Sunday, March 25, 2001
A Colorado Life

Spreading peace through grace

Jesse Miller shared word of God amid pain

By Jim Sheeler
Special to The Denver Post

As the new couple stood on a street in Japan in 1950, Nettie Miller looked at her husband and at the people he had first came to fight. She thought about all that had happened and asked him how he could forgive. As a prisoner of war, Jesse saw Japanese soldiers stab bayonets through the hearts of defenseless men during the infamous Bataan Death March. He saw American GIs forced to dig their own graves, then bayoneted and left to die. He saw his body turn skeletal, then bloated, infected with disease and constant hunger. He watched men die of starvation and thirst. He watched men die standing up. He was beaten nearly to death and stomped with hobnailed boots. On his way to the torturous work in Japanese coal mines, even the children threw rocks at him. There on that Tokyo street in 1950, his wife asked him how he dealt with his feelings, seeing the people again. She asked him if he ever felt angry. "He said, 'Why should I be angry,'" she remembered 50 years later. "He said, 'I've been forgiven for so much." Jesse Louis Miller died Feb. 22. He was 80.

Life beyond Wyoming

As a boy growing up in the oil fields of Midwest, Wyo., Jesse had always wanted to see life beyond the derricks. After high school, the promise of a photography education from the Army recruiter hooked him. That education lasted one day. In 1940, Miller was shipped to Clark Air Field in the Philippines, where he worked as a mechanic until Dec. 7, 1941. Ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he heard the Japanese planes. "A buddy shouted, 'They're here,' and a terrible explosion followed," he later wrote in his autobiography. "The Japanese bombers made a direct hit on the mess hall. I saw the mangled bodies of my buddies blown to bits. A ghastly sight. I wondered if I would be next. So soon did I see death and destruction." It was only the beginning. After three months eluding the Japanese on the island, Miller's group was captured and made to join thousands of men on what would later be called the Bataan Death March.

Jesse Miller, at left before fighting in World War II and at right in 1986, 'wasn't bitter at all' after being a prisoner of war, said friend Ben Steele. 'He forgave 'em all. He practiced what he preached.' Special to The Denver Post

During the 21-day march up the scorching hot peninsula, the prisoners were rarely given food. They were forced to stand near gurgling streams but weren't allowed to drink. Stragglers were stabbed and left to die. "It is painful to remember the vicious cruelty and treachery measured out to us," he later wrote. "The horrid sights of expressionless faces of my fellow men, the terrible stench of a blood-soaked earth, the shots and thuds of rifle butts against human flesh, and the dead who were beheaded unnecessarily." Before the march, the Japanese soldiers had taken everything from him, including his Bible, but he had long since memorized the words inside. For the next few years, he would find strength in those words, and for rest of his life, he would repeat them to anyone who would listen.

Learning to survive

Those who survived the march were herded into various camps and prisons, where food and water remained scarce and disease swept the prisoners. Miller was stricken with beriberi and jaundice and often thought he would die. At night, he curled a blanket into a ball and shoved it into the pit of his stomach, trying to fight the hunger. They all dreamed of water. He was eventually transferred to one of the cargo boats called "hell ships," headed for Japan. During the journey, he watched as American submarines sank some of the unmarked POW boats in the convoy, unknowingly sending hundreds of prisoners to the sea floor. Once in Japan, he was forced to work in coal mines to aid the war effort; he wondered whether he would be a slave the rest of his life. Still, he hung onto his faith. "I remember how religious he was in the prison. He was religious from the start, much more so than I was," said Ben Steele, who also survived the march, then met Miller at one of the prison camps. "He had a good attitude and had lots of faith," Steele said. "And it took lots of faith over there." His devotion wasn't always understood. In his autobiography, he recounts a time in the coal mines when his buddy caught him quietly singing hymns in the place many considered hell on Earth. "Miller, you are crazy," the man told him. "The craziest creature I ever met."

When the camp was finally liberated, some of the men took revenge on their captors. Others swore never to return and still refuse to buy Japanese products. Jesse Miller had always said he was confident that he was forgiven of his sins, and though his youthful transgressions never came close to equaling the horrible war crimes he witnessed, he refused to judge. "Smart guy, Jesse was. A guy who came out and wasn't bitter at all," Steele said. "He forgave 'em all. "He practiced what he preached."

Powerful presence

When Nettie Dyk first saw Jesse, his body was still withered from the war. When she first heard him speak, his weakness became his strength. "He had suffered intensely. But there was something about him that filled the room," his wife said from their home in Lakewood. "That's why this house feels so empty. His presence is gone." After the war, Miller spent eight months in a hospital, then headed for the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, where he graduated in 1949. He quickly joined on with the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade (now called SEND International), a missionary group that would send him back to the Philippines. Along the way, he found Nettie, who was helping start a school for missionary children in Japan. They married in Tokyo. "Our houses were old Quonset huts," she said. "It was just a shell, but Jesse made it homelike." As the Korean War began, American GIs once again arrived in the Philippines with faces that mirrored Jesse's from a decade before. At the time, the military was short on chaplains, and Miller volunteered at the Military Port of Manila. Tom Hash was among the first GIs stationed at the base and attended Miller's first sermon.

"He was very skinny, left over from his imprisonment. He was quiet and gentle-looking, and as he walked up to the front, the handful of us who were there wondered 'Who is this guy?'

"Long before he finished his story, we were sitting on the edge of our seats. And that was a typical response for the rest of our lives. Not long after he began, people would be sitting an the edge of their seats, fascinated."

In 1954, the Millers founded the Overseas Christian Servicemen's Centers Inc. Now called Cadence International, based in Englewood, the organization fosters open-home ministry to servicemen overseas and in the United States, boasting dozens of chapters around the world. The couple settled in Denver in 1957. For the next several decades, Jesse gave inspirational speeches drawing on his POW experience and his faith, and the couple traveled around the world helping to set up new servicemen's centers.

In 1992, a severe stroke left Jesse unable to speak. As always, he never lost the words.

Jesse Miller called his autobiography "Prisoner of Hope."

"I was a Prisoner of Hope -- not a prisoner of despair, or of adverse circumstance and unfulfilled ambitions, nor a prisoner of deep trial and daily pain and injustice. But a Prisoner of Hope," he wrote. "My great daily expectation was that of deliverance in the midst of all things being against me.

"As a prisoner of war, there was no physical fortress to which I could return. All safety and security was cut off from me. No human association or powerful government, no plan of escape could provide the security I needed. But there was always my fortress, my God, to whom I returned."

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Jessie and Nettie Miller