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Lieutenant Lee M. Miller

B-17 Pilot, Flight Leader

508th Bomb Squadron, 351st Bomb Group, 8th Air Force


     Lee M. Miller was born in the spring of 1916 in New Hampton, Iowa. New Hampton, with a population of just over 2,000, was a largely agricultural community with a small downtown area as the seat for Chickasaw County. Shortly after his birth, Miller’s father set out on his own entrepreneurial journey by starting the New Hampton Implement Company in 1922, a certified John Deere retailer that would service and supply the local farmers with the tools needed to maintain their crops. After graduating high school, Miller began his career as an underwriter, working alongside a few different insurance-based organizations while serving within his local Kiwanis Club. In 1941 he and his brother took over the family business, buying out his father and taking over as managing partners to now run the implement company. When Pearl Harbor struck, however, Miller felt the call to serve. Leaving behind the business in April 1942, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps.

     Miller traveled to Gary Field in California where he fell under the tutelage of the Morton Air Academy, a contractor paid to instruct cadets on basic aviation skills. He graduated from the program in 1943 and began more intensive training as a pilot for B-17 "Flying Fortresses," four-engine heavy bombers. During this period, Miller got to work with his own flight crew, leading a group of ten men in their training before going overseas together for combat operations. The crew was composed of the following: Abraham Levin, co-pilot, William Simmons, bombardier, Stanley Sichel, navigator, Paul White, radio operator, George Skinner, waist gunner, Stanley Silverman, waist gunner, Verlan Huntington, flight engineer, John McIntyre, ball turret gunner, and Peter Torre, tail gunner. Together the crew learned the ins and outs of aerial combat before transferring overseas as a replacement crew in the spring of 1944, arriving in England that June to join the “Mighty 8th” Air Force. Sent to Polebrook, England, they received their final assignment to the 508th Bomb Squadron, 351st Bomb Group.


     He and his crew joined the 351st amidst the excitement of the Normandy invasion. With Allied troops finally landing on the European continent, bomber command assigned its forces to fly around-the-clock missions to support the assault. Miller’s first mission came on 11 June, 1944, five days after troops landed on the Normandy beachhead. He was tasked to support the advance by bombing the Bernay-Saint-Martin Airfield only miles from the frontlines. The airfield was a base for Luftwaffe fighter squadrons attacking the Allied forces and Miller, as a new pilot, flew as a co-pilot so that he could experience combat himself before leading the rest of the crew. The flight consisted of forty-nine B-17s, taking off at 0440 and reaching the target within a few hours. Miller, in the lead formation, was unable to see the target due to cloud coverage so he and the other ships turned around to make the run on radar. Flak was consistent throughout the attack, if not mostly inaccurate. Even so, this allowed Miller to get accustomed to the reality of aerial combat and prepare for the many missions to come. On the second run, the bombs dropped successfully hitting the target, although the clouds prevented immediate observation of the results.

     With a mission under his belt, Miller went up again the next day to lead his crew into action. Loading aboard the B-17 Hubba Hubba, the target for the day was the Cambraid Aerodrome, another Luftwaffe airfield holding up the ground forces. They were assigned to the lead box of the 351st’s formation and got to the target without issue. A haze over the target caused them to make a second run through moderate flak. On this run Miller and his crew observed their first casualty after German fire struck a ship in the high box, bringing it and the whole crew down. With all the problems, the second run did not go as smoothly as planned and, although the bombs dropped, they missed the target roughly 5,000 feet short. Two days later they went up again in pursuit of another airfield, the Le Bourget Aerodrome near Paris, a newly built airfield to house Luftwaffe fighters. Miller’s crew faced danger before they had even gotten to the French coast. Shortly before reaching the shore, flak opened up against the formation causing Miller to take evasive action, flying erratically to avoid the enemy fire. In this process, the flying knocked loose one of the bombs in the bomb bay from its safety latch, causing it to dangle and fall out of the rack. If the bomb were to fall on the bomb bay doors, the entire ship could go up into flames. Acting quickly while under fire, the waist crewmen managed to knock the bomb loose and drop it over the channel before it came free from the retaining latch. With their first bout of excitement over, Miller continued flying in the low box. The formation faced more challenges after they discovered the target was up-wind, meaning slower speeds for the bombers making their run. This allowed the “severe” and accurate flak below to target their ships more precisely, shooting down three from the lead box ahead of them. This was also the first mission where Miller’s crew saw enemy fighters although they did not end up attacking their formation. The target was obscured by smoke and clouds until the very last second when a window appeared, allowing them to drop accurately. 


