TRIBES HILL - While Memorial Day for some is just a day off from work - an excuse to barbecue or watch a parade - the battles still echo for veterans.
For 88-year-old Tribes Hill resident John Miller, the day is still about gunfire, mortar shells and the friends he met during his two-year tour in Italy.
After getting his diploma from Amsterdam High School in June 1943, a 19-year-old Miller received another piece of paper. It was a letter from the United States Army welcoming him. He was drafted. And such thoughts are what come to Miller's mind each Memorial Day.
World War II?veteran John Miller of Tribes Hill shows two of his medals, a Purple Heart, left, and a Bronze Star. The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
"I think about all of my former comrades who are no longer with us," the World War II veteran said. "This is just a day off to most people. It's very difficult for it to connect."
"For instance, unless you had been through a tornado and saw everything smashed, you would say, 'Oh they had a tornado over there. Look at the houses.' It doesn't mean that much to you. But if you were there, it would mean a whole lot," he said.
Miller was a machine gunner for Company B in the 168th infantry regiment of the 34th infantry division - or as the 34th infantry division is more easily known, the "Red Bull." And during his two years in the military he earned a Bronze Star for "above-and-beyond" service. He was also awarded two Purple Hearts, which are given to soldiers who are killed, or, in Miller's case, wounded while serving.
His first Purple Heart came from an incident at his first stop in Anzio, Italy, nearly a year after he got his draft notice. On the morning of May 23, 1944, the German Army in the hills of the Alban Mountains opened fire on Miller's infantry by the Mussolini Canal below. Mortar shells were screaming over his head at dawn, and it didn't take long for one to land a little too close, he said.
"I was very fortunate with the mortar shell. It landed next to the machine-gun nest," he said. "A chunk of it went through my thigh. I reached down and picked it up. It burned my fingers, but it [also] cauterized [my wound] when it went though my thigh."
Miller returned less than a month later. On June 17, he was moved back to Company B, and it didn't take long for him to become the first machine gunner of his squad again as advancement was very fast due to a gunner's ability to allure the enemy.
A month later, Company B was in an olive orchard preparing for an attack on the small mountain town of Fauglia. It was quiet, so he decided to open a can of beans to eat, but in the flash of a second, shells were exploding in the trees, he said. On July 17, Miller was headed back to the hospital after collecting fragments from a 20-millimeter shell.
"I'm glad I was there to see it and go through it, but I was very fortunate to get back," he said. "We were the lucky ones. We got out of it alive anyway."
Seven years ago Miller asked his then-23-year-old granddaughter, Sarah Valachovic of Johnstown, to type what he had written about his time in the military. Twenty pages later, Valachovic had a new respect for her grandfather, but it didn't surprise her.
"Nothing really surprises me about my grandfather. It was just amazing to find out about all the stuff he had gone through and been through," she said. "It gives me a greater respect knowing what everybody who fights for our country goes through. It's just an amazing thing."
Although that was 67 years ago, Miller makes sure he is still a part of Memorial Day events in the area. Every year he takes part in the parade in his home town and in Hagaman. He was in Tribes Hill on Sunday for its Memorial Day parade representing the Tribes Hill Volunteer Fire Department, where he has been a member for 66 years. He will be in Hagaman today for its parade and memorial service.
"You can tell just by looking in his eyes how much it means to him when he's in the parade and in his uniform," Valachovic said.
John Borgolini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.