Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2018

Lighthouse keeper Willard Dwight Miller Recipient of the Medal of Honor

Was also a Master Wood Carver

By Timothy Harrison

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Among the 400,000 similar gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery is one for Willard D. Miller, which indicates that he was a U.S. Navy veteran who was awarded the Medal of Honor for Bravery during the Spanish American War. But, it does not indicate that for 33 years he served as a lighthouse keeper in the United States Lighthouse Service.

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Willard D. Miller (June 5, 1877 - February 19, 1959) joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1909 as a 3rd assistant keeper at California’s remote Farallon Island Lighthouse, a position he held for only a short time before being promoted in 1910 to the position of 2nd assistant keeper. In 1912, he became a keeper at Roe Island Lighthouse. In 1915, he was appointed as the head keeper of the Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse where he served until 1922, when he accepted the position as head keeper of the East Brother Lighthouse where he would remain for the next 20 years.

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The Villanueva Lighthouse at the Bay of ...

Although he was a humble man who did not brag about his Medal of Honor, and many people knew about it, he became more widely known for his beautiful wood carvings.

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Willard Dwight Miller in his U.S. Navy uniform ...

Willard Dwight Miller was born on June 5, 1877 in Maitland, Nova Scotia, Canada, the son of Jacob Miller, a master shipbuilder whose family had emigrated from the Netherlands. As a young boy, Willard and his brother Harry would often listen to the sea stories of the many schooner crews that docked by their home. Both boys dreamed of the day when they would be old enough to sail the seven seas. At the age of 16, Willard ran away from home to pursue his dream, even getting shipwrecked at one time, and nearly died from starvation before being rescued.

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Lighthouse keeper Willard D. Miller in his work ...

In July of 1897, he met with his younger brother Harry in Boston, Massachusetts, and the two of them decided to join the U.S. Navy together. They soon saw themselves both serving on the USS Nashville, a naval gunboat. In 1898 at the outbreak of the Spanish American War, the Nashville, along with the cruiser USS Marblehead and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Windhom was sent to Cuba as part of a naval blockade. One of the missions of the Nashville was to cut two underwater telegraph cables that connected Cuba with Spain by the town of Cienfuegos, Cuba. Volunteers were asked for the mission, which called for two small boats to get as close to shore as possible and cut the cables. The shoreline was full of enemy soldiers dug into trenches and in cement guard houses. Both Willard Miller and his brother Harry were among those who volunteered for the dangerous mission.

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The USS Nashville was the navy gunboat that ...

The night before their mission, the men who had volunteered, including the Miller brothers, made out their wills and wrote letters to loved ones back home. On May 11, 1898, the brothers, each in one of the two small boats, cast off for their mission as the gun boats behind them started shelling the enemy entrenchments on shore. In heavy seas, so close to shore that they could see the enemy soldiers’ faces, they used grappling hooks to pull the underwater cables up to the surface and cut them, all while bullets were whizzing past their heads and splashing in the water around them. Many of their fellow sailors and marines on board the small boats were hit and dropped at their feet in the boats. Once the mission was completed, the two boats, now under extremely heavy fire, headed back to the big gunboats anchored off shore. Many years later, Harry Miller, in an interview given to a Canadian magazine said, “The man behind me gave a sort of groan and rose up and fell over my back. I rolled him down in the bottom of the boat. Blood was running from a hole in his skull and I thought he was dead, but he was not. He had five bullets in him and lived through it, and he is still in the Navy.”

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The Miller family homestead in Maitland, Nova ...

At one point toward the end of the Battle of Cienfuegos, enemy soldiers took refuge in a lighthouse to escape the blasts from the gunboat’s cannons. The big guns on the Nashville immediately took aim at the lighthouse and soon the lighthouse was a pile of rubble.

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Vintage image of Roe Island Lighthouse is Suisun ...

