Archdeacon: Celebrating WWII vet Marion Miller, a much-beloved treasure to many in Dayton

He may have been sitting in an easy chair in the living room of his longtime home on Faulkner Avenue in West Dayton two days ago — some three dozen birthday cards taped to the wall behind him, a pair of portraits of his late wife on the wall to his left, his golf bag and clubs propped in a corner to his right — but Marion Miller suddenly was back at the Battle of Anzio almost 80 years ago.

The German forces that had formed a defensive front around the Anzio beachfront were waging an all-out assault on Allied troops who were coming ashore. German planes were overhead. The big artillery guns of the Axis were booming away in the hills.

The Battle of Anzio — part of the Italian campaign of World War II — took place from Jan. 22 to June 5, 1944.

Allied forces — according to “Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome” — suffered 43,000 casualties, including 7,000 dead. Several Royal Navy ships were sunk.

Miller, part of the U.S. Army 179th Transportation unit, was on a ship there that he said was loaded with ammunition — “500-pound bombs, 105mm shells, all kinds of ammo” — that he and his fellow Black soldiers were about to unload.

“That was the only really frightening time for me,” he said quietly. “The (Germans) bombed us 45 minutes straight. They were trying to hit our ship. They knew it was loaded with ammunition. But we had those PT boats firing up at them. The sky was red with tracers and everything.

“If we’d have been hit, with all that ammunition, we’d have been blown to kingdom come and there wouldn’t have been nothing left.”

Miller’s ship wasn’t hit.

And, as it’s turned out, there’s been a whole lot left.

On Wednesday, Miller turned 100.

The feat was celebrated with a gala celebration at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church on Free Pike four days prior.

Miller — who wore a dark suit and dress shirt, snappy gold and black tie, a fedora with a red feather and a gold lapel pin shaped like a golf bag with two clubheads sticking out of it — is a vibrant, independent, much-beloved treasure to many in this town.

And he’s a smooth dancer, too.

Miller’s son-in-law, Harry McClure, noted the Bible promise that comes with the fifth commandment: “’Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.’

“He is the recipient of that.”

Saturday’s crowd included Miller’s three daughters, some grandchildren and other relatives, a few people from his neighborhood and several from the Greater Dayton Recreation Center at old Roosevelt High School, where he regularly shoots pool and plays checkers.

Other people from around the city, who remember his involvements in Civil Rights and his work with Model Cities and the Northwest Priority Board, were there too. After several people gave short testimonials about him, Miller stood, said a few words of appreciation and love for everyone, and then turned to the guy in charge of music and asked for some dance music.

Soon the room filled with the velvety voice of Luther Vandross singing “Bad Boy/Having A Party”

“Everybody swingin’ (the bad boy’s swingin’), dancing to the music

“On the radio -o-o

“Havin’ a party, everybody swingin’ (he’s a bad boy swingin’)

“Dancin’ to the music, on the radio….”

And with that, Miller put the microphone down and began to dance with one of his daughters, Lisa Tooson. Soon other women from the crowd — daughters Pat McClure and Shirley Hill, sister-in-law Dorothy Stovall and some granddaughters — all joined him as he dipped and swayed and effortlessly turned to the beat. Many in the crowd stood and took photos and videos with their phones as they watched in loving admiration.

Saturday is Veteran’s Day. While Miller said he may go to lunch with his daughter and son-in-law, he was sure of one thing:

“I’m proud of my service for Uncle Sam. I tried to do the best I could for my fellow soldiers and the country.”

Coming off a farm near Indian Fields, Kentucky — which is in Clark County, east of Lexington — he was drafted into the Army at 18. He said he initially trained with the 2nd Cavalry Division in Junction City, Kansas.

“I took care of two horses, one with a black face and two white socks, the other a beige one,” he said. “I’d ride one and the other was the pack horse. You’d load it with a 30-pound machine gun, tripod, all kinds of stuff.

“On the farm we had a couple of horses and some mules. I used to ride a mule to the store in Stanton or take corn to the mill and get it grinded.”

Although he had considerable horse skills, Miller, like most Black troops in the segregated Army, was instead assigned to one of Negro Service Units, as they were called.

Eventually, he shipped to North Africa aboard the USS Grimes and ended up in Oran, Algeria. He then spent 19 months in Naples, Italy, loading and unloading ships, including at Anzio Beach, before being sent on to New Guinea, the Philippines and then — soon after the Atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and up to 129,000 civilians and 20,000 Japanese soldiers were killed — he was sent to Kure, Japan.

Heavily bombed in 1945, it was just 10 miles from Hiroshima and home to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s largest base and arsenal.

After six months there, he came back to the States.

Before he was released at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, he said a sergeant tried to get him to sign papers to reenlist:

“I told him I appreciated it, but I said, ‘I think I’m going to go home and take care of my mother now.’

“Those were my last words with the Army.”

‘We had a job to do’

Miller said growing up in Kentucky, it was just he and his mother — “we had to fight it out on our own” — until they eventually moved in with his uncle, Roscoe, who became the male figure in his life.

