Earned in Blood: My Journey from Old-Breed Marine to the Most Dangerous Job in America

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9781250004994: Earned in Blood: My Journey from Old-Breed Marine to the Most Dangerous Job in America
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Born in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia in 1919, Thurman Miller was the sixteenth of eighteen children in a family so poor, the local coal miner's kids looked down on them. His father was a subsistence farmer and it was rare for the Miller family to have enough food for everyone. But for Thurman, Appalachia was not just a region: it was a culture, a frame of mind, a being. Fighting, playing, and hiding in the hills would soon serve him well.

In 1940 he enlisted and served in World War II with the legendary unit K-3-5 of the First Marine Division. He was involved in some of the most horrific and famous battles in the Pacific Theater, including Guadalcanal and New Britain, where as Gunny Sergeant he sent men to their deaths and narrowly escaped it himself. From harrowing battlefield experiences to the loss of comrades, his powerful combat experiences would stay with him forever. Upon returning stateside, he taught at the prestigious Officer Candidate School at Camp Lejeune, preparing young officers for the horrific battles to come on Okinawa and Iwo Jima. After the war, suffering badly from the malaria and other diseases he contracted in the Pacific and unable to find work, Miller took a job in the coal mines in his home state of West Virginia, where he toiled in darkness for thirty-seven years. The blackness of the mines fed the terrors he lived with since the battlefield and the backbreaking labor ate away at his already compromised body. Bowed but unbroken, Miller survived because of his strength and lifelong devotion to his beloved wife of sixty-five years―a relationship that shines brightly in this distinctly American journey.

With uncommon wisdom, intelligence, and humility, this member of the Greatest Generation spins a gripping tale through peace and war, work and family, love and redemption across ten tumultuous decades.

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About the Author:

THURMAN MILLER, a native of Otsego, West Virginia, served as Gunny Sergeant with the First Marine Division in World War II and was one of the first Marines ashore on Guadalcanal. He fought in several other historic South Pacific battles, including New Britain, and returned stateside to teach at the Officer Candidate School at Camp Lejeune before beginning a three-decade career in the coal mining industry. He formerly served as president of the West Virginia Chapter of the First Marine Division and lives near Beckley, West Virginia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
 
