An Incredible BB-40 Story – Seven Decades in the Making

This story is based on information provided by Major Josh Vance, a KC-130 pilot with the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Quantico, VA, and Dan Farnham, a Navy veteran living and working on Kwajalein, Republic of Marshall Islands.

The Marshall Islands extend over 600 miles of the South Pacific and include Kwajalein Atoll, one of the world's largest coral reefs enclosing a lagoon.  USS New Mexico (BB-40), having left Pearl Harbor on January 22, 1944, arrived off Kwajalein Atoll for the pre-invasion battering of the Japanese scheduled to start on January 31st.  This was part of Operation Flintlock, with the 4th Marine Division in the north at Roi-Namur and the 7th Army Infantry Division in the south at Kwajalein.  USS Idaho (BB-42) and USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) were also part of Operation Flintlock.  While shelling Ebeye and Kwajalein, New Mexico suffered her first casualty of the war.

BB-40 Kingfisher float plane

BB-40 Naval Aviation Division 1943-1944

Two Kingfisher spotter float planes from New Mexico were sent buzzing over embattled Kwajalein, their skilled pilots and radiomen relaying vital topographical information and target locations to the ship's gunners.  At 1522, an OS2N-1 Kingfisher piloted by LTjg Forney O. Fuqua, USNR, with Radioman Second Class Harrison D. Miller in the rear cockpit, was struck by enemy anti-aircraft fire from Ebeye.  Fuqua radioed his ship:  "Cockpit full of gasoline fumes . . . hit very badly . . . am making emergency landing . . ." Mortally wounded, Fuqua instructed Miller to bail out.  Instead, Miller took over the controls and attempted to bring the crippled plane down to the surface of Kwajalein's giant lagoon.  With no prior flying experience, no instruments and only an emergency control stick, Miller succeeded in making a water landing.

Kingfisher spotter plane showing radioman in rear cockpit

Miller climbed out on the wing, reached into the forward cockpit and killed the engine, then tried to unbuckle his unconscious pilot.  Just then, the plane capsized due to the loss of an outboard pontoon.  Despite repeated attempts to rescue his pilot, he was not successful.  Fuqua perished.  Miller was rescued by a minesweeper.

Group photo on BB-40 deck; LTjg Fuqua is in the front row, second from the left;
Petty Officer Miller is standing at Fuqua's right shoulder.

From the decklog for Yard Minesweeper (YMS) 383 for January 31, 1944, afternoon entries describe operations with other YMS ships on patrol off Kwajalein Atoll.  YMS-383 proceeded into the atoll from the west via Cecil Pass to sweep the lagoon and rescue Harrison Miller and the plane downed near Loi Island.  On the way, they had to fire on a Japanese ship on Cecil Island.

1610 - Sighted man floating on plane pontoon
1625 - Picked up man & tied plane to stern of ship.  Dead pilot still on board was LT. F.O. Fugua.

The rescued man was identified as H.D. Miller ARM2/c from USS New Mexico.     

BB-40's action report for bombardment of Ebeye and Kwajalein carried log entries about the fateful Kingfisher's air operations.  It was Fuqua's second flight of the day.

1317 - Catapulted plane #1 to port with LT. Forney O. Fuqua, USNR, pilot, and Miller, H.D., ARM2c, USNR, radioman.

1552 - Spotting plane #1 with LT. F.O. Fuqua, pilot, was struck by shrapnel.  Radioman made forced landing in Kwajalein lagoon directly to the westward of Loi Island.  Plane sank with body of pilot still in cockpit, radioman got clear and was recovered.

While the action report cites shrapnel striking the plane, it is not really known what caused the plane to go down.  It was flying reconnaissance at 3,000 feet MSL when hit, presumably by AA fire from Ebeye, known to have a heavy concentration of Japanese gunnery.

Map of lagoon showing approximate location of downed Kingfisher

The Kingfisher had not sunk yet.  YMS-383 took the plane in tow, but eventually they had to cut it loose, and it did sink in the lagoon.  Miller was transferred to a destroyer and returned to BB-40 via personnel basket on a line between ships; considering all he had been through, it too was an interesting ride. 

Yard Minesweeper YMS-383

BB-40's action report noted that LT. Forney Oliver Fuqua, senior aviator of USS New Mexico, was killed in action while piloting the ship's spotting plane.  The Commanding Officer, Capt. Ellis Mark Zacharias, stated that it is contemplated that special comment on the performance of duty of LT. Fuqua's radioman, H.D. Miller, will be made in a separate letter to the President, Board of Awards, Pacific Fleet.  The Executive Officer, CDR John Warren, concurred.  Indeed, for his heroic actions, Miller was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Capt. Zacharias awarding DFC to Miller

As an aside, James Kennedy, today age 90 and living in Cedar Crest, NM, attended Miller's award ceremony onboard USS New Mexico.  As a BB-40 gunner's mate from 1941 to 1945, he experienced all of the ship's Pacific battles and missions, from reporting aboard at Bremerton, WA to the Aleutians and the South Pacific to the war's end and the triumphant return to Boston, MA.  Kennedy's battlestation was in turret #2 as a powderman for the 14-inch guns.  While he does not recall crossing paths with Harrison Miller, he had the honor of standing in the front row at Miller's award ceremony.

