MOUNT HOPE, W.Va. -- Nowadays, the savage island-hopping battles in the Pacific during World War II may seem merely tales glimpsed via grainy documentaries while fast-forwarding through cable channels.
But for Thurman Miller, a 93-year-old West Virginian, these battles -- most specifically, the titanic struggles over Guadalcanal and New Britain between U.S. forces and the Imperial Japanese Army -- were personal, intimate and devastating.
In May, St. Martin's Press released Miller's "Earned in Blood: My Journey from Old Breed Marine to the Most Dangerous Job in America." The book offers a frontline view of a tough-as-nails life -- by a man who came out the other end still smiling.
"I thought it would be good if someone, anyone, would write a book strictly from the foxhole and the coal mine -- what it meant to be on the front lines. The kind of situation the mud Marine had, so to speak," Miller said.
Miller, who has self-published several memoirs about his life, finally landed a national publisher working with his son, David, on what is an impressive, riveting and harrowing addition to the history of the Pacific Theater.
In "Earned in Blood," Miller's grunt's-eye view of hand-to-hand island warfare is bookended by the stories of a youth spent growing up poor but strong in the West Virginia hills and followed later in life by nearly 40 years of work beneath those hills as a coal miner.
The book has earned high praise, including a remark by "Rocket Boys" author and fellow West Virginia native Homer Hickam, who describes "Earned in Blood" as "A dramatic and compelling story, one every American should read and ponder."
Slaughter and horror
Miller enlisted in 1940 and served with the legendary K/3/5 (K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment) rifle company, under the 1st Marine Division. The unit's members were among the first off the boat as Allied forces sought to uproot the Japanese army's toehold in the Pacific.
In unsentimental, unadorned prose, Miller -- raised in a Christian household but feeling he had no personal God to call out to -- witnesses atrocities and savagery for which no amount of training could have prepared these young Americans.
On a slow day at Marine boot camp back at Camp Lejeune, they might take you out under a big tree and school you on the Articles of War and the Geneva Convention on handling prisoners, Miller said.
"As we arrived at Guadalcanal, we went in there with that in mind -- that we would do it by the book. It wasn't long after we got there that we found out our book and their book were far different," he said.
"They focused on who they could get rid of the quickest that helped us the most. We had corpsmen there with the Red Cross on their arm. They were noncombatants -- they didn't have any weapons. If they had a Red Cross on the arm, they became an automatic target.
"Their primary aim was to get rid of us any way they could, whereas we went ashore there, and when we captured some we intended to treat 'em like the enemy."
That changed as patrols were sometimes literally slaughtered and horrific battles ensued, he said.
"Practically speaking, we got down to a place where we conducted war like they did -- we had no feelings for them. You have to get like that in order to fight a war, I mean to put it bluntly. We really and truly threw the book away," he said.
"We waged it by their standards that they set early on. That's putting it sorta brutally, I realize. But it's true."
Then, came a moment when Gunnery Sgt. Miller had an insight into who the real enemy was.
While pursuing a Japanese general up the coast of New Britain, Miller's men sneaked up on a long hut full of laughing, card-playing Japanese grunts.
"All of a sudden we just tore into it. They had been told they were winning the war in New Britain. They were so surprised that the first thing they did when they realized we had captured them, they got down on their knees and put their heads all the way down on the ground. And they expected to be killed right there."
With the toe of his boot, Miller nudged one of the Japanese on the head. Told him to stand.
"I was standing there, scarcely two feet away, and he was looking me in the eye. And I realized right there that he was doing what I was doing -- they sent him up there, and they sent me over there.