WEST VIRGINIA, AMERICA, 1940
 
 
Carving a life
 
 
BEING A UNITED STATES MARINE came to define my life, but Appalachia defined me first. My family has deep roots in southern West Virginia. My great-grandfather on my father’s side, Franklin Sizemore, was one of the earliest settlers here, part of a large migration from North Carolina in the mid-nineteenth century. He cleared the land that eventually became my hometown of Otsego. He was born in North Carolina in 1817 and migrated to Virginia about 1840. He became a postmaster and started a one-room log-cabin school near the mouth of Cedar Creek in 1874 and raised a very large family, including a son, William, my grandfather.1 My father, Eli Center Miller, was one of William’s many sons.
I come from a very large family, both my parents having been married and widowed with several children before finding each other. My mother, Elvira Rinehart, lost her first husband to malaria around 1915, the same disease that would play such a large role in my own life. His death left her alone and penniless, with seven children between the ages of one and twelve and still another on the way. My father lost his first wife at about the same time, probably to influenza, leaving him to care for their five surviving children alone. Perhaps mutual loneliness drew my father and mother together after each of their spouses passed away. They proceeded to add children of their own, four of us surviving to adulthood. I was fortunate to have had the joy of so many brothers and sisters.
Not all of us lived in the cabin on Cedar Creek, of course. As often happened in those days, relatives stepped in to take care of some of my mother’s children; there were just too many to feed and care for. Even with those who remained, my parents’ oft-repeated lament was “Your kids and my kids are beating the hell out of our kids!”
I was born on November 26, 1919, in a time of great upheaval. The world had just endured a war designed to make the world safe for democracy—a war, it was said, to end all war. The Roaring 20s were not so loud for us, for although nature provided plenty of fruit and fish during the warmer months, how much food we would have during the winter months was left up to us, as money was scarce and what we ate we had to grow. We were, after all, just simple farm folk and lived mostly from the hillside plots and a small amount of bottomland, with plantings of corn, potatoes, and other staples.
One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather hoeing corn; his arms, long and powerful, drove the hoe forward, upward, and back again in one smooth motion, shoulders broad and rippling, tireless muscles moving with precision. Before I was old enough to help, I played among the cornstalks as I watched him. Grandfather’s gnarled hands would wrap around the handle of the hoe as he worked along the row, the six-feet-plus of man blending perfectly with his tool, defining economy of motion as his hoe cut its way smoothly through the dirt and replaced it without leaving weeds or piles. He was a giant to me, a crease in his brow, a handlebar mustache curling about his lips. He knew how to carve a living from the land and preserve it for coming generations. When he spoke, which wasn’t that often, I hung on his every word. I wish I had more of them to recall.
There were so many mouths to feed that children were put to work early then. I was eight years old when my father gave me my own hoe. I took my place at the end of the line, because hoeing in the mountainside was truly an adventure. My dad was first to start a row, and then the next best worker and so on down the line. The work was difficult, and it made my hands hard and rough and my back stiff. My mother worked the fields alongside us. We stored up corn for the winter to feed the livestock and poultry.
My father was a carpenter and a subsistence farmer; my mother would can and pickle and dry-preserve the garden’s produce. We sat down to a table full of food we had raised ourselves, by the grace of God. We didn’t go hungry, but we didn’t get fat either, and we knew of many who had much less than we did. It was a life that was echoed throughout West Virginia, throughout all Appalachia. My Dad never prayed aloud much in church, but he said thanks at the table. I will never forget the humility and sincerity of his blessing, “Dear Lord, we thank Thee for this food as a nourishment for our bodies.” Sometimes the larder would be empty of almost anything except the corn before the long winter months ended, but Mother would take the corn and turn it into some kind of meal.
Despite having no money, my parents had a deep sense of dignity. My mother’s last-born child, a boy, lived only a few hours. My father and uncle took a large poplar board from the fence to make a tiny coffin. We couldn’t afford sandpaper, so my father used bits of broken glass to smooth the wood down. My mother took a pillow from the bed to make a pad for the bottom and sewed tiny, perfect pleats around the border of a scrap of white cloth for the lining.
*   *   *
Although my family had been in West Virginia for a century and a half, like a lot of Appalachian families we never owned the land on which we lived. We were raised on a leasehold; large coal or timber companies owned all the land in our part of the state, and I lived on our leased land until I had a family of my own.2 For now, we lived peacefully with the land and it sustained us. There were moonshine stills in the dense forests above our home, and as I explored the woods one day looking for straight weeds to make arrows I stumbled on a sack full of half-gallon fruit jars. I took the sack home and gave it to my mother, not realizing the jars belonged to moonshiners. We couldn’t afford to ignore anything of value, but I soon learned that moonshiners weren’t shy about defending their property, and I never again disturbed their stills.
Houses back then were mostly plain lumber, many of the “Jenny Lind” design, with the walls consisting of wide boards nailed to two-by-sixes and narrow boards covering the seams. The insides usually had no studs, and as the vertical boards began to cure, gaps would appear. These were covered with whatever people could find to keep out the cold wind. My mother, after lining the walls with large pasteboard boxes or scraps of fabric, would carefully tear up old magazines and, after making her own paste from flour and starch, would “wallpaper” entire rooms, including the ceiling. As we grew up and had nothing much else to do, we would start reading different articles on the walls. Some were incomplete and we would have to search for the rest of the article. We would pencil “continued in the kitchen” for the next reader. In addition to the comics and casual articles, our walls told a broken but engaging story of a world in the grip of economic malaise, with war and rumors of war in faraway places with names we could not pronounce.
During the twenties and thirties, we had no electricity, no heating system, no plumbing or running water in the house. All heating and cooking were done on either coal or wood stoves. As a small child I found refuge behind our large cookstove and lay there and napped when it was cold. As the youngest boy in the family, I was given the chore of building all the fires in the morning. In winter this was a hard job because of the number of fires I had to build. We had two heaters, one for the living room and another on the other end of the house in the big room that served as both a sitting room and bedroom. I had to get a good fire started in the cookstove first, because my mother was an early riser and always had breakfast on the table before daybreak. My mother told me I would have to build the morning fires only until we heard the first whippoorwill of spring.
Poor as we were, and with so many of our own mouths to feed, I never knew of our mother turning anyone away from our door. She fed them all, whether a relative or just some old man without a home. Our family would let them stay in a little shed close by, and when Mom got a meal on the table they always had a place and were treated like family. Many itinerant preachers would visit our town and sometimes stay with us, and occasionally they would organize an all-day revival with music and “dinner on the ground.” We children loved these because we could eat our fill.
We bathed using a big pot of water on the kitchen stove, a washpan, and some soap. We washed our upper body and then closed the door and warned everybody we were washing the rest. We’d brush our teeth with baking soda or with just plain soap and a rag. In the summer months, we usually had a small swimming hole nearby and would take along some soap and bathe while swimming.
By the age of ten, I had begun tending our cows, and this chore kept me close to nature year-round. I grew up under the old rule that children should be seen and not heard, so while around adults I kept silent, but while I tended the cows I sang, loud and long, and some say they heard me all over the mountains. Singing as I drove in the cattle, I was sometimes lost in a dream world, and these times were carefree and simple.
When early spring brought new life to the land, everything began to bud and bloom. Sap began to rise in the maple trees, and my father would begin to plan for that year’s crops. Here in Appalachia, there was little or no bottomland on leased farms where families such as ours lived, so the mountainsides became our cornfields. (A friend from another part of the country described us as farming “land you could fall off of.”) Clearing tillable acreage was arduous, backbreaking work. To make a plot suitable for farming, the trees had to be cut down, eventually to be turned into fence posts, and the stumps removed. All the underbrush was grubbed out with a mattock and hoe. The brush and small saplin...

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