Both Willard Miller and his brother Harry Herbert Miller were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery during that same battle. To this day, the two men are one of only eight pairs of brothers to be awarded the medal. Interestingly, one other man, Robert E. Blume, who was also on board the boat with Willard Miller, later in life also became a lighthouse keeper, serving for a short time, from 1906 to 1908, as a 3rd assistant lighthouse keeper at the Twin Lights of Navesink in Highlands, New Jersey, and was also awarded the Medal of Honor.

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Lighthouse keeper Willard D. Miller is shown here ...

Willard Miller stayed in the U.S. Navy for about another eight years until he and a large number of other sailors came down with a form of meningitis. After eleven of his comrades died from the sickness, Willard Miller gave up the Navy and soon joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service, serving as a lighthouse keeper until his retirement in 1942.

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One of the phonograph cabinets made by lighthouse ...

Exactly when Willard Miller started to occupy his free time as a wood carver is unclear, but it appears to have started while he was stationed at the Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse. Apparently, when the Navy ships, which were always being repaired in the nearby port, lots of extra wood, sometimes beautiful pieces used for captain’s cabins, were discarded or thrown overboard and Willard Miller salvaged them. In a story about him and his brother, Harry, that appeared in The Atlantic Advocate, it was said that when Willard Miller started his hobby, he “knew not even the rudiments of the carver’s or cabinet-maker’s art.” In an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, he was quoted as saying, “I had never used a knife or carving tool. But as soon as I started whittling on that piece of oak I knew I had struck the thing I wanted to do more than anything else.”

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But, thanks to that newspaper article, he soon became well known for the amazing furniture, phonographs, and wood carvings that he created, all from driftwood or discarded wood. Among his many various pieces of work which he carved and constructed, eleven cabinet phonographs were declared by experts to be marvels of the cabinet maker’s art. In one of the eleven phonographs, he placed sixteen varieties of wood, while the photograph itself contained four motors, all capable of playing at once. Having four motors, he was able to entertain his guests at a moment’s notice with whatever selection suited their individual tastes.

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Willard D. Miller is shown here at East Brother ...

Willard Miller said, “I always keep her loaded with a good hymn, a Caruso piece, a record for kids, and a new jazz piece. I can always tell by looking at ‘em just what kind of piece they’d like to hear.”

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Willard D. Miller lined up a number of items he ...

Apparently the Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse was open for tourists on Tuesday afternoons, because he stated, “Visitors who come out to the lighthouse on Tuesday afternoon and [sic] sympathize over our monotonous, lonesome life.” He felt that they clearly didn’t know the “fine points of lighthouse keeping, which include being a skillful machinist, mariner, diver, plumber, painter, cook and housekeeper.”

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Shown here at East Brother Lighthouse, circa ...

In September of 1922, keeper Miller was awakened in the morning by some young men who were trying to steal the launch boat from the Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse. It seems that the young men had stowed away in the hold of the Pacific mail liner Ecuador that was bound for New York, and when they had been discovered, the captain of the Ecuador threw them off the vessel by the lighthouse. Naturally, Miller stopped the young men from stealing the boat and told them that the only way for them to get back to the mainland was to walk the three miles over the breakwater. As the young men walked away through the fog, he heard them saying that would simply find another boat to stow away on so that they could get to New York City.

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Willard D. Miller sitting on top of one of the ...

It is unknown how many of Willard Miller’s wood carvings or furniture, which he made at Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse that he took with him when he was transferred to East Brother Lighthouse, an island light station in California’s San Francisco Bay, but many of them made it there, as was made obvious by recently discovered photos. It is unclear how many pieces of furniture, photographs, and other carvings Willard Miller made in his lifetime. But because he never married or had children, he obviously had plenty of time to pursue his hobby.

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It is unclear from this photo taken at East ...

Apparently, at least one other family member, knowing that Willard Miller had no family to support, must have asked him for financial assistance. A letter dated September 4, 1939 to Arch Miller in Manitoba, British Columbia stated:

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This photo of Willard D. Miller lying down, but ...

