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Captain Ely Miller, first recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross 

By MAJ Jessica S. Armstrong, Mr. Bruce Huffman, and Mr. Chuck Sweeney
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site

Captain Ely Miller is an American World War I aviation hero whose story of valor and sacrifice is truly unique.

James Ely Miller 400Captain James Ely Miller He posthumously received the very first Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) ever being presented to a recipient from World War I, for which the award was originally intended.

Additionally, Miller, by his sacrifice, became the first U.S. airman, eligible for the Purple Heart, to die in air-to-air combat against any enemy, while serving in the Armed Forces of the United States.

Captain Miller lost his life in the worldwide fight for humanity and civilization. He unhesitatingly and fearlessly exposed himself to enemy planes and heroically volunteered his efforts to defend this great nation.

Miller children 400Childhood photo of Ely MillerJames Ely Miller was born in New York City on March 14, 1883, to a prominent merchant and banking family. He attended Yale University as a legacy, where he participated in the University crew and football teams. After graduating from Yale in 1904, Miller began working for the Knickerbocker Trust Company, one of the largest banks in American history in the 1900s, serving as a secretary of the company. In 1912, Miller took over as vice-president of the Columbia Trust Company.

Miller volunteered for service to fight in World War I, shortly before the United States declared war with Germany. He learned to fly in 1915 at the U.S. Army's Plattsburgh, New York Training Camp, successively qualifying as a pilot, fighter, and an instructor. Shortly thereafter, Captain Miller helped organize the First Airplane Company of New York National Guard, which was commanded by Colonel Raynal C. Bolling (the first high-ranking officer of the U.S. Army to be killed in combat in World War I). Captain Miller was mustered into federal service on July 14, 1916.

On July 23, 1917, Captain Miller received orders to deploy overseas to command the 1st Reserve Aero Squadron. There, he joined General John J. Pershing’s staff, whom led the American Expeditionary Force in Paris, France. Soon after, in August 1917, Colonel Bolling appointed Captain Miller as the first Commander of the 3rd Aviation Instruction Center (3rd AIC) in Issoudun, France. The 3rd AIC was one of the largest most important flight training centers during World War I. Captain Miller was charged with the creating, building, and organizing of the American flying school and was directed to have the school established in 60 days, which he successfully accomplished.

After standing up Issoudun training center, Captain Miller went to the French Aerial Gunnery School in Cazaux and took a course to qualify himself for aerial combat.

A unit trained at Issoudun training center, the 95th Aero Squadron was formed on August 20, 1917 at Kelly Field, Texas. The squadron shipped out to England and was then sent to France. There, the 95th Aero Squadron began training at the Issoudun training center on November 15, 1917. On February 20, 1918, Major Bert M. Atkinson, Commander of the 1st Pursuit Organization and Training Center, selected Captain Miller to command the 95th Aero Squadron.

On March 8, 1918, Captain Miller and the 95th Aero Squadron were installed at its quarters in Villeneuve- les-Vertus, France; 20 miles from the German enemy-front, awaiting the arrival of fighting planes from Paris. While in Paris, Miller ran into the son of a factory worker and asked him to be his engineering officer. The young man was an Army staff driver who agreed to Miller’s request on the condition that he could take flight training. Miller introduced him into his social circle of friends, thereby being the first to open the doors to aviation for every man. Miller taught the young man to fly after Colonel Billy Mitchell was persuaded to release him from his chauffeur duties. The young officer’s name was Eddie Rickenbacker -- who would later become America’s most successful fighter ace of World War I.

On March 9, the 95th Aero Squadron became operational. On the afternoon of that same day, Captain Miller, Major Davenport Johnson, and Major M.F. Harmon left for the first offensive patrol. Very early in the patrol, Major Harmon was forced to drop out with motor trouble, but Major Johnson and Captain Miller continued on past Soissons and Reims, into Germany territory.

At Juvincourt-et-Damary, they were attacked by two German biplanes at an altitude of 2 miles. They beat off the attack and continued westward above Corbeny. There, they were attacked again by two German fighting planes. Major Johnson’s machine gun jammed and he abandoned the fight, leaving Captain Miller on his own.

Outnumbered and alone, Captain Miller fired numerous rounds but took on enemy fire and crashed in the Champagne defensive sector that same day, March 9, 1918. Several accounts state the German pilot that took Captain Miller down was a German Intelligence Officer. The German Army captured Captain Miller, where he succumbed to his injuries.

Captain Miller was killed in action on March 9, 1918, in the Champagne defensive sector of France. He was buried in the American Cemetery in Seringes-et-Nesles, Aisne, France.

Captain Miller’s death earned him the title as the first American Aviator killed in combat during World War I. In a letter written by Major Bert M. Atkinson to Captain Miller’s wife, Gladys Miller, Major Atkinson recommended Captain Miller for a Military Cross award.

Captain Miller’s bravery and selflessness during his March 9, 1918 aerial flight is clearly described in the DFC formal citation accompanying his posthumous award.


About the co-authors;

MAJ Jessica S. Armstrong is the Assistant Executive Officer for the U.S. Army's Congressional Legislative Liaison, Major General L. Richardson.

Mr. Bruce Huffman is Chairman of the Board, the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, San Diego, California.

Mr. Chuck Sweeney is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, San Diego, California.


James Ely Miller headstone 600Captain Ely Miller's gravesite at the American Cemetery in Seringes-et-Nesles, Aisne, France James Ely Miller painting 400Painted portrait of Captain Ely Miller

 

CeremonyDistinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart display awarded to the descendants of Ely Miller

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