By Christine Graf
Tom Miller’s draft notice arrived in his mailbox in August 1963. That same day, the 22-year-old went to his local recruiting office in Milwaukee and joined the Marines. At that time, 11,000 U.S. military advisors were stationed in Vietnam. Yet few Americans were aware that a war was looming.
In March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson began deploying troops to Vietnam. Miller, a member of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, landed in Qui Nhon just a few months later. He was a radio operator in a light infantry unit. The radio he carried on his back was heavy, and it had a long antennae that protruded high into the air. It made him easy for the enemy to spot.
“I had that big arrow that was sticking up. It was saying, ‘Shoot at this guy,’” he said with a laugh. “But it didn’t really matter. Everybody had a target on their back over there.”
In truth, radio operators had one of the shortest life expectancies during the war. By killing a radio operator, the Viet Cong were able to impede a unit’s ability to communicate with headquarters and call for air support.
Enemy soldiers were also aware of the fact that a unit’s radio operator followed closely behind its officer in charge. When a radio operator was showered with a hail of gunfire, there was a good chance the bullets would take out both the radio operator and the officer in charge. As a result, the Viet Cong were always on the lookout for radio antennae.
When they weren’t being fired at, Miller and the other men in his unit spent many hours trudging through rice paddies (flooded fields used to cultivate rice). This caused many of them to develop immersion foot syndrome, commonly known as trench foot.
“It causes your feet to crack and blister and bleed, and you end up having to be transported. We lost a lot of our group because of that,” said Miller.
There were nights when they slept in dirty water that was five inches deep. Miller remembers frequently being “soaked to the bones.” He also recalls being hot—very hot. In Vietnam, temperatures can hover near 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
In December 1965—monsoon season–Miller’s battalion took part in Operation Harvest Moon, the war’s second large-scale Marine Corps engagement. The operation targeted one of the strongest regiments of the Viet Cong Army.
On the tenth day of the eleven-day operation, Miller’s battalion was caught in an ambush. He and three other Marines took cover in a house located in an open marketplace. The Viet Cong fired a shell into the house, and the explosion knocked two of the Marines unconscious. Miller was knocked to his knees and experienced sharp pain throughout his body. The vision in his right eye blurred and then went dark.
After the dust cleared, he rushed to the side of his radio partner, Jack Swender. Swender had been hit in the jugular by a piece of shrapnel. Miller held him in his arms as he bled to death. He described it as the saddest day of his life.
Donald Carlin, Miller’s bunkmate and fellow radio operator, also died that day in a separate incident. He was one of 45 Marines killed during Operation Harvest Moon.
“He was really a nice kid,” said Miller. “He had just had a baby before they shipped out, and he was killed. War is not a nice thing.”
There were also 90 South Vietnamese and at least 400 Viet Cong soldiers killed during the operation. Miller was among the more than 200 Marines that were injured. As a result, his tour in Vietnam was over.
“I lost my right eye. I got shrapnel where I didn’t have a flak jacket. In other words, my butt, my leg, my arms. A piece bounced off my helmet and bounced into my eye,” he said. “It ripped up my leg pretty good. Otherwise it was a lot of little pock holes. You can still see a couple little scars here and there.”
After being discharged, he returned to Wisconsin and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s degree in fine arts. He married and settled with his wife on a farm where they raised Arabian horses and Doberman pinchers. At the time, Miller worked as a draftsman for his local county. He and his wife had one child and adopted another.
During those years, few days went by in which he didn’t think of Jack Swender. “He was a really great guy,” said Miller. “We took turns carrying the radio. We were kind of a two-man team. He knew his radio back and forth. We both did. When it came down to the actual fighting, we would drop the radio. He was a good rifleman—a good shot.”
In 1983, after visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Miller decided the time was right to establish a Vietnam memorial in Wisconsin. By that time, the nation’s attitude had softened towards Vietnam veterans. For many years, veterans were frequent victims of public scorn.
Miller admitted he was shocked by the mistreatment that he and his fellow veterans were subjected to after returning from Vietnam. “I’m 6’3”, so people didn’t get too smart with me,” he said with a laugh. But he also acknowledged that he was spat at on more than one occasion.
According to Miller, he was met with a great deal of skepticism when he initially announced his plans for a Wisconsin memorial. But, over time, momentum for the memorial began to build. “After six months of people telling me I was crazy, they finally signed on. And now it’s probably the most beautiful of all memorial sites in the United States dedicated to 20th and now 21st century veterans.”
The Wisconsin Vietnam Memorial Project—more commonly known as Highground Memorial Park–was dedicated in 1988. It was later expanded to honor those who served in wars that took place both before and after Vietnam. Today, the memorial park encompasses over 160 acres. More than 150,000 people visit the memorial each year. Highground celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2018.
Although it was his desire to honor all who died in service of their country in Vietnam, Miller said the memorial was built in Swender’s honor. “It was really because of Jack. I said, ‘I’m just not going to let his life or anyone else’s life be forgotten.” He stayed in contact with Swender’s mother until her 1997 death and still has contact with some of his extended family members.
After he and his wife divorced in 1988, Miller moved to New Jersey. At the time, he was a partner in a New Jersey-based mail order company that sold electronic parts including capacitors and resistors. It was that same year that he met his wife, Rose Marie. The two married in 2004 and live in Whippany.
In 1992, Miller took a job as an art director at Merrill Lynch. He worked there until his 1997 retirement. After retiring, he enrolled as a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. More than 20 years and 450 credits later, he remains a fixture at the university’s Florham Park campus. He serves there as an artist in residence, and his work is also on display at various locations on campus.
For the past ten years, Miller has been working on a project called Flags of Our Conflicts. It is a collection of more than 60 watercolor, ceramic, and graphite pieces. Each piece is related to one of the approximately 20 major conflicts or wars the United States has been involved in. Once finished, he hopes Flags of Our Conflicts will be displayed at the Pentagon.
He has also spent many years working on a 9/11 collection that honors those who died in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He knew several people who died that day including his neighbor Mike Sorresse. Miller hopes to see the approximately 65-piece collection of drawings, paintings, and ceramics displayed in New York City.
Before the terrorist attacks occurred, Miller had been working on an Operation Harvest Moon Collection. The pieces in the collection pay homage to the Vietnam operation in which Miller was wounded. Now that his 9/11 collection is finished, he will resume working on it. “9/11 was a little more important than getting this done,” he said.
The majority of Miller’s paintings are military in nature, but he also paints eagles and butterflies. He makes prints out of his paintings and has donated many of these prints to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Most of my prints went down to Bethesda when we had a lot of wounded people coming through. They were given to the vets,” said Miller. “Or, I will send them out to the Highground (Highground Memorial Park) and have them use them as a fundraiser. If it’s a needy organization or a church organization, I am very happy to donate some of my work. I sell very, very little. In fact, I don’t even remember the last time I sold anything.”
Today, Miller paints twice a week in his art studio at Fairleigh Dickinson. In addition to working on his art, Miller wrote a screenplay about Operation Harvest Moon. He said he knows the odds are against it ever being turned into a movie. “Everybody seems to write a book or a screenplay,” he said with a laugh.
He’s not holding his breath when it comes to seeing his movie on the big screen, and that’s fine with him. He’s very happy doing what he is doing—working on his art and using it as a way to do good in the world.