I Will Learn War No More
SOUTH DAKOTA in the Midwestern United States is a farm state. Cattle graze its beautiful plains. The fields are abundant with spring wheat, barley, oats, corn and rye. Here, in the town of Aberdeen, I began my life on July 10, 1921—a life that would take me through the extremes of war and peace, hatred and love.
My parents were hardworking German people who believed in religion and education. Thus I was baptized and raised in the Lutheran faith. By the spring of 1939 I had finished school. My parents had been divorced and my father had died. What route would I now choose in life?
I had a deep appreciation for the Bible and God so I applied to attend a Lutheran seminary to become a minister. In the meantime World War II broke out in Europe and, not having heard from the seminary, in July of 1940 I joined the U.S. Navy. Thus the die was cast for a career in war rather than peace.
After preliminary training, I chose to serve in the Navy Air Force. My first overseas assignment was at an air base at Olongapo, not too far from Manila, in the Philippines. The United States was not yet involved in the war, so our missions were mainly reconnaissance of the Japanese fleet in the Pacific.
The Japanese Attack
On December 7, 1941, I was doing weekend duty, which was a simple lone radio watch—usually a time to relax. Suddenly the radio began to stammer out a startling message in Morse code: “Pearl Harbor being attacked by Japanese”! I leaped from the chair and ran for the alarm. I knew it would not be long before the Japanese would also attack the Philippines.
Sure enough, by morning light they were bombing us. Many of our planes were destroyed on the ground. Those that did make it into the sky bombed and torpedoed the Japanese warships. New crews replaced old ones as fast as the planes came in. I took my turns on these seemingly unending hazardous missions.
We fought a losing battle. The Japanese fighter planes swooped down on us with the ease of a hawk on a baby chick. Within a few days all our planes were destroyed, and out of 500 men on our base there were only about 50 left. We had to escape from the islands. So we commandeered a small French passenger liner, ran the Japanese blockade and escaped to the Dutch East Indies some 2,000 miles away.
We landed in Surabaja, in what is now called Indonesia. But the Japanese soon closed in on us, and we had to retreat to Port Darwin in Australia, where we thought we would be out of range for a while. The next thing we knew, Japanese carrier planes suddenly dropped out of nowhere and turned the harbor into a burning inferno. Some 20 ships were sunk. Ours, the Willie B. Preston, a destroyer converted to an airplane tender, was bombed and strafed with machine-gun fire until it was set ablaze. Somehow we were able to put the fires out and, under the cover of night, we limped out of the harbor and down the west coast of Australia to Fremantle.
That night the dead, many of whom were my close friends, were wrapped in canvas and weighted, and, after a few words that were of very little comfort, we let the bodies slip into the gray sea. The war had already taught me to hate the enemy. This dreadful slaughter made me feel even more bitter.
A New Battle Zone
After a 30-day leave our next assignment was the Aleutian Islands, which curl away to the southwest from Alaska. We had constant missions of searching out and destroying Japanese ships.
On August 8, 1942, at the battle of Attu we were shot up and our radar was put out of commission. Heading back to the base, we hit dense fog and lost our bearings. The last thing I remember was the captain’s shouting, “We’re going to crash!”
When I regained consciousness I could see our plane still burning. We had hit the side of a mountain and I had been thrown clear of the wreckage. The tail section had broken off on impact, and if anyone was alive it would be there. Every fiber in my body was racked with pain, but somehow I was able to crawl to the tail and there I found my closest friend still alive. He was in very critical condition. I managed to drag him from the burning wreck and then slipped into unconsciousness again.
It must have been the loud noise of the motors of the search planes swooping down over the wreckage that aroused me the next day. As the plane passed over us, I managed to wave a flight jacket and then drifted back into unconsciousness.
When I next awoke I was lying in a Navy hospital with my buddy in the bed beside me. He lived only a few days. That left me, the only survivor of a crew of nine. I had seen many men die before, but now my closest companions were all dead. I kept asking myself, ‘But why me? Why should I survive?’ At this point I ceased reading the Bible and reached my lowest spiritual ebb.
A “Harp” Changed My Life
From Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians I was taken by Navy hospital ship to Bremerton Navy Hospital in the state of Washington. My jaws, which had been broken in several places, had not been set right, so it was necessary to rebreak and reset them. I spent about six months recuperating from my multiple injuries.
Upon my release I visited my older sister in California. One day I saw her neighbor throwing away books that looked like new. One was called Prophecy. I asked if it was about the Bible. He said, “Yes, it is, and there are others too. You can have all of them.” That is how I also got The Harp of God and several other books published by the Watchtower Society.
