Unlike the snarling teeth painted on his former plane, which struck fear in the hearts of many an enemy, Bill Miller’s smile is warm and friendly.
And this Monday, he’ll have even more reason than usual to display it.
A decorated Air Force colonel who flew with the famed Flying Tigers in World War II, Miller will celebrate a milestone birthday — his 101st.
A party will be held for him Monday in the dining room of Legend at Southern Hills retirement facility, where he lives.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Miller missed out on a party for his 100th birthday last year, said his daughter, Billie Kurth.
“Our family was able to visit with him virtually,” she said. “He thought that was amazing — that technology could do that.”
But having an in-person celebration this year, she said, will help make up for what they couldn’t do then. It will include a visit from the Centenarians of Oklahoma club, who will officially welcome Miller to their group of Oklahomans who are 100-years-old or older.
Miller, originally from Wisconsin, just moved to Tulsa a couple of years ago, his daughter said.
After living in a small house behind hers, he moved into Legend in March after suffering a stroke.
Kurth, a longtime Tulsan, is the oldest of Miller’s children.
Born during WWII, while he was away fighting in China, she was almost a year old, she said, by the time he first saw her.
After the war, Miller went on to a long military career, flying in the Berlin Airlift and serving as an adviser in Vietnam.
In a sense, Kurth and her father are just now getting to know each other, she said.
“I think I will look back on this time as when I got to know him more as a human being rather than someone on a pedestal. Which is who he has always been to me,” Kurth said.
“He was just so busy being what he was.”
As a boy growing up in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Miller always had an “adventurous” streak, he said.
He became interested in flying and, after previously joining the National Guard, he left college after three years to pursue the dream.
He joined the Army Air Corps in 1940, still more than a year before the U.S. entered WWII, and went on to earn his wings.
Following the Pearl Harbor attack, Miller was sent to help fight the Japanese in China, and assigned to the 23rd Fighter Group, 10th Air Force.
Commanded by Brig. Gen. Claire Chennault, the group carried on the tradition of Chennault’s previous command, the original Flying Tigers.
A volunteer group of American pilots sent to aid China before U.S. entry into the war, that group had been disbanded, and the baton and moniker passed to the 23rd. Like their predecessors, Miller and the new Tigers sported the iconic teeth on the noses of their P-40 Warhawk aircraft.
Starting in August 1942, the 22-year-old Miller would go on to fly 54 combat missions, strafing and dive-bombing enemy targets, and shooting down at least three Japanese planes. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors.
Miller also would experience being shot down. Forced to bail out once, he ended up traveling 10 days on foot through enemy territory to get back to an American base.
Among Miller’s keepsakes is a silk tapestry embroidered with a tiger that was given to him by a grateful Chinese mayor.
After the war ended, Miller was ordered to Germany as part of occupation forces. There, he participated in the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949, an operation undertaken in response to a Soviet blockade of West Berlin. Miller flew in supplies to residents for the full year of the operation.
Later, he served as an Air Force adviser in Vietnam. He retired as a colonel in 1968, concluding a 27-year military career.
Miller met and married his wife Jeanne before he went overseas. They raised four daughters, and were married for 58 years up until her death in 2000.
The pair shared a love for travel and nature photography, and amassed an impressive photo collection.
“He’s got around 22,000 slides. It took us a while to get them all into the computer,” Kurth said. One, taken of scissