Lieutenant Hugh Barr Miller Jr.
U.S. Naval Reserve
When former college football star Hugh Barr Miller Jr. joined the destroyer USS Strong in August 1942, he knew he’d see combat. What he didn’t expect was that within a year he’d end up a castaway, fighting a one-man war on a small South Pacific island.
Born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1910, Miller grew up on a farm in Hazlehurst, Miss. After high school he enrolled at the University of Alabama and, though of only medium build, became a star on the 1929–30 Crimson Tide squads, helping spur Alabama to victory in the 1931 Rose Bowl. After earning a law degree in 1933, Miller practiced in Mississippi until joining the Navy in 1939.
Following various staff postings ashore, Miller was assigned to the then-building Fletcher-class destroyer Strong. By February 1943 the ship was supporting American operations in the Solomon Islands. Just after midnight on July 5, while bombarding New Georgia in advance of amphibious landings, Strong was struck by a torpedo launched blindly by a Japanese destroyer 11 miles away. Soon after the destroyer USS Chevalier took off most of its crew, Strong broke in half.
Miller had just managed to free two sailors trapped on the main deck when the ship sank beneath him. As he hit the water, several of the doomed destroyer’s depth charges detonated, knocking him unconscious and causing severe internal injuries. When Miller came to, he found himself the senior officer among a group of survivors clinging to a cluster of damaged life rafts and floater nets. Over the next three days the men drifted at the mercy of the currents. Several of the more severely injured died, and Miller sent the fittest men ashore in the damaged rafts to seek help.
No assistance came, however, and on the night of July 8 Miller and the five other remaining survivors pulled themselves ashore on a tiny islet. The speck of land was not the best haven, and after the July 10 death of one man, Miller and the four others floated their way to nearby Arundel Island. On that larger island they found water and coconuts, but they soon discovered that Japanese troops had occupied the island. The July 13 death of another sailor and Miller’s own worsening condition convinced him that the only hope of survival for the three remaining enlisted men was to leave him behind. He ordered them to do so, and on July 15 they set out across a nearby sound in an attempt to reach U.S. forces on New Georgia.
To his surprise, Miller didn’t die of his injuries. In fact, his health improved enough for him to begin searching for food. But he also found the enemy: Japanese patrols crisscrossed the island, nearly stumbling upon him on several occasions. On the morning of August 3 Miller found the body of a Japanese soldier and from it recovered socks, shoes, some tinned beef, a bayonet and two hand grenades. The following night he hurled one grenade into the midst of an enemy patrol, killing all five men.
Between August 9 and 14, using additional grenades taken from the dead soldiers and from the bodies of enemy troops washed ashore, Miller attacked several shoreline machine-gun positions, killing their crews. His depredations didn’t go unnoticed, however; Japanese troops continued to comb the island in search of him.
On the morning of August 16 a low-flying U.S. torpedo bomber spotted Miller. Within an hour a Marine Corps rescue team arrived in a J2F Duck amphibious biplane, landed on a nearby stretch of calm water and rowed ashore in an inflatable boat to collect the injured but resourceful castaway. They rushed Miller to a forward aid station on New Georgia, and he was ultimately evacuated to the fleet hospital at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides.
On Sept. 15, 1943, with Red Cross volunteer and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt looking on (see photo at left), South Pacific Area commander Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. awarded the still-recuperating Miller the Navy Cross in recognition of his heroic actions during the sinking of Strong and his subsequent 43-day, one-man war against the entrenched Japanese forces on Arundel.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.