved and eventually remarried.

Then in 1995 a mining company helicopter pilot spotted aircraft wreckage scattered at 13,000 feet across an Indonesian mountain. Because of civil unrest in that region, U.S. military helicopters could not begin retrieving remains and personal items until 1999.

Using DNA from members of the crew's families, military forensic experts identified all the victims. On Sept. 25, 2001, Sarah Burch, David Miller's mother, got a startling call at her home in Walla Walla, Wash.: Her husband's remains had been found.

In June, the crew's relatives gathered at Arlington National Cemetery for a group funeral. Leading the procession was a horse-drawn caisson that carried a flag-draped casket holding commingled remains that were too small to be identified. One crewman, Sgt. Finn Buer, was interred separately at Arlington.

The identifiable remains of the others were sent home to their families. Miller's arrived earlier this week from Honolulu.

About 30 friends, family members and military representatives from the Ft. Irwin Army training facility outside Barstow gathered Friday afternoon for a funeral at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica.

Army Chaplain Alan Hendrickson expressed a thought that was on the minds of many. "There's joy in our hearts to know what happened," he said, "yet wounds are ripped open again and you grieve again. We rejoice yet feel sadness."

Philip Earl Miller was born May 8, 1917, in Yuba City, Calif. In 1936, while working with a surveying crew for the Oregon Highway Department in Pendleton, he attended a meeting of the Epworth League, a Methodist youth group, where he met Sarah Earnheart.

In fall 1937, the highway worker and the dark-haired, bespectacled beauty enrolled at Oregon State College. On Christmas Day 1937, they were married in Pendleton.

By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Miller had finished two years of college in civil engineering and worked two more years for the state highway agency.

He wanted to join the Army immediately, but his father pleaded with him not to. Miller went ahead and enlisted, but only after promising his father that he would not be a fighter or bomber pilot.

Early in 1942, Miller began training in communications at officers training school in Illinois. After graduation, he was stationed in Santa Monica, from which he traveled up and down the coast installing radar equipment.

He was sent to Hawaii, where he was ordered to take flight training. He returned to California, graduating from the training program at Stockton Field on Dec. 5, 1943. His son, David, was 8 months old.

Miller would see very little of David, although the family treasures a photo showing Miller swinging his laughing son by his wrists.

Miller was soon sent to the Philippines.

Just after the war ended, he received his fateful assignment to fly some officers from Australia to Hawaii.

It was on his way to a refueling stop that bad weather set in. Miller was 28.

A letter to Sarah Miller from the commanding general of the Army Air Forces noted that Lt. Miller had earned a reputation for "diligence and earnestness of purpose."

A family scrapbook gives only a hint of the life that was cut short. In a military pamphlet are photos of Miller and his crew, Squadron 15. A wedding-day photo shows him in a dark suit and striped tie with his arm around Sarah, who was wearing a long white dress with puffed sleeves and a large bow in front.

"He was a nice-looking young fella, with blue eyes," said Burch, 85, her eyes misting. "He was a real nice person who never did seem to lose his temper."

David Miller expressed relief that his father's long journey had finally ended at a peaceful site in Santa Monica, close to his son and 21-year-old grandson, David Philip Miller II.

"It was very emotional during the service," David Miller said. "I'm glad he's here and not in Arlington."

Miller said he has bought three plots next to the one where his father's silver casket was buried, topped with long-stemmed red roses.

He cherishes one relic in particular that was found by the salvagers: his father's wings, mangled from the impact.

Now a fresh pair of wings adorns the triangular box that holds the flag that draped the casket of the long-lost fly boy who finally found his way home.

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