MARINE CORPS FORCES CENTRAL COMMAND, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Fla. — Major Josh Vance, a KC-130 Pilot currently stationed at Combat Development Directorate, Combat Development and Integration, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, Va., has just seen the reward of more than thirteen months of research and efforts in the nearby town of Brooksville, Fla.
On 31 January 1944, OPERATION FLINTLOCK commenced when U.S. forces invaded Kwajalein Atoll, 4th Marine Division in the North at Roi-Namur and the 7th Infantry Division in the south at Kwajalein, both members of the V Amphibious Corps. At 1522 local time, an OS2N-1 “Kingfisher” observation/scout float plane from the USS New Mexico (BB-40) was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire from Ebeye Island, an enemy float plane base at the time.
The Kingfisher suffered serious damage and was forced to make an emergency landing in the lagoon due to high octane aviation fuel leaking into the bilges in the cockpit, filling it with fuel fumes presenting a critical fire hazard.
The pilot, Navy Lieutenant Forney O. Fuqua was mortally wounded by the enemy fire and instructed the Radioman in the rear cockpit of the Kingfisher, Harrison Miller, to bail out. Miller elected to stay with the plane and to attempt a water landing himself from the rear cockpit. With no prior flying experience, no flight instruments and only an emergency control stick in the rear cockpit, he successfully made a water landing from the back seat of the Kingfisher.
After landing, Miller got out of the rear cockpit onto the wing and made his way to the front cockpit and turned off the Kingfisher’s engine and started to unbuckle the pilot’s parachute and harness; but before he could get him unbuckled, the plane capsized due to the loss of the outboard pontoons during the landing. Miller made numerous attempts to rescue the pilot and remove him from the cockpit, diving under the gasoline covered waters but was unsuccessful. Miller later received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day aboard the USS New Mexico.
While transiting via KC-130 from Okinawa, Japan to Hawaii or CONUS, Major Vance made overnight stops at Kwajalein Atoll for fuel, remaining overnight. While out for a run, he noticed battle site plaques commemorating the actions that took place during the battle of Kwajalein which sparked his research about the battle. On one of his trips, he met a “local” from Kwajalein, Dan Farnham who is a Navy Veteran and has worked and lived on Kwajalein for several years as a civilian Fire Fighter and Internet Technician and is an avid SCUBA diver, the same as Vance. The two were both very interested in WWII history, particularly the actions on Kwajalein and in the Pacific and have kept in touch over the years.
Last August, Vance contacted Farnham asking what he was currently researching and Farnham told him about a scout/observation float plane that was lost from the USS New Mexico while on a gunfire spotting mission on 31January 1944, the first day of the battle.
Farnham was then in the middle of a survey using a side-scan SONAR, along with Bill Remick, and Barbara Buchanan of Wreck Diving Magazine. Vance asked how he could assist with the project and took on the task of seeing if he could locate and confirm if the Radioman was living as he might be able to provide some insight on where the plane was lost. The Radioman was listed in the ship’s logs obtained from the National Archives as H.D. Miller and was picked up by the Yard Mine Sweeper (YMS) 383.
Vance set to work with nothing but H.D. Miller, ARM2C from the USS New Mexico to go by. He spent hours of his own time and resources researching the event and ultimately utilized ancestry.com, scouring through the recently released US Navy WWII muster reports. Narrowing his search by inserting common first names for the period that began with “H” on board the USS New Mexico, Vance caught a break in the case. A Muster Report from the USS New Mexico listed a Harrison D. Miller, ARM2C with a place of enlistment as West Palm Beach, FL. Vance had the scent but was still not 100 percent sure if this was “the guy” and had no way to verify his current contact information. He knew that people at that time, and to some extent today, do not move far from where they grew up. He isolated his search to Florida, utilizing on-line phone directories and found an H. Miller in Floral City, Florida.
“I called him up” Vance said. Worried that Miller would hang up, thinking he was a telemarketer or something; he jumped right in after giving his name and asked “Did you serve on the USS New Mexico and fly as air crew on a Kingfisher.” Miller replied with, “I did.” Relieved to finally find the Kingfisher Radioman, Vance replied with “Sir, I’ve been searching for you for a while…” After speaking with Miller on several occasions and obtaining detailed accounts on where Miller estimated the plane was lost; he set out trying to locate crew members of the YMS-383 that might have witnessed the rescue and have more information on where the plane might have sunk.
After conducting a search on ancestry.com again, he obtained crew muster reports for the YMS-383. He started with some of the uncommon last names listed on the reports and utilizing the same methods and tracked down two living crew members of the YMS-383. The unbelievable part was that of the two crew members Vance had located, one was Louis Sonner, the man who jumped in the water and pulled Miller back to the YMS-383 from his capsized Kingfisher and the other was Burl Sousa, the man who assisted Miller onto the YMS-383; they both remembered the event like it was yesterday. Vance put all three Veterans in touch with each other and they talk on almost a weekly basis now. Additionally, Vance has coordinated a reunion of the Veterans in Floral City, Florida over Veteran’s Day weekend which will be the first time they’ve seen each other since the Day Miller was shot down.
Vance wasn’t done yet. After a detailed review of Miller’s WWII service record Miller gave him, he discovered that he was missing many of his WWII medals and was never awarded the Air Medal for the combat missions he flew during the war. Vance then set out to ensure Miller received the recognition he deserved. After spending hours sifting through Miller’s service record and researching the WWII award criteria for each medal. After the help of both the Marine Corps and Navy Personal Awards section, he was able to assist Miller in applying for correction of his record. U.S. Congressman, Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Brooksville was critical in this effort and assisted Miller in the expediting of the processing of his awards.
At the completion of all the research and coordination, Vance wanted to see this through to the end. Once Vance confirmed the medal and citation had been approved, he flew down to Brooksville, Florida to present the Air Medal (1st through 3rd awards) to Miller at Congressman Nugent’s Brooksville, Florida office. This was his chance to meet the Radioman he had learned so much about during his research. When asked why he had done this and what motivated him, he replied “It’s an honor to work with these veterans; they have sacrificed so much and put their lives on hold when called defend our country and the world at the time. They did what they needed to do without hesitation. A lot of people say that the heroes are the ones who didn’t come back, and while I understand that kind of thinking, there are a lot of heroes who came back, too.” Vance Said.
Though Vance has seen the fruit of his labor, he is a long way from closing the book on his original history project. He plans to help Farnham find the wreckage of the Kingfisher. “I’m not finished yet. She (the Kingfisher) rests somewhere in a two to four square mile area 50-150 feet below the surface and Dan and I will find her. The search continues” Vance assuredly said.