It seemed as if my spiritual interest was rekindled. I wanted to understand the Bible better. I took the book Prophecy and read it from cover to cover but could not understand it. So I threw the books away except for The Harp of God, which I stuffed into my flight bag.
For some months I flew with a high-ranking Navy officer inspecting Navy bases on the U.S. west coast. This gave me much free time for the so-called pleasures of this life, but finally they left me feeling empty and restless. I volunteered to return to combat duty. My new squadron of fast medium bombers was sent to Saipan and Tinian in the Pacific. My assignment was to operate the radar bombing in the squadron’s lead plane. Each crew flew a combat mission every couple of days, which left plenty of leisure time at the base.
One day while going through my flight bag looking for a deck of cards, I pulled out the book The Harp of God. I started to read it. To my amazement I began to understand that “hell” is the grave, that man is a soul and not immortal and that there is no Scriptural support for the Trinity doctrine. This basic understanding staggered me.
I quickly got my Bible and started looking up all the scriptures that were cited. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was all so clear and simple. I was thrilled with what I was learning. But then after thinking it over I decided to go to the Protestant and Catholic chaplains and ask them to prove to me from the Bible that hell was not the grave.
A Chaplain’s Advice
Of course, they could not do so. One gave me advice that I recall to this day. He said: “Miller, you have a fantastic Navy record and are highly respected. Your future is secure in the Navy. You are one of the youngest chief petty officers ever appointed. Don’t make the terrible mistake of joining Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not salute the flag or fight for their country.” These chaplains refused to answer any of my Bible questions, and their only response was to attack well-known Witnesses who were then dead.
Their remarks prejudiced me against Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, neither of them would open the Bible to refute my newfound beliefs. I thought, ‘Well, this is the truth. I must do what I can to help others understand it.’ The next day I started telling the other men what I had learned. They all thought it was quite a contrast from my former way of thinking.
Word of my preaching reached the commander, who called me into his office and said: “Miller, we have been through a lot together and in just a few days we will be going on one of our roughest duties, Iwo Jima! Now, what this preaching is all about is none of my business. But I am asking you to stop it until this mission is over.” This seemed a reasonable request, so I agreed.
The Battle for Iwo Jima
On all missions a briefing was held. In order to take Iwo Jima an estimate was made of how many would die. I grew cold as I heard the number. Casualties were no longer just figures on a piece of paper but human lives.
The Japanese tried hard to hold this vital island. They had buried themselves for protection in the coral rocks all along the shore, which made it almost impossible to pry them out. There was only one sure way—fly in low and saturate the cliffs with deadly napalm bombs. When they hit, their liquid fire ran into the cracks and crevices, turning it into a burning inferno.
After some days we captured Iwo Jima and were finally able to land on the airfield. On getting out of the bomber, I saw death all around me. I walked back along the coral beach to see the results of the assault. The scene was ghastly beyond description—carbonized bodies everywhere. It was devastating. I felt sick at heart.
The end result at Iwo Jima has been reported as 8,000 Americans dead and 26,000 injured. The Japanese lost 22,000 killed. All this for one 8-square-mile (20-sq-km) island!
In August 1945 the atom bombs were dropped on Japan. Within a week the Japanese surrendered, and the war was over.
First Contact With the Witnesses
Arriving back in the United States, I went to Portland, Oregon, to visit my family. They were bitterly opposed to my new beliefs. However, they knew Howard Meier, who was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I immediately contacted him and challenged him on what the chaplains had told me about the Witnesses. He soon cleared up those slurs. So I started to attend the meetings at the Kingdom Hall and share in the preaching activity.
As I studied the Bible’s principles on war and peace I realized I could no longer take part in military activities nor reconcile a military career with a truly Christian life. (Isaiah 2:4; Matthew 22:37-40) A decision had to be made as to what I would do, for soon I would have to report for duty.
At this time Howard Meier gave me some advice for which I will always be thankful. He said: “Spiritually you are still a babe. Rather than decide right now what is right for you, why not go back to your base, attend meetings at the nearby Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and as you grow in knowledge and understanding, petition Jehovah for his guidance and direction.”
I reported to the air base at Whidbey Island, Washington. I started at once to associate with the Anacortes Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Soon I was preaching from house to house and advertising the public talks on the streets. In a short time I was conducting from eight to ten Bible studies on the air base.
Calls started coming into the Navy base complaining about a chief petty officer walking down the streets advertising Bible talks. I was called in by the chaplain and told in no uncertain terms to ‘STOP this nonsense!’ Of course, I refused.