Against his uncle’s wishes, he quit school after the eighth grade to help his mother out financially.

“I worked on farms, baling hay, doin’ tobacco and made about $6 a week, which was a lot of money back then for a young boy,” he said.

At 15, he fudged his age by three years and went to Indiana to join President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It gave single men, ages 18 to 25, jobs improving America’s public lands, parks, and forests. Enlistees got three meals a day a bed and $30 month, $25 of which was sent to their families.

Once in the Army, he faced the segregated treatment that Black soldiers faced.

He recalled being loaded onto a train in Africa.

“The Black soldiers all were put in the cattle cars,” he said. “They had been hauling goats and sheep in there and it stunk so bad.

“But most of us were from the south, so we weren’t surprised about the segregation. We were familiar with the same practices back home.

“And besides, we had more important things to do right then. We had a job to do, and we had to protect our fellow man.”

According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, over 1.2 million Black service members served in World War II. At the peak of the war, 511,493 Black soldiers were overseas, and 118,811 were in the continental United States.

Regardless of their skills or prior training, some 80 percent of all Black GIs were assigned to service units.

“I’ll tell the truth, it was segregated, that’s how it was,” Miller said. “Blacks and whites just didn’t mingle much. They had one place. We had another.

“But I can tell you, just because someone is Black, or whatever, it doesn’t stop them from performing a function and performing it well when needed.”

He told a story of one Black marksman he watched hit five straight bullseyes from 500 yards with a M-1 rifle while lying in a prone position. He told of Black horseman mounting a horse and riding with no stirrup.

“I saw people as gifted as any I’ve ever seen and their color didn’t matter,” he said. “They were some of the greatest guys I ever knew in my life.”

The same work ethic he showed in the service, he brought to Dayton after he left the service in 1946 and moved in with his aunt on Norwood Avenue.

He soon found a job at what was called G. H. & R. Foundry (now Amcast), where he worked for 32½ years and was a union steward.

His first marriage ended after a decade. He met his second wife, Emma Nancy, in 1962. She had four children, and though their son, Johnny, has since passed away, the three daughters all keep tabs on their dad.

Pat lives in Columbus. Lisa’s in Springfield, and Shirley’s in Macon, Georgia.

Emma Nancy — “my beautiful wife,” Miller said as he pointed to a portrait of them together from the 1970s — died in January of 2016.

“She was one of the best cooks you’ll ever meet,” he said. “Lord, have mercy, she fed everybody. She was the cookinest woman. People would come by and ask for her macaroni and cheese and candied yams.”

Miller bought the home on Faulkner Avenue — which was once part of the Hungarian Village, he said — 57 years ago:

“This was a beautiful neighborhood. It was integrated. We had four or five white families living here, too. We all helped each other and worked together; it made no difference. We had some beautiful people. We really had it going.”

Today, much of the street is blighted with houses that have been boarded up or burned down. A couple have completely collapsed.

And yet Miller said: “This is home. It holds a lot of memories. I just love being here.”

Harry McClure said the love is returned by many in the area:

“Everybody knows him up and down the street and four blocks over and four blocks behind, too. People look out for him, and he looks out for them.

“He still welcomes new people to the neighborhood.”

‘Powers of the yonder beyond’

He does a lot more than that each day.

He often walks in the morning and sometimes takes along a golf club and some golf balls and hits them in an open area he comes to.

A little over a week ago he went golfing with his daughter, Pat. He said he’s now happy when he shoots 55 for nine holes. At one time he was 15 or 16 shots better. Twice he played in the City Amateur tournament.

“I had a hole-in-one on the 141-yard par 3 seventh hole at Madden in 1965,” he said proudly. “It was the 27th of May.”

He has the authentication of that ace on display.

He still drives his 2005 Buick LeSabre.

“That car’s hot!” he grinned. “It really gets down, if you step on it! It’ll take the hat off your head and put it in the back seat!”

He credits his health to the “powers of the yonder beyond … behind the clouds.”

He said he doesn’t rely on daily pills or supplements: “I’m very reluctant to take medicine unless it’s prescribed by a doctor. Although I’m not in the medical profession, I’ve learned medicine might be all right for one part of you, but it often does something negative to the other part.”

When asked about Saturday’s party, he started to smile so much you saw his gold-capped incisor.

“It was the most glorious thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was just plain wonderful. Actually, it’s taking me awhile to get over it.”

That said, he admitted he “doesn’t think” about being 100:

“It doesn’t bother me one way or the other. I just go on with his life and let it take hold. I do whatever I have to do “and I just go where it takes me.”

Saturday afternoon it took him onto the dance where Luther Vandross provided the smooth sounds, and he added the smooth moves:

“Everybody swingin’ (the bad boy’s swingin’), dancing to the music

“On the radio -o-o

“Havin’ a party, everybody swingin’ (he’s a bad boy swingin’)

“Dancin’ to the music, on the radio…”

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