Bill Miller kept the war locked away for 65 years.
Then, about a decade ago, he was asked to tell a group of students at Barberton High School about following Gen. George Patton over the Rhine into the heart of Germany and a horror he did not wish to recall.
Miller, now 93, is still active, still driving and planning to take a troop of Boy Scouts to Normandy, France, to retrace his 70-year-old footsteps.
The Fairlawn resident no longer shies from the past, lest the world forget.
His story begins as a University of Akron student eager to enlist as the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. It ends with the Army man commanding a Sherman tank through a gate to find the smell and sight of death at a concentration camp in Nazi Germany.
He was compelled by Holocaust deniers to tell his story a decade ago for the first time to the public. The students looked bewildered, he recalled. They’d not expected such harrowing details.
“They know nothing about history,” said Miller, confounded by ignorance.
At a rate of one every three minutes, World War II veterans are dying. Four percent of those who served live today.
What they endured, the evil they fought, drives Miller to talk, as he did last week at the Columbus Statehouse in a solemn annual commemoration of the Holocaust.
At 19 years old, Miller was just a guy called to serve his country.
Many jumped at the opportunity to enlist.
“As the story goes, they had to wait for hours in a line that wrapped around the block,” said Sen. Frank LaRose, a fellow veteran who lives in Copley, as he introduced Miller at the Statehouse event.
As a boy LaRose camped at Manatoc Scout Reservation in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park with his scoutmaster — Bill Miller. The man served then as he does now.
Miller told the Columbus crowd that a sergeant pulled him aside two weeks into boot camp. He had acknowledged that Miller joined the Army in 1942 of his own volition. And he was an Eagle Scout.
That was enough to make squad leader.
Miller then made weapons instructor. After he completed parachute training and earned the respect of his men, his military bosses bumped him up to platoon leader. He would go to Europe, not North Africa where 80 percent never came back from.
Barely in his 20s, he landed with the second wave on Utah Beach in Normandy in 1944.
With 40 men under his command, Miller pushed east through France. His company joined Patton some time before the Battle of the Bulge.
Eastward they drove by way of Bastogne, Belgium, and into Germany, eventually crossing the Rhine.
Miller recalled the highway they traveled running straight across Germany, like Interstate 80 splits Ohio.
He often rode on the back of a Sherman tank, spotting enemy fire and using a phone to tell the crew inside which way to point the barrel and how far to send the shells.
South of Berlin and a quarter of a mile off the highway near the town of Gotha, a commanding officer viewed a large building complex in the distance.
“Miller, get down there and see what that is!” the officer shouted.
Miller and his squad met a high stone wall and a padlocked wooden gate. He ordered the tank to drive it down.
Inside, the Germans had fled.
“But it was the most horrible thing I think I’ve ever seen. Bodies everywhere. This had been a military school and a quadrangle was the parade ground. And there were bodies everywhere. The guards had machine-gunned and killed all the people.”
“They were piled up like cord wood,” he continued. “They were scattered everywhere. We tried our best. We found that many of them were not dead. Their hands were moving. They were moving.”
His men fanned out to tally the death toll. “We stopped counting at 800 people. And I know there were probably that many more,” he said.
After the medics arrived, Miller and his men searched the compound. They found the ovens, bodies still inside — women’s clothes, men’s clothes, hair.
Offices lined the edge of the courtyard. Each had a balcony, a desk and a lamp shade, some fashioned out of human skin, Miller said, sparing no details of the horror to set straight any denial of the truth he witnessed.
“And I inadequately stress to you that I have seen these things,” Miller said. “Keep in mind when you hear somebody say this really didn’t happen. It did happen.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @ABJDoug.