After waiting 68 years to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross he earned in combat during World War II, George Miller had to cool his heels for another couple of hours on Monday.
At 2:30 p.m. the veteran, his family and friends were gathered at the Anchorage Veterans Memorial on the Delaney Park Strip in a chilly breeze wondering where the officials were, when Josh Revak, a member of Congressman Don Young's staff, brought news that Lt. Gen. Stephen Hoog, commander of the 11th Air Force, who was scheduled to present the award, was stuck in a meeting. The ceremony would be delayed until 4:30.
"We'd better tell all these people so they can go someplace and warm up," said the 87-year-old honoree.
Miller knows something about being cold. On Feb. 25, 1945, he battled an eruption of gasoline in sub-zero temperatures to save his damaged B-24 "Liberator" and its crew. Miller was the flight engineer on the bomber, based in Italy and making runs on targets in Germany and central Europe. On that day their mission was over Linz, Austria.
"We had just dropped the bombs," he said. "The bomb bay doors were still open and we got hit. It broke a fuel pump."
Miller had to work his way along a narrow catwalk in the middle of the belly of the plane, with 25,000 feet between him and the ground. The bomb bay doors were left open to keep gas fumes from building up.
As he pumped as much fuel as he could out of the affected fuel tank, gas showered him from the damaged pump above his head. He tried to staunch the flow with his hand.
"The gasoline was spraying all over," he said. "It ran down my arm and filled my boots. The air temperature was 60 below, and I'm assuming that's what the gas was, too."
He endured it for as long as he could before making his way back into the plane's interior. "It was all my body could stand," he said.
Inside, the crew was waiting for him. They'd turned their electric flight suits on "hot" and covered him. They threw his gas-soaked clothes out the bomb bay. The co-pilot tucked Miller's feet under his flight jacket and next to his own skin.
But the ordeal was not over. The plane ran out of gas before it could get back to base. "Luckily, there were fighter strips in Northern Italy and we were able to land there," Miller said.
The big bomber had to be relieved of most of its weight to get off the short strip. It took off with just the pilot, co-pilot and Miller. The rest of the crew followed by road.
"TSgt Miller's quick thinking and bravery enabled the entire crew and plane to return safely to the airbase," said the citation, which credited him with "outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty."
A recommendation for the medal was written up quickly. But the officer in charge of the matter was seriously injured and flown to a hospital in the states before he could forward the paperwork.
"The new guy came in and just cleaned out the desk and went to work," Miller said. The commendation was lost.
Fast forward 65 years or so. Miller learned that his former commanding officer, John Charlton, was still alive. Miller made contact and Charlton told him, for the first time, that he was put in for a medal.
Miller asked Young's office for help in locating documents. "I read his story and what he was able to do to save his crew," Young said. "He deserved (the medal). He should have had it a lot sooner."
"We had to get the details on events going back a long ways," said Revak, whom Young credited with investigating the facts that led the Air Force to determine that the medal was in order.
On Monday, Miller and his entourage were lining up for photos when word came about the delay.
"Well, let's go get some pie," suggested David Erickson, a friend who first made Miller's acquaintance in a long conversation about airplanes.
Miller himself seemed philosophical. "Two more hours is no big deal," he said. "I've been waiting 68 years, I ain't going to miss it."
By 4:30 the small party had reassembled, including Hoog. "It's an honor to present this award to an original member of the Army Air Corps," Hoog said. The Air Corps later became the U.S. Air Force.
Originally from upstate New York, Miller served in the Air Corps and then the Air Force until 1964. He moved to Anchorage in 1981 after his daughter and son-in-law relocated to Elmendorf Air Force Base.
"They were here. All of my grandchildren are here. So I'm here," he said.
As he moved up the sidewalk with his walker, 7-year-old Gabriel Whitesell ran up to give him a hug, shouting, "Congratulations, Grampa!"
Gabriel is one of seven great-grandchildren living in Anchorage and the Mat-Su. Most, if not all, were there for the ceremony.
Miller stood on the platform in front of the flag, the medal with its antique four-bladed prop newly pinned on his chest, and seemed at a loss for words. "I guess I'm just glad to get this done," he said.
"It feels good." He pointed to his heart. "It feels good right here."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM