World War II veteran of Canova gets French Legion of Honor medalCANOVA — Duane Miller can still recall the faces of some of the German soldiers he killed in combat more than 60 years ago.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
CANOVA — Duane Miller can still recall the faces of some of the German soldiers he killed in combat more than 60 years ago.
Sometimes, they return to him in his sleep. Miller, 87, said he shot several Germans during his service as an Army infantryman in World War II. They were shooting at him, he said, so he didn’t have a choice.
“It was survival,” he said. “You ever been shot at?”
Miller said he had a nightmare just two weeks ago. The experiences he went through were so powerful, they return even after 68 years.
“Hell!” he said when asked what combat was like. “War is hell. It’s terrible. You better believe it.”
But he lived through the war and returned home to Canova to lead a long, productive life. Last month, he returned to France to receive an award. He was named a chevalier, the French name for a knight, and awarded the French Legion of Honor.
It was presented to him in St.-Lo, France, on July 18. St.-Lo, located in the Normandy region in northwest France, was the scene of crucial battles during the war.
That date has a special meaning.
The city of St.-Lo was liberated on July 18, 1944, by the U.S. Army 29th Infantry Division, the unit Miller belonged to during his service years in Europe.
Miller joined the Army in October 1943, a few months after he graduated from Canova High School. He was 18.
“I volunteered because I was going to be drafted anyway,” he said.
He was one of four young men from Canova who joined at the same time, hoping to serve together. Instead, they were split up.
Miller was assigned to the 29th Infantry and, after training in Georgia, he was shipped with other soldiers to Europe. They landed at Liverpool, England and quickly dispatched to France.
The D-Day invasion had occurred on June 6, 1944. It was the American/English/French effort to take Europe back from Adolf Hitler and the Germans, and it was the greatest invasion in world history.
“He had to be stopped,” Miller said of the Nazi dictator.
When Miller and his comrades arrived, the Germans had been thrown back from the beach, but they were just 15 miles away and still eager for battle, he said.
Miller carried an M-1 rifle into combat and said the weapon was heavy. It was also well-used, he said.
“Oh yeah,” Miller said when asked if he killed enemy soldiers. “Oh yeah.”
He said he can’t remember how many, but he knows it was quite a few. It’s a startling thing to hear from a slight, gentle man nicknamed “Stub,” who recalls the horrors in his quiet living room in a small South Dakota town.
And Miller admits it still bothers him.
“I had bad dreams a few weeks ago.”
Miller said he was wounded once. A hand grenade exploded by him and fired shrapnel into his left leg.
A doctor told him he would never walk straight again. But he said after surgery on his 19th birthday, he healed quickly during a hospitalization in England and was returned to his unit in three weeks.
“They needed bodies,” Miller said.
He fought through France, Belgium and Holland and into Germany before the war ended in 1945. The fighting was intense, Miller said, until the final 30 days.
He said American and German troops were within sight of each other in the final 30 days of the war, but they knew peace talks were under way. There was no shooting in those waning days, Miller said.
He said his return home wasn’t marked by a formal ceremony or even a dinner in his honor.
Miller said his dad greeted him at the train station in Sioux Falls that day in 1946 and said they had to hurry home. There were still chores to do on the farm, he was told.
“That was my homecoming,” Miller said with a dry chuckle.
But he said it may have been for the best. Miller said he was determined not to let the horrors he had lived through during the war alter his path in the future.
“I got back to real life,” he said.
He and his wife, Marcella, were married in 1954 and were together for more than 57 years before she died in 2011. They had nine children. Miller, who lives alone in a tidy house in the small town of Canova, said he misses his wife dearly.
Ed Miller toured France with his father last month. The two men spent $10,000 on the trip, Duane Miller said.
Ed Miller said the time together during the tour taught him several things about his father’s war-time service.
“Throughout his life my father rarely discussed his experiences in the war. In the past I always thought that was due to generational differences,” Ed Miller said. “However, I now believe that so many of the war experiences were truly unspeakable and that being silent about them has nothing to do with generational differences.
“Some of those experiences still bother him; he occasionally wakes up during the night thinking that he is a soldier in Normandy.”
Ed Miller said he learned a great deal during the two-week tour.
“It was a humbling experience to see the impact that World War II had on France, and how grateful the French and other Europeans are for the contributions of American soldiers,” he said.
“Everywhere we went, local residents, tourists and travelers would approach my father and thank him for his service; many were quite emotional, sometimes to the point of tears,” Miller said. “People would often ask for his autograph and/or a photograph, which seemed to mean a lot to them.”
It wasn’t just the common people who thanked his dad, he said.
“French government officials at all levels expressed their gratitude as well; we were officially welcomed in many towns by mayors, town councils, etc.,” Miller said.
The city of St.-Lo made Duane Miller an honored guest during the annual Liberation Day Celebration on July 18. The French prefet formally presented him with the French Legion of Honor medal; the mayor presented him with additional citations as well. The ceremonies were formal and colorful, following military protocol with men in uniform, bearing flags, flowers, etc.
Duane Miller learned that he was eligible for the honor through a 29th Infantry newsletter he receives. He applied for it and received a letter in May from Graham Paul, the Chicago-based consul general of France, telling him he would receive the knighthood.
“My fellow countrymen will never forget your sacrifice,” the letter states. “Their children and grandchildren are as proud of your courageous actions as can be your own children and grandchildren … Merci beaucoup for all you did!”
‘A French knight’
Duane Miller said the ceremonies at St.-Lo were a bit overwhelming. “They were all highfalutin’ guys you wouldn’t believe,” he said. The Legion of Honor is the highest award the French government can award. It was established by Napoleon.
Miller said he was kissed on both cheeks during the ceremony and at other times as well.
“They always do that,” he said with a smile. “The women and the men do that when they greet you.”
Miller said he was moved by the honor he was shown, and also enjoyed the chance to tour castles and other points of interest. He did get weary after several days of touring, he said, and used a wheelchair for a bit.
“They’ve got so many castles,” Miller said.
He didn’t have much of a chance to do any sightseeing from 1944 to 1946. While the war ended in 1945, he remained in Europe for months afterward as the nations worked to start the process of rebuilding.
Miller recalls a dinner he and some fellow soldiers had with older French women in the 1940s. They told him of their fears during the Nazi occupation and explained how they hid in trenches to avoid being killed during battles.
That dinner aside, he said there wasn’t a lot of time for fun in those years.
The French people were grateful, Miller said, and shared food and wine with American soldiers. But it was mostly a hard, miserable, dangerous time.
“People have asked me what good times we had,” he said. “I didn’t see anything good about it.”
That’s one reason Miller was glad to get home and resume his previous life, he said. There were other World War II veterans in town, but they rarely discussed their war years. He took part in an Honor Flight for veterans to Washington, D.C., a few years ago, as he decided to be more open about his service.
Miller said he has empathy for other veterans who have returned home after serving in wars in the past few decades. Some are “banged-up for life,” he said.
“They have so many more sophisticated ways of killing people than when we were in the service,” Miller said.
He farmed until the 1980s and then moved to town, where he was later elected mayor and has served as an unofficial town historian.
Miller said he remained involved in many things in the community until his doctor ordered him to take things easier.
“I lead my own life now,” he said with a smile.
Last month, that included a trip to Europe and into the past, to see the nation he helped liberate and receive the thanks of the people and officials of France.
“So now I’m a French knight,” Miller said, his eyes twinkling at the thought.