They Got Me… But I Got’em Back!

USN Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson, Jr., a 1934 Naval Academy graduate, was piloting a Douglas SBD-3 off the Hawaiian Islands with William C. Miller on the morning of December 7, 1941. He would later write confirming Miller’s death in the back seat of the aircraft before he, himself, was forced to bail out — but not before the duo had scored at least one victory against Japanese aircraft.
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The Story of Lt. Clarence Dickinson and RM1c William Miller

By Robert Wilson

 On the morning of December 7, 1941, Dickinson and Miller were flying as part of 18 planes from Squadron 6 off the USS Enterprise.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Dickinson and Miller were flying as part of 18 planes from Squadron 6 off the USS Enterprise.

William Cicero Miller was born on July 19, 1919, the second of five children of Melvin and Ora Jane Miller. The Millers were a farming family that lived on Route 2 in Thomasville, North Carolina. Thomasville was an idyllic town that was part of the Piedmont triumvirate that comprised “The Furniture Capital of the World.” But it didn’t hold William at home. At the age of just 18, he made the trek to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he enlisted into the United States Navy on October 20, 1937. For the next four years, he belonged to the Naval Service.

 USN Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson, Jr., a 1934 Naval Academy graduate, was piloting a Douglas SBD-3 off the Hawaiian Islands with William C. Miller on the morning of December 7, 1941. He would later write confirming Miller’s death in the back seat of the aircraft before he, himself, was forced to bail out — but not before the duo had scored at least one victory against Japanese aircraft.

USN Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson, Jr., a 1934 Naval Academy graduate, was piloting a Douglas SBD-3 off the Hawaiian Islands with William C. Miller on the morning of December 7, 1941. He would later write confirming Miller’s death in the back seat of the aircraft before he, himself, was forced to bail out — but not before the duo had scored at least one victory against Japanese aircraft.

Miller’s military career began at the Naval Training Station, Norfolk, Virginia. There, he advanced to the rank of Seaman Second Class (S2c) on February 21, 1938. S2c Miller joined Scouting Squadron 6 (VS-6), attached to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6), on September 30, 1938. Little did the Naval Service know that this North Carolina farm boy would soon be involved in one of the most pivotal events in our Nation’s history, a time and event that leaves none unscathed.

Miller spent his time on VS-6 honing and crafting his skills. It wasn’t long before he rose to the rank of Radioman First Class (RM1c).

In April 1941, two Tar Heel boys were paired as a Pilot- Radioman/Gunner team when Miller became Lieutenant Clarence E Dickinson, Jr.’s Radioman/Gunner or “back-seater,” as the position was called.

 Engraving on the back of William Cicero Miller’s posthumous Purple Heart.

Engraving on the back of William Cicero Miller’s posthumous Purple Heart.

Born in Florida, Clarence E Dickinson, Jr. was from Raleigh, having been raised at Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington. Lieutenant Dickinson was a 1934 Naval Academy graduate, described as a tall, thin man who was prone to excitability. This earned him the sometimes behind-his-back nickname, “Dickie Bird.” At the time, Dickinson was one of the most seasoned pilots of VS-6.

One may wonder what catalyst thrust together these two home state natives. Did Lieutenant Clarence E Dickinson, Jr. see documents that listed Miller’s birth state while choosing a radioman? Maybe, Dickinson heard and easily recognized Miller’s North Carolina dialect. Whatever the situation that put them together as a Pilot/Radioman team, they would soon fly off into history.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Squadron 6 was preparing to launch 18 planes, that would fly in two-plane sections. They were going to scrutinize a 100-mile corridor of ocean to allow the Enterprise and her accompanying destroyers a safe entry into Pearl Harbor. At that time, the task force was located 210 miles off Barbers Point. This is at the southwest tip of Oahu Island and ten miles west of Pearl Harbor.

During pre-flight checks of the Douglas SBD-3, Miller was standing on Dickinson’s wing adjusting his radio cord while he had a word with the Lieutenant. He told the Lieutenant that this four-year hitch was up in a few days, and he was going home to marry his sweetheart. “But,” he told Dickinson, “there is something funny about it.” Miller went on, “Mr. Dickinson, out of the twenty-one of us fellows who went through radio school together, I’m the only who hasn’t crashed in the water. I hope you won’t get me wet today, sir!”

 William Cicero Miller enlisted into the United States Navy on October 20, 1937. Four years later, he gave his life trying to thwart the Japanese act on Pearl Harbor. His name was destined to live on when an Evarts-Class destroyer was christened the USS William C Miller (DE-259) in his honor in 1943.

William Cicero Miller enlisted into the United States Navy on October 20, 1937. Four years later, he gave his life trying to thwart the Japanese act on Pearl Harbor. His name was destined to live on when an Evarts-Class destroyer was christened the USS William C Miller (DE-259) in his honor in 1943.

Dickinson replied, “Miller, next Saturday, we all go home for five months, so this will probably be our last flight together. Just stick with me, and the first thing you know, we’ll be on the Ford Island runway. That’s all we have to do is get by this morning’s flight.”