“Between intervals of the radio war news, which have been coming in quite dramatically for the past two days, I am taking enough time out to send you my personal check enclosed herewith. It is not convenient for me to get to the bank for a certified check, but this one is just as good, and will not bounce back at you. It will take a little time for you to get it cashed, as the guys who run the bank up there – if there is a bank – don’t know me – which is their misfortune, not mine.

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“When you finally get it transferred into dubloons or pieces-of-eight, or whatever kind of currency is in circulation, I would suggest that you get Annie a present, then get those two kids who wrote me those nice letters – which my secretary informs me have not been answered – a couple of ‘permanents’ whatever they are – and also do not forget those other nieces and nephews for whom I have kindly feeling – even though this statement should seem hard to reconcile with my apparent indifference.

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“As I don’t like writing a long letter – or short one either – I shall therefore terminate this so-called letter forthwith, with best wishes for all, and with the reminder that I am always ready to cheerfully render financial assistance when and if required.”

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This beautiful cabinet, made by lighthouse keeper ...

Your brother,

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East Brother Lighthouse Station as it appears ...
Photo by: Pradip D. Patel

W. Miller, keeper

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The gravestone of Medal of Honor recipient and ...

U.S.L.H.Service

The biggest change that came to East Brother Lighthouse during the time that Willard Miller was the head keeper was the laying of an underwater cable that in 1934 brought electricity to the lighthouse. Another important change came when the steam fog signal was converted to a compressor-driven diaphone. However, in 1939 a ship’s anchor wrecked the underwater electric cable, and for a while the station went back to using gasoline powered generators for the rest of the station.

Around 3am on the morning of March 4, 1940, keeper Miller took his kerosene lamp down to the boathouse to get some gasoline for the generator from one of the five 50-gallon drums of gasoline that was stored there. As he was filling up a container with gasoline, he stepped back and accidently knocked over the kerosene lamp. The burning kerosene quickly spread over the wood plank floor. Miller tried quickly to shut off the valve to the gasoline drum and tried to quash the flames, burning his hand and arm while doing so. But within seconds, he realized that it was hopeless and he needed to flee at once. As he scrambled across the wharf and up the tramway to the island to get up and back the lighthouse, one of the gasoline drums blew up with a loud explosion, and a column of fire shot 100 feet into the air, and gasoline was spread all over the dock.

The explosion nearly knocked assistant keeper Carl Snodgrass and his wife, Lillian, out of bed. As they looked out the window, the sky was aglow with fire. Grabbing their coats, they rushed outside to render aid. By that time the fire had spread all over the 50-foot wharf and was creeping toward the building where the fog horn, emergency lighting equipment, and other power machinery was operated. Then, as the keepers scrambled for the garden hose, the island was rocked by four severe shocks as the remaining gasoline drums exploded.

Keepers Miller and Snodgrass, using the garden hose in an effort to save the rest of the station, started dosing the fog signal building with water. The explosion and fire had been seen from shore; however, the local fire department did not have a boat, but a Coast Guard crash boat with a crew of five was ordered to the site. It took them about 35 minutes to reach the island. It then took them about an hour to get the flames under control and about another four hours of work before the fire was completely out.

The local newspaper reported that the fire had destroyed the planking of the wharf, the boathouse, and four other boats, including one inboard motor, most of the island’s provisions, and a lot of other equipment. Three hundred gallons of gasoline had gone up in the blaze.

Fortunately, the rest of Willard Miller’s career as a lighthouse keeper at East Brother was less eventful and fairly normal. In 1939 when the Coast Guard took over the U.S. Lighthouse Service, rather than to join the Coast Guard, a military branch of the government, Willard Miller decided to stay on as a civilian lighthouse keeper. Perhaps he had enough military rules during his years in the Navy, and he felt that staying on as a civilian keeper would be more suited to him.

In 1942, Willard Miller, at the age of 65, retired from the Lighthouse Service, and on March 5, 1959, at the age of 81, Willard Dwight Miller passed away at the Veterans Home in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2018 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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