'We had an enemy you could put your hands on'

Nov. 09, 2013 @ 04:32 PM

WARRENTON — Joel Miller dreamed of becoming an Air Force pilot. He overcame many hurdles to become, very briefly, a Tuskegee Airman. But as he neared his goal, his dreams were frustrated by a simple fall that disqualified him physically.

On a recent weekday at his home about three miles south of Warrenton on N.C. 58, he talked about his early life and his time in military service.

Miller grew up on a cotton farm in Augusta, Ark. His father’s farm had once been part of a large plantation.

“The slave master gave 640 acres to the former slaves,” Miller said. “My father and his three brothers and a sister lived on that farm. There was the home, a cotton gin and a store.”

Miller went to school in Augusta until he was 15.

“The school only went through 10th grade,” he said.

So he enrolled in a high school on the campus of what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“I had $10. I sent $7 to my sister so she could go to college,” he said. His sister eventually earned a master’s degree.

He stayed at Pine Bluff long enough to complete one year of college.

By that time, the U.S. was involved in World War II.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, “We had an enemy you could put your hands on,” Miller said. “It wasn’t like Vietnam.”

And he wanted to be part of the fight.

Miller volunteered for active duty in 1942. The United States was in its early efforts to take the war to Japan and Germany. One way to go on the offensive was through airpower. So when Miller was sent to Vancouver, Wash., for basic training, he applied to take the Air Corps exam to become a pilot.

“They told me, ‘There’s no provision for Negroes in the Air Force,’” he said.

That was one hurdle, but it didn’t stop him. He explored every possible channel. He kept up a stream of letters to Washington, hoping to find a sympathetic ear.

Finally, his efforts paid off. His application for the Army Air Corps was approved and he was assigned to Selfridge Field, Mich., where he joined the 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Air Corps had resisted the idea of training black pilots, reflecting ingrained prejudices about their intelligence, skill and bravery.

Giving in to pressure, as well as acknowledging the country’s need for trained manpower, the Air Corps set up an experimental program in Tuskegee Ala., to train blacks for duty as airmen. They became known as Tuskegee Airmen.

The 332nd Fighter Group was established in Tuskegee. It was later transferred to Selfridge Field but didn’t lose the designation associated with Tuskegee.

In April 1943, the 332d Fighter Group was deployed to the Mediterranean theater where, under the command of Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the unit achieved an outstanding record escorting bombers on raids deep into enemy territory.

But Miller didn’t go with them. That back injury kept him from accompanying the unit. It also ended his dream of becoming a pilot. When the 332nd left, he was transferred to a quartermaster unit.

“All I could do was wish my buddies well,” he said.

He remained in the service until December 1944, when he received a medical discharge because of his back injury.

“I still have to wear a brace on my back,” he said.

As a civilian, he carved out a 43-year career as a trucker.

“I saw 48 states through the windshield of an 18-wheeler.”

It was on one of those trips that he met his wife, Joyce. She was a child nutrition worker with schools in New Jersey. After they moved to Warren County, she worked in child nutrition with the school system until she retired.

In 1992, Miller formed a company called People Helping People. He attempted to put people needing assistance maintaining or improving their property in touch with people looking for work.

“It never got off the ground,” Joyce said.

In addition to their desire to help people, the Millers share a connection through the military.

When a flag was suggested as an appropriate backdrop for a photograph of Miller, Joyce brought out a large American flag. It had been presented to her at the funeral of her first husband, who was buried with military honors.

At age 90, Miller likes to recall those days as a Tuskegee Airman. But he is also looking forward.

He said he is already planning how he will celebrate his 100th birthday.

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.