With over nine decades of life experience, Jefferson City resident Robert Miller has accrued many good memories throughout the years and met a number of interesting individuals, many of whom he calls “friend.” Despite all of the encounters he has to call upon in cheerful reflection, the time that he served in the Army during World War II remains the most poignant of his memories.
As a young man growing up in Columbia, Miller began making eyeglasses for a local optical company after graduating from Hickman High School in 1940.
“The company transferred me to their office in St. Joseph and that’s where I was working when I received my draft notice in 1942,” said the 93-year-old veteran. “I remember driving to Columbia in my 1932 Ford to report to the draft board and I got pulled over by the highway patrol for speeding along US Highway 40,” he said. “When I told the officer where I was going, he said ‘drive on.’”
Following his induction, the recruit completed his basic training at Camp Kearns, Utah, and then reported for training as a medical technician at Fort Oglethorpe in Atlanta, Ga. While in Georgia, he learned a variety of laboratory techniques such as how to perform blood tests and, in May 1943, reported to the ophthalmology clinic at McClellan Air Force Base in California. The soldier built upon his previous eyeglass experience by learning to refract patients’ eyes so that “the captain, an ophthalmologist, could go play golf at the base course,” Miller said.
Based on the test scores he had received on his military entrance examinations, Miller was soon accepted into the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP)—a college program “designed to keep troops busy until their services were needed.”
He then spent a short time at Stanford University, before transferring to Indiana University, where he would remain for several months in college completing courses related to engineering and chemistry. In March 1, 1944, Miller departed Indiana University for Camp Campbell, Ky., “to help form the 20th Armored Division.” He added, “Students from many of the ASTP colleges were included in the personnel arriving at the camp to help make up the division.”
Assigned to Company C, 220th Medical Battalion, Miller worked in the company’s medical supply section and, for the next several months, learned the duties of his new position in addition to participating in various training exercises. By Christmas, the division was prepared for overseas deployment and set sail for Europe weeks later, arriving in Le Havre, France on February 17, 1945.
Miller affirms that his movement with the division is well chronicled in the book “20th Armored Division in World War II,” but summarizes his time served overseas as “moving south through France, Belgium, and Holland into Germany.” Miller added, “We were close to the front lines and there were casualties, so the medical team I belonged to was very busy. I also remember it being cold with snow … and all that we had to keep warm with during the daytime was our uniform with an overcoat.”
The veteran further explained that occasionally there were field hospitals set up and they could enter for a short time “to try and warm up,” but then “it was back to working in the cold to get the much needed medical supplies.” After crossing the Rhine and Danube Rivers, Miller clearly recalls encountering one of the most distressing situations of his entire military career—the liberation of Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945.
“I did not go in (the camp) but I stood by the entrance for some time,” he solemnly remembered. “It was a horrible site—the people … they were just skin and bones. All any of them wanted to do was to get home as quickly as possible.”
While in Salzburg, Austria, the division learned of Germany’s surrender and remained in Europe for the next several weeks. They returned home later that summer to begin preparations for the invasion of Japan, but after the Japanese surrendered weeks later, the soldiers of the division soon began receiving their discharges.
Leaving the service in February 1946, Miller returned to Mid-Missouri and married his fiancée, Grace, later that year. The couple raised a son and a daughter, and Miller used his GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering and later returned to school to earn his master’s in public health. In 1983, he retired from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Relaxing in his charismatic home office surrounded by mementos from his past, Miller stresses that of all his interesting and intriguing encounters, the ones that seem most ingrained in his memory are those related to the time he spent alongside the soldiers of the 20th Armored Division.
“I have been so fortunate in my life and in my time in the Army,” Miller affirmed. “And when you witness things, like the horrors of Dachau, it is truly something that you never forget and hope that the younger generation remembers." He added, “It was certainly my privilege to have been able to serve my country during the war and I don’t believe anyone owes me anything for having served.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.