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Navy Man Shares ‘Other Worldly’ Experience of Vietnam War
Nick Miller spent five years in the U.S. Navy, serving 15 months of combat in Vietnam.
Friday, November 12, 2021


Nick Miller looked out over a sea of 6th and 7th graders at Sage School and began doing the math.

“When I was 12, it was 1954 and we were still thinking about World War II since it had wrapped up just nine years before. I was in Vietnam during 1968 and 1969—53 years ago—and that’s ancient history to them! These kids can much more relate to 9-11 and Iraq, and they’re still feeling threats today.”

Miller told of his time in Vietnam during one of several school assemblies organized by Higher Ground this week in honor of Veterans Day. It was a rather “other worldly” experience, Miller said.

Nick Miller displays his medals during a Grab-and-Go lunch provided veterans by Higher Ground and the Senior Connection as part of Veteran’s Day.

“We’d go get in a big fight, then we’d take a shower and go to the mess hall and eat a beautiful steak dinner with ice cream and corn on the cob and fresh baked bread. Then we’d watch news reels showing war protestors at the Democratic convention, and I’d think, ‘Really!? I think I’m in a warp zone!’ ”

Miller’s stint with the U.S. Navy began with ROTC, which paid his way to the University of Washington where he started out studying oceanography and ended up with a degree in economics.

“The Navy had a very successful recruiting program in the Midwest. I rode the train west and I realized I did not know a soul who’d ever been to Seattle. But my mother was a widow raising four children in Kansas City and she said, ‘Every one of you kids is going to college, and I’m not paying for it.’ So, I joined ROTC.”

In Seattle Miller learned to fly jets at the Sandpoint Naval Air Station on Lake Washington. But in 1964, when Navy pilots began being imprisoned in Hanoi Hilton, he opted to serve on a destroyer. Thinking he was going to be serving in the Atlantic, he soon learned his was one of four destroyers in the Atlantic fleet that would be deployed to Vietnam.

Nick Miller’s medals include the Purple Heart and Silver Star.

He had a nine-month deployment during which his boat bombed the shore, making 3.5-mile runs from seven miles out to fight enemy guns that could shoot further than those on the boats. On occasion, enemy pilots would drop 500-pound bomb 30 yards from the boats.

“They say: Join the Navy and see the world. Ours was going to be an around-the-world cruise encompassing the Panama Canal, Indian Ocean, Suez Canal and Mediterranean. But, early on, the Suez War occurred and the canal was blocked for two years so we returned across the Pacific. They made it worth our while, though, as we stopped in Japan, Hawaii, Acapulco and San Francisco.”

Once back, Miller took a month’s leave to get married and go on a honeymoon. He then reported to the Naval Inshore Operations Training Center, spending six weeks at river war school on the Sacramento River in California to prepare for a deployment to the Mekong Delta.

“It didn’t make the environmentalists happy. The Sacramento River was a major spot for salmon runs and here were people dropping grenades in the river and shooting up the place,” said Miller, who serves on the board of the Hemingway Chapter-Trout Unlimited.

Tricia Wood joined Nick Miller in describing her experiences as a Navy pilot for local schoolchildren.

When he redeployed, it was as Chief Staff Officer on newly commissioned Monitor boats that were the first to use bar armor. The concrete reinforcing bars pre-detonated rockets so the boats would get hit by shrapnel but the armor plate would not receive damage from an explosion.

The nine-person boats—floating tanks—led boats carrying 90 troops each up the Mekong River, which is about the size of the Mississippi River. The boats would nest next to a big boat where troops would spend the night.

As an officer, Miller got to dine on white linen table cloths, served by waiters in white coats and gloves,  while non-commissioned troops ate from metal cafeteria trays.

There was disagreement about whether U.S. troops should fight in the Mekong Delta where 60 percent  of the country’s population was packed together. But the Navy pushed for it because it was not getting its share of publicity on the newsreels—and TV time was the way they got appropriations, Miller said.

The ships made the Army mobile in an area where there were no highways, said Miller.

The 60-foot ship he was assigned to had a grenade launcher that could launch grenades 500 yards, each covering the size of a football field. A 20-mm cannon could fire six miles. There was also a 40 mm cannon, 81 mm mortar and two 50-caliber machine guns.

They used flame throwers to burn off the mangrove trees and swamp grasses hugging the river. But, if  someone fired upon them, the ship that fired back might inadvertently fire on a U.S. ship that was making its way down the u-shaped bayou rivers behind the sniper.

“We had a top speed of five knots, plus enormous tide and current shifts so sometimes we’d be stopped for six hours. It made some soldiers feel as if they were sitting ducks,” Miller said. “Out of 190 troops in my unit, we got 160 purple hearts—most from arm or leg wounds. We only lost three men.”

“His was a very dangerous job,” said Tricia Wood, who joined Miller on the speaker’s platform. The Navy guys didn’t want to get on land, and the land troops didn’t want to get on the boats.”

Most of Miller’s operations were with Vietnamese Marines who appreciated the U.S. support, he said.

“My war was all smoke and noise, sitting behind armored plates, looking through slats,” he said. “I sure was not going to get on top to take a picture.”

After his second deployment ended, Miller spent two years in the Bay area teaching river warfare. He then got a law degree and served on the staff of the U.S. Senate and as a consultant to the Executive office of the President in the 1970s. His specialty was telecommunications projects.

He and his wife Sylvia moved fulltime to the Wood River Valley in 2015, after having invested in a condo in 1984.

“I was opposed to the war before I went. I was opposed to the war during the time I was fighting. And I was opposed to the war after I came back,” he said. “People ask me, ‘Given that, why did you go?’ I was  a professional Navy officer and, if I didn’t go, someone else had to go in my place. And my decision not to go wouldn’t have changed a thing. All I can do is do the best I can.”







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