     On 15 June the crew was given some relief from their airfield targets and sent to bomb the railroad marshalling yards at Angouleme, France. At first, Miller and his men started as spares, only intending to fly the full mission if another plane dropped out. This did indeed happen, however, when one plane lost its No. 2 engine, allowing them to fill the gap. The rest of the mission proved pretty easy, with no flak encountered en route to the target and a quick but effective bombing run causing substantial damage. Only on the way home did they meet any resistance with some light flak over the coast. On the 17th the crew went back to their support of the ground troops by knocking out another airfield, this one located at Monchy. Back in Hubba Hubba, this was only a twenty-plane formation, rather small compared to some of the other missions they had flown thus far. Before long the formation became even smaller after Miller’s No. 1 engine encountered a runaway prop that he was unable to feather, damaging the crankshaft and forcing him to return home early.

     Continuing the steady pace of their tour, Miller and his men went up again the next day for their first mission into Germany, targeting a set of oil refineries in Hamburg. This was the first time Miller and his whole crew flew in the lead formation which proved quite unfortunate given the intensity of the flak they faced. According to survivors of the mission, the flak was both incredibly intense and accurate, forming a “solid wall” of black clouds shooting shrapnel across the sky. While no planes were lost to enemy fire, many ships were damaged, including Miller’s. By the end of the mission, his plane had sustained skin damage above the left stabilizer and a hole above his No. 4 nacelle, damaging a stringer. Even with the harm to the plane, they stayed in the air and made the run via “Mickey” radar with accurate hits on the dock area of the refinery, causing large orange flames to leap nearly 7,000 feet into the air. The close calls of flying over Germany were ameliorated when the crew was sent to bomb another airfield, this time at Landes de Bussac in France. Flying in the low box, Miller and the rest of the wing quickly became engulfed in a massive cloud layer as soon as they crossed over the French coast. This led the entire wing into chaos, splitting apart formations and losing the dozens of ships amidst the thick soup. Before long orders were given to break off and abandon the mission, returning to base without further incident.


     For the fourth day in a row, Miller and his crew were selected to fly, this time to bomb a set of “no ball” targets. A codename for Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 rocket facilities, these missions were common for the 351st by using the bombers to destroy enemy rocket installations along the coast before they could become fully operational. They did not always go according to plan, tragically, and this time the target was yet again covered with clouds, causing the formation leader to guide the ships towards any target of opportunity they could see. It wasn’t long before they spotted an enemy airfield near Ypres in Belgium which they successfully struck without opposition. After an intense non-stop streak of missions, Miller’s crew was given a day off before their next assignment on 22 June. Targeting an oil storage facility at Rouen, France, they once again composed an element of the lead box which was targeted by moderate and accurate flak over the target, with five of their planes receiving notable damage. The run itself went well and the group achieved solid coverage on the target, causing fires and explosions.

     On 24 June Miller went up again with his boys to finally hit some rocket installations near Fleury and Crepy. On this mission, he learned the difficulty of sighting these targets, often small bunkers located near the coastline. Numerous corrections were made along the flight path, causing the lead bomber to begin a left turn right as they reached the target. The sudden jerk led the other planes, including Miller’s, to follow suit and drop a rather scattered spread of ordnance. Throughout this entire mission, they were subjected to light but accurate flak from coastal batteries dotting their route. Of his four-plane formation, all but Miller’s suffered some form of damage from the fire. The following day orders came to hit yet another German airfield, near Toulouse. Taking the plane My Devotion, Miller flew in the lead box for a pretty smooth run with no enemy fighters and only meager, but accurate, flak. The airfield suffered some heavy hits to its hangers and signaled the last of a long line of constant missions faced by Miller and his crew.


     After the Toulouse mission, Miller received a week-and-a-half stand down so that he and the men under his command could properly rest from the near-everyday missions they had been flying since 11 June. Now fairly seasoned flyers, July’s Normandy breakout brought them back into the action in support of tactical and strategic targets across France and Germany.