Arrest and Court Martial
While preaching on the street I was arrested by the Navy police. The charges? Disgracing the Navy uniform. This action resulted in a court martial that could have meant military prison and/or dishonorable discharge. I declined the use of a Navy lawyer, as I felt I could best explain my position and my new beliefs based on the Bible.
I was brought before the Navy court-martial judges, and the charges were read. After considerable discussion and questioning of my beliefs, I was asked if I had any last words.
“Yes, I do,” I said. Pointing to the American flag, I asked, “Is that flag a symbol of mockery?”
“What the . . . do you mean by that, Miller?” snapped one of the commanders as he leaped out of his chair.
“Well, gentlemen, you have my entire Navy record before you. You know that I volunteered and fought for the things that that flag stands for far beyond my duty. I believed that it stands for freedom of worship, speech and religion. I saw my friends blown up before my eyes because they also fought for those freedoms. I saw thousands lying dead in the Philippines, Australia, New Guinea, Saipan, Tinian, the Aleutians and Iwo Jima. I have had over a hundred combat missions and many hazardous patrols. I have more medals and citations than virtually any man of the thousands on this base. Are you going to deny me the very things I fought for and what the flag stands for—freedom of worship and freedom of speech?”
Total silence reigned over the entire courtroom as I sat down. The judges adjourned but soon returned with the statement that they could not make a decision on my case and it would be sent to Washington, D.C. Later the final decision came through from Washington, D.C. I was to complete my enlistment of three months and would be given duty compatible with my conscience. On July 14, 1946, I was given an honorable discharge. Now what would be the next step in my life?
From War to Peace
Under the veterans program, I had the opportunity to attend college or university to study for the career of my choice. I turned it down. Now that I had a knowledge of the truth and the Bible’s hope for everlasting peace on earth, I wanted to help others to get life. I wanted to replace the nightmare of war and killing with a life-giving work.—Psalm 46:8, 9; Isaiah 9:6, 7.
I was baptized in August 1946 at the “Glad Nations” convention, Cleveland, Ohio. I returned to Anacortes and started in the full-time ministry. In 1947 I applied to serve at the Watchtower Society’s world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. I was accepted and I reported to Bethel on March 29, 1948. I worked in a variety of departments before being assigned to the Service Department. It was here that I had the privilege of working as secretary to Brother T. J. (Bud) Sullivan, who later served as a member of the Governing Body.
He was a fountain of wise counsel and experience and an example in treating others with kindness. I recall that when Bud was handling a difficult case, he would say: “If we are going to make a mistake, let’s make it on the side of mercy because Jehovah is a God of mercy.” ‘What a fine point,’ I thought!—Psalm 116:5.
In 1953 N. H. Knorr, then president of the Watchtower Society, unexpectedly appointed me as the new overseer of the Service Department. This would mean having oversight of all the ministerial activities for the United States. With Jehovah’s help I fulfilled that responsibility for 22 years. Since 1975 it has been handled by a committee.
In March of 1952 a lovely young sister came to Bethel. She had been in full-time service since 1947. Her name was Brook Thornton. We fell in love and got married in May 1957. Brook has enriched my life and we have been extremely happy, working together at Bethel.
Peace Brings Changes
In 1969 I had an experience that affected me deeply. My wife and I were privileged to attend the international “Peace on Earth” convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tokyo, Japan. I must admit that I had mixed feelings about visiting Japan. It is very difficult to erase the memories of war. Even though I had accepted the Bible’s teaching, I wondered how I would react in Japan.
Our few days in that country were a revelation to me! I found myself face to face with a kind, humble, peaceable people who now hated war even as I did. They, too, had changed during the years since 1945. I was deeply impressed.
Ill Health Strikes
In 1979 I had a stroke that left me partially blind and with heart problems. Then in 1981 I became crippled due to a ruptured disc. These setbacks, although hard to take, have taught me even more the importance of understanding other people’s problems and circumstances.
I am no longer able to do what I used to do. I have a shorter working day but still have the privilege of serving as a member of the Service Department Committee. I have seen the number of active publishers in the United States grow from some 66,000 in 1946 to over 640,000 in 1983. All of these, like myself, are working for peace under God’s Kingdom. To my great joy, one of those baptized in 1975 was my mother. Although 86, she is still preaching.
Now I yearn for the day, soon at hand, when Jehovah God will bring about his righteous New Order where wars, pain and death will never be again. The Bible states: “There are new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his promise [God’s own sure word], and in these righteousness is to dwell.” (2 Peter 3:13) It is my earnest desire to have a part in that “new earth” and to forget forever the horrors of the war in which I shared.
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Harley Miller as chief petty officer, U.S. Navy, 1945
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In Japan I was deeply impressed by a kind, humble, peaceable people