For William Cicero Miller, many of these statements would become true. Unfortunately the original intent became a statement of his fate.

 Medals and insignia of William Cicero Miller.

Medals and insignia of William Cicero Miller.

At this point, the story is best told in the words of Lieutenant Dickinson. An excerpt from a serialized article written by him and originally published from October 10-24, 1942, in the Saturday Evening Post, described the event that catapulted the two Tar Heel flyers into Naval lore:

Several times on the way in, I had Miller take a bearing with his direction finder on a Honolulu radio station, to be sure we were on the prescribed course. The last time he did, it was about five minutes past eight and we were 25 miles or so off Barber’s Point. It seems amazing now, but they were still broadcasting Hawaiian music from Honolulu.

I noticed a big smoke cloud near my goal, then saw that it was two distinct columns of smoke swelling into enormous cloud shapes. But I paid little attention. Smoke clouds are familiar parts of the Hawaiian landscape around that season, when they burn over vast fields after harvest. Four ships lay at the entrance to Pearl Harbor, one cruiser and three destroyers. I could tell they were ours by their silhouettes. Ahead, well off to my right, I saw something unusual — a rain of big shell splashes in the water, recklessly close to shore. It couldn’t be target practice. This was Sunday, and anyway the design they made was a ragged one. I guessed some coast-artillery batteries had gone stark mad and were shooting wildly. I remarked to Miller through my microphone, ‘Just wait! Tomorrow the Army will certainly catch hell for that.’

 Reverse of the USN Good Conduct Medal engraved with Miller’s name and the date of award, 1941.

Reverse of the USN Good Conduct Medal engraved with Miller’s name and the date of award, 1941.

When we were scarcely three minutes from land, I noticed something that gave a significant and terrible pattern to everything I had been seeing. The base of the biggest smoke cloud was in Pearl Harbor itself. I looked up higher and saw black balls of smoke, thousands and thousands of them, changing into ragged fleecy shapes. This was the explanation of the splashing in the water. Those smoke balls were antiaircraft bursts. Now there could be no mistake. Pearl Harbor was under air attack. I told Miller and gave him the order, ‘Stand by.’ Ensign McCarthy’s plane was 300 or 400 yards to my right. As Mac closed in, I was charging my fixed guns. I gestured, and he charged his. Mac signified, by pointing above and below, that he understood the situation. When we were probably three miles from land, we saw a four-engine patrol bomber that we knew was not an American type. It was a good 10 or 12 miles away. Mac and I started for him as fast as we could go, climbing. We were at 1,500 feet, he was at about 6,000 feet. He ducked into the smoke cloud which loomed like a greasy battlement. We darted in after him and found ourselves in such blackness we couldn’t see a thing. Not even then were we aware that the source of the smoke in which we hunted was the battleship Arizona. Mac and I came out and headed back for Barber’s Point for another look.

In a few minutes, we were over it at 4,000 feet, flying wing to wing. A glance to the right at McCarthy’s plane was almost like seeing Miller and myself in a mirror — there they were, in yellow rubber life jackets and parachute harnesses and almost faceless behind black goggles and radio gear fixed on white helmets. Mac’s gunner, like mine, was on his seat in his cockpit, alert to swing his twin machine guns on the ring of steel track that encircled him.

Things began happening in split-second sequences. Two fighters popped out of the smoke cloud in a dive and made a run on us. Mac dipped his plane under me to get on my left side, so as to give his gunner an easier shot. But the bullets they were shooting at me were passing beneath my plane. Unlucky Mac ran right into them. I put my plane into a left-hand turn to give my gunner a better shot, and saw Mac’s plane below, smoking and losing altitude. Then it burst into yellow flame. The fighter who had got Mac zipped past me to the left, and I rolled to get a shot at him with my fixed guns. As he pulled up in front of me and to the left, I saw painted on his fuselage a telltale insigne, a disk suggesting, with its white background, a big fried egg with a red yolk. For the first time I confirmed what my common sense had told me; these were Jap fighters — Zeros. I missed him, I’m afraid.

Those Zeros had so much more speed than I did that they could afford to go rapidly out of range before turning to swoop back after McCarthy. Four or five more Zeros dived out of the smoke cloud and sat on my tail. Miller was firing away and was giving me a running report on what was happening behind me. It was possibly half a minute after I had seen the Jap insignia for the first time that Miller, in a calm voice, said, ‘Mr. Dickinson, I have been hit once, but I think I have got one of them.’ He had, all right. I looked back and saw with immense satisfaction that one of the Zeros was falling in flames [Note: This made William Cicero Miller the first American flyer to shoot down a Japanese plane in aerial combat during World War II]. In that interval, watching the Jap go down, I saw McCarthy’s flaming plane again, making a slow turn to the right. Then I saw a parachute open just above the ground. I found out later it was Mac’s. As he jumped, he was thrown against the tail surface of his plane, and his leg was broken. But he landed safely.