     Miller’s first mission back was on 6 July to target more V-1 and V-2 rocket installations near Berterville St. Ouen. Back in the lead box, the run proved quite easy, utilizing visual bombing and receiving accurate strikes on the target. On the way back there was flack near Dieppe that caused some damage to the ships, which Miller later blamed on chaff being released too late in the mission. The following day he was sent with thirty-six other planes to bomb the airplane engine factory at Leipzig, his second trip over Germany. Miller flew toward the front of the lead box, which had difficulty sighting the target through hazy smoke. They were able to pinpoint the plant before long and dropped, striking a workshop area and stores building with multiple hits and scattered explosions across other areas of the compound. Immediately after the bombing run the formation encountered some intense unplotted flak, causing the group to take evasive action. It was intense and accurate but scattered widely across the formation, damaging several planes. Miller’s ship was hit yet again, this time tearing a hole under his left wing that damaged the skin, outer panel, corrugation, and “Tokyo” long-range fuel tank. There was also a hole near the navigator’s compartment in the nose. With all the extra distance covered evading the flak, the ships began running low on oxygen by the time they hit the coast, requiring the formation to dip lower than usual when crossing the channel. Two days later the group returned to tactical targets, with Miller and his crew hitting more rocket installations with a dozen other planes in France. This mission was not so successful as they passed over the target without dropping due to cloud cover, going on to inevitably scrub the entire thing after communications went out with the lead plane. 

     As the prior weeks of combat pitted Miller and his men against tactical targets in France, the middle of July saw a refocus back towards strategic targets in Germany intended to disrupt the industrial capacity of the Reich. On 11 July the tactical shift began by bombing industrial areas in Munich. Miller flew in the low box of the formation which was to bomb via Pathfinder, based upon coordinates left by a previous flight marking the target for later bomb formations. The pathfinding equipment, however, went out in the lead plane, causing Miller’s formation to circle before they could bomb based on the flares of the preceding formation. The flak was intense but inaccurate and after the drop, no results could be seen from smoke and cloud. This first mission to Munich was followed the very next day with plans to bomb the same area yet again, Miller flying a plane named Star Duster in the high box. The flak was once again quite heavy but more barrage-focused, meaning they were not targeting individual planes but shooting within a predetermined box that the planes were flying within. No problems otherwise popped up this mission and the target was struck as usual.


     Given a six-day break from the heavy flying, Miller’s crew did not go back up again until 18 July to hit a hydrogen peroxide plant in Peenemunde, Germany. Miller complained in the mission report that trucks taking the crews to their planes were very late, forcing the crews to sit and wait for an extended period before they could even reach the aircraft. This was a common complaint across 351st airmen and was not resolved by the time Miller finished his tour. Once in the air, Miller flew in the low box with an easy route and visual bombing run. The flak was very heavy over the target but its inaccuracy allowed many of the planes to escape unscathed. By using a visual drop the formation maintained its accuracy, hitting multiple buildings and power plants within the compound.

     On 19 July Miller and his crew faced one of their most dangerous missions of the entire war. Part of a thirty-nine ship formation, Miller took off in a B-17 named Silver Dollar to bomb the Messerschmitt factory at Augsburg, Germany. He was slated to act as a spare for the mission and ended up fulfilling his role after a plane in the high box blew its No. 2 engine, returning to base. Miller filled in his slot, the No. 6 position in the back left of the low squadron. Ten minutes before the group reached the initial point of the bombing run, six FW-190 fighters swooped down from the sun at the 6 o’clock position to attack the five remaining B-17s. The first German fighters he had ever faced in live combat, the enemy planes quickly sped past Miller and his wingmen, initiating a series of strafing runs in hopes of bringing down the Flying Fortresses. While the gunners of each plane rattled away at the enemy fighters the attack began taking its toll. Within minutes, the plane in front of Miller, flown by Lieutenant Herbert Konecheck, was struck in its left wing and set ablaze. Unable to stay steady, it immediately began peeling to the left before turning into a complete nosedive. Miller watched as his comrade dove downward and, only a few seconds later, exploded mid-air. While Miller did not report seeing any chutes from the craft before it blew, it was later found that at least two gunners were blown out of the plane and survived, the other eight crewmen perishing in the blast. Driving forward but still under attack, Miller and his only other wingman, Lieutenant Richard Chapman, suffered the onslaught of a half-dozen Luftwaffe fighters. Fortunately, the gunners aboard their ships kept focus and managed to shoot down two of the FW-190s. Still, this was not enough. Once Konecheck went down, the fighters began targeting Chapman. Taking heavy damage, he began lagging behind Miller for a few minutes when the entire ship suddenly exploded. Thankfully, six of the crew had managed to bail. Four men left onboard were never seen again. Around this time, friendly fighter escorts arrived to stop the assault, saving Miller and his crew by driving away the Germans. Of his flight of three, Miller was the only plane left standing after the ten-minute battle. He throttled forward to join two other ships ahead of him, realizing that the mission was still at stake. Over the target flak began to appear, rocking the ships around but not before they dropped an accurate payload, marking numerous hits on the factory. Flak remained present throughout the trip home, with an especially heavy concentration over the coast, but within a few hours, Miller made it home and touched down. His eyewitness reports were recorded during the post-mission interrogation, revealing just how close to death he and his men had come. This marked only the halfway point in their tour.