Miller receiving DFC Award,
James Kennedy (of Cedar Crest, NM) lined up second from right

Crew congratulating Miller, Kennedy shown in front row, second from left

Harrison Miller with DFC, photo courtesy of grandson Sam Miller

Last year, on several flights from Okinawa to Hawaii or to CONUS, Maj. Josh Vance stopped overnight on Kwajalein to refuel his KC-130 and to get some rest.  While visiting some Kwajalein battle sites, he encountered Dan Farnham, a local civilian, and like Vance, a history buff and avid SCUBA diver.  Their conversation led to BB-40's lost Kingfisher and a possible search for the plane.

Vance volunteered to determine if the radioman was still living.  If so, perhaps he could shed some light on the location of the downed plane.  With the information "H.D. Miller, ARM2c, of USS New Mexico" and confirmation that he was picked up by YMS-383, Vance set about on a 13-month search.  Utilizing National Archive records, then searches on the website, he finally came across a USS New Mexico muster report listing a Harrison D. Miller with a place of enlistment as West Palm Beach, FL.  Utilizing on-line telephone directories, he found a listing for H. Miller in Floral City, FL and made the call.

"Did you serve on USS New Mexico and fly as air crew on a Kingfisher", asked Vance.  "Yes, I did" answered Miller.  With the connection made, more conversations followed and more specifics on the fateful water landing were disclosed.  Vance was now on a roll.  His next move was a search for crew members of YMS-383 that may have additional information on the plane's final resting place in Kwajalein lagoon.

Harrison Miller and Major Josh Vance

He studied crew muster reports for the minesweeper and located Ted Sonner and Burl Sousa, the very sailors that rescued Miller from his capsized Kingfisher.  The three are now in communication and Vance put plans in motion for a Veterans Day reunion.  But first, he reviewed Miller's service record and discovered that Miller should have been awarded an Air Medal for his combat missions.  He assisted Miller in applying for corrections to his service record and enlisted the support of Congressman Rich Nugent so that Miller would finally receive the recognition he deserved.

The time had come to meet Miller in person.  With approval of the Air Medal (1st, 2nd and 3rd awards), he flew to Florida and in Congressman Nugent's Brooksville office, the long overdue honors were finally bestowed upon Harrison Miller, a veteran of 17 WWII air combat missions, now 95 years old.

Congressman Rich Nugent presents collection of Miller's WWII awards,
including DFC and long-overdue Air Medal to Harrison Miller

Veterans Day weekend this year was very special for three Navy WWII sailors.  After years and years of not knowing what happened to his rescuers, it brought closure for Harrison Miller.

In Floral City, FL, on Saturday, November 10th, Miller was reunited with Sonner and Sousa who served aboard YMS-383.  The rescue 68 years ago changed their lives forever and so did this emotional reunion.  Speaking about Miller, Sonner said "I always wondered how he was and if he made it."

Emotional reunion of three WWII Navy heroes

Maj. Vance planned this veteran's reunion down to the minute, not the same day, for Miller was downed on January 31, 1944, but certainly the same time as the rescue.  And Miller provided some more details of how he survived.  "In the backseat I would always pretend to fly the plane.  I eased the plane down slowly."  He continued, "I was in the water for hours.  All I could think about was survival and sharks.  It seemed like forever."

From L to R, Burl Sousa, Harrison Miller, Ted Sonner and Josh Vance

After dragging Miller onboard their minesweeper, Sonner and Sousa tried to tow his plane.  But the situation worsened.  "We began taking on fire," Sonner said. "We had to cut the line or we were going to sink."  That information was not in their YMS-383 decklog.

This is a great story about a Navy war hero, a member of USS New Mexico's crew, who brought honor and pride to his shipmates and his ship.  But the story is not yet complete.  Josh Vance and Dan Farnham now know about where to dive in search of the Kingfisher wreckage, and plan to do just that.  As Vance says, "She rests somewhere in a two to four square mile area, 50-150 feet below the surface, and Dan and I will find her."  January 31, 2013 will mark the 69th anniversary of the tragic loss of LT. Fuqua and his Kingfisher float plane, and the rescue of Harrison Miller.  By then, he and Dan hope to have found the aircraft.

Miller, Sonner & Sousa