Jap fighters were behind us again. There were five, I should say, the nearest less than 100 feet away. They were putting bullets into the tail of my plane, but I was causing them to miss a lot by making hard turns. They were having a field day — no formation whatever, all of them in a scramble to get me, each one wildly eager for the credit. One or more of them got on the target with cannon. They were using explosive and incendiary bullets that clattered on my metal wing like hail on a tin roof. I was fascinated by a line of big holes creeping across my wing, closer and closer. A tongue of yellow flame spurted from the gasoline tank in my left wing and began spreading.

‘Are you all right, Miller?’ I yelled. ‘Mr. Dickinson, I’ve expended all six cans of ammunition,’ he replied. Then he screamed. It was as if he opened his lungs wide and just let go. I have never heard any comparable human sound. It was a shriek of agony. When I called again, there was no reply. I’m sure poor Miller was already dead.

I was alone and in a sweet fix. I had to go from a left-hand into a right-hand turn because the fast Japanese fighters had pulled up ahead of me on the left. I was still surprised at the amazing maneuverability of those Zeros. I kicked my right rudder and tried to put my right wing down, but the plane did not respond. The controls had been shot away. With the left wing down and the right rudder on and only eight or nine hundred feet altitude, I went into a spin.

I yelled again for Miller on the long chance that he was still alive. Still no reply. Then I started to get out. It was my first jump, but I found myself behaving as if I were using a check-off list. I was automatically responding to training. I remember that I started to unbutton my radio cord with my right hand and unbuckle my belt with my left. But I couldn’t unfasten my radio cord with one hand. So, using both hands, I broke it. Then I unbuckled my belt, pulled my feet underneath me, put my hands on the sides of the cockpit, leaned out on the right-hand side, and shoved clear. The rush of wind was peeling my goggles off. I had shoved out on the right side, because that was the inside of the spin. Then I was tumbling over in the air, grabbing and feeling for the rip cord’s handle. Pulling it, I flung my arm wide. There was a savage jerk. From where I dangled, my eyes followed the shroud lines up to what I felt was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen — the stiff-bellied shape of my white silk parachute.

I heard a tremendous thud. My plane had struck the ground nose first, exploding. Then I struck the ground; feet first, seat next, head last. My feet were in the air and the wind had been jarred out of me. Fortunately, I had jumped so low that neither the Japs overhead nor the Marines defending Ewa Field had time to get a shot at me.

I had come to earth on the freshly-graded dirt of a new road, a narrow aisle through the brush to the west of Ewa Field and had had the luck to hit the only road bisecting that brush area for five miles. Except for a thorn in my scalp, my only injury was a slight nick on the anklebone, where machine-gun bullets had made horizontal cuts in my sock.

Lieutenant Dickinson’s narrative went on to describe his odyssey in trying to return to Pearl Harbor, and his exploits during the rest of that day and for some weeks, thereafter.

Dickinson was the first Naval service member to be awarded the Navy Cross three times during WWII. He continued to fly in active service during the war and survived to make the Navy a career, retiring as a Rear Admiral. This heroic naval flyer’s book, I Fly for Vengeance, is well worth your time.

Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson, Jr. is truly an American Hero, one of the greatest of World War II. But, what he and his “rear-seater” accomplished at Pearl Harbor was a team effort.

 In 1943, an Evarts-Class destroyer escort built was christened in Miller’s honor as the USS William C Miller (DE-259). She plied the Pacific for the rest of the war in search of the enemy and retribution, earning seven battle stars — a very high number for a ship of her type.

In 1943, an Evarts-Class destroyer escort built was christened in Miller’s honor as the USS William C Miller (DE-259). She plied the Pacific for the rest of the war in search of the enemy and retribution, earning seven battle stars — a very high number for a ship of her type.

RADIOMAN FIRST CLASS WILLIAM CICERO MILLER

No less a hero, Miller proved his mettle on what had begun as an early serene Sunday morning. While floating through the skies experiencing only what the aviator fellows are fortunate enough to do, it was a good job.

Lieutenant Dickinson acknowledged the comfort and confidence he felt flying back-to-back with Miller; He descried Miller as having such a calm and efficient demeanor, he left no worry as a Radioman/Gunner.

Miller would never know the special place he attained in history later on this “Day of Infamy.” The memory of him, however,did not end on that fateful day in December 1941. His name was destined to live on in the form of the USS William C Miller (DE-259), an Evarts-Class destroyer escort built and christened in his honor in 1943. She plied the Pacific for the rest of the war in search of the enemy and retribution, earning seven battle stars, a very high number for a ship of her type.

Our job today is to see that the stories of these two heroes are carried forward and not forgotten. Hopefully, future generations will accept this important mantle of stewardship, not to allow the Millers and Dickinsons of our past to become untold stories and forgotten memories.

Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson, Jr. and RM1c William Cicero Miller, long shall your memories live! “Fair winds and following seas.”

In honor of their North Carolina connection, here is a verse of the state toast (which North Carolinian children said every morning in elementary school):

Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine,
The summer land where the sun doth shine,
Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,
Here’s to “Down Home,”
The Old North State!