     Despite his brush with danger, the 351st had Miller fly the very next day to target a ball-bearing plant in Leipzig. Put right back into the high box, the mission was full of heavy flak in and out of the target but, despite seeing ten FW-190s nearby, they were not attacked. On the run, they ended up bombing the secondary target, the city railroad, hitting just south. Miller came home unscathed but made note afterward of how effective the fighter escort was on the mission, something he would now pay close attention to after the events of Augsburg.

     After a four-day relief from flight duty, Miller’s next two missions came on 24 & 25 July with double strikes against German forces at St. Lo, the center of a massive American ground assault. In a rare moment of direct support for the ground troops, the 8th Air Force sent hundreds of bombers each day to hit German forces along the frontline to soften their resistance. In the first mission, Miller flew in the low box. The route was almost entirely overcast and by the time they approached the target, the clouds broke too late for a proper run. The formation instead bombed a target of opportunity near Le Gast and returned home. On the second mission, they received stricter instructions than given the day before. Told that some of the bombs from other formations fell short and killed American troops, orders held that the bombers were to wait for red smoke from artillery fire which would guide their bombers to the real target. Once over the coast, the bombers stayed low, only around 12,000 feet, and successfully dropped their fragmentation bombs on the target, troops, and fighting positions of the 27th Infanterie and Panzer Lehr Divisions, to good results. The opposing American soldiers, from the 1st Infantry and 3rd Armored Divisions, had the support they needed to break the German lines. These two missions marked the start of Operation Cobra, the Allied breakout from Normandy, and the drive onward to Paris. 


     With ground forces once again on the move in France, Miller and his men undertook two more strategic missions. The first, hitting an I.G. Farben synthetic oil plant at Merseburg, found Miller in the high box unable to see the target from heavy smoke clouds. Using the marks from their Pathfinder aircraft, the target was still hit with a heavy concentration. Flak was accurate and intense throughout the bombing run, exploding all around Miller and his ship while enemy fighters attacked one of the neighboring combat boxes. Miller’s bomber took several hits from the flak with holes on top of the plexiglass nose and another hole above his No. 4 engine nacelle, damaging the skin, pushrod housing, oil line, and prop feathering line. Despite the harm, they made it back to base safely. The second mission took place two days later on 31 July, hitting the BMW engine factory in Munich. Suffering moderate but inaccurate flak over the cloud-covered target, their formation ended up dropping based on smoke bombs from the previous bomb wing with unknown results. On the way home flak was more accurate, but none struck Miller.

     As American troops struck deeper into France, the 351st was once again rerouted to hit targets in support of the advance. Miller’s first of this series was on 1 August to attack a German airfield at Chateaudun. Flying in the lead box, the flight was easy with effective visual bombing, allowing accurate hits on the target, and only facing light flak around the coast on their return. Given ten days off, Miller didn’t fly again until 11 August. Heading to support the American attack towards Brest, which had kicked off only a few days earlier, Miller, flying a B-17 equipped with the H2X “Mickey” radar, sought to destroy a key radio station and gun positions within the town. Although there were no fighters and easy autopilot-guided bombing, the formation still had trouble identifying the aiming point. Unable to locate the objective, they turned towards an easier target, the Brest naval school, which was completely obliterated by their bombs. Flak was relatively light on the run. 


     Three days later Miller returned to the regularly scheduled strategic campaign with a mission against the engine and motor works at Stuttgart. Flying the lead box in Silver Dollar, Miller and his wingmen worried about the possibility of enemy fighters after realizing their ships had not been loaded with enough ammunition. Sticking together despite the error, the formation found the target too overcast to be seen, deciding to instead bomb their secondary target, an airfield near Haguenau. The airfield was clearly visible, allowing bombs to hit in a concentrated pattern. On 16 August Miller flew his twenty-seventh mission by assaulting the Siebel aircraft factory at Schkeuditz. This was the first time Miller served as a squadron flight leader, guiding two other planes in the low box. Navigational error caused their formation to reach the target twenty-two minutes behind schedule, encountering intense, heavy, and accurate flak upon approach to the target. The bombs of their box managed to get some good hits on the enemy, such as destroying a flight hanger, but the intense enemy fire did not leave them unscathed. Miller’s ship was first hit when flak struck a left outer wing panel, damaging the skin, corrugation, and spar. Another one went off to his right, catching the underside of his right wing destroying part of the skin, corrugation, and rupturing a main fuel tank. The third plane in Miller’s flight, directly behind him to the right, was hit badly. Losing its No. 3 and 4 engines, it gradually fell out of their formation and caught fire, its right wing ripping off as the plane spiraled. Six of the crew bailed but the two pilots and bombardier did not make it out before it exploded. Surviving this rather hairy mission, Miller’s crew was given nine days off before going up again to attack a top-secret German facility on 25 August. Raiding the weapons facility at Peenemunde, the target was home to many high-level German scientists responsible for the German rocket program, including Wernher von Braum. Miller flew in the lead box heading the second squadron, taking a coastal route free of flak to strike the island base. After the autopilot failed, the run was made manually and received fair results, striking several structures of the base. In a postwar account, the German scientists recalled running to their air raid bunkers, still losing several comrades to the 351st’s precision hits.

     With a long rest after their return from Peenemunde until 5 September, Miller resumed operations by bombing a synthetic oil refinery in Ludwigshafen. The entire group went up on this one, Miller flying deputy lead for the lead squadron of the low box. Bad weather caused difficulty along the route and flak began pounding the formation as they approached the target, one plane from the high box passing by Miller’s formation in a spinning fireball after being struck. Thankfully, the weather opened up and allowed them to hit the target with good accuracy and return home. Four days later they revisited the same target, again in a full group with Miller in the lead squadron of the lead box at the very front of the entire bomb group. There were fewer problems getting to the target, however, heavy flak pestered them along the bomb run. Smoke from prior formation hits led them to bomb without visual results but likely on target. While returning home, the Germans kept steady with the flak as barges and trains took their shots at the formation. On the day after this second attack, Miller was given a different target, a Daimler-Benz factory at Gaggenau. Yet another full group formation, Miller flew Silver Dollar in the deputy lead of the low box only to experience a rather uneventful mission. While meager flak pestered them at a few points, the bombing run was fairly simple with good hits destroying five large workshops of the factory. 


     With thirty-one missions to his name, Miller’s final four were spread throughout late September and early October, three of which targeted a series of German marshalling yards. His thirty-second mission, on 19 September, targeted the marshalling yards at Soest as Miller flew Silver Dollar once again in the lead squadron of the low box, dropping his payload successfully with heavy damage inflicted and only light flak harassing them. The next mission shifted to Nuremberg’s rail yard as Miller took up the deputy lead spot for the lead box flying a Pathfinder plane. The run was described as “nearly perfect,” with no problems at all and the radar functioning without any issues. Moderate but accurate flak plagued them over the target, but good results still ensued. The final marshalling yard he hit was at Cologne on 5 October, once again a deputy lead but in the low box. Ninety-mile-per-hour winds blew right into the B-17s, sending them off course and adding an extra twenty minutes to their flying time. In the after-action report, Miller specifically complained that the erratic air speeds of the lead made correction even more difficult to follow. Although the target was totally obscured, their pathfinding equipment allowed them to drop accurately. Even so, intense and accurate flak filled the sky and damaged many of their planes, forcing them to land early at Allied air bases in France. 

     Miller’s final and thirty-fifth mission came on 6 October 1944, the end of a very long tour, ending exactly how he started: by hitting an airfield. Flying to Stargard, Germany, he flew deputy lead in the high box to hit industrial areas of the city before realizing the target was completely covered. Rather than go home early, the formation decided to strike the nearby airfield. Devastating the German base, Miller turned home for the last time, flying over the North Sea to land at Polebrook for good.

     A seasoned and bloodied pilot, Miller completed his tour after four months of combat. Attacked by Luftwaffe fighters and as many flak rounds they could send up, he nevertheless beat the odds. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals for his service, Miller returned home in the fall of 1944 a decorated war hero, leaving the service officially a year later. Once his brother was discharged following the end of hostilities, they both resumed running the family business for the rest of their careers. Miller became active in a  few other ventures, however, operating a motel and office machine company before serving on his local Board of Supervisors and Planning and Zoning Committee. He passed away amongst family and friends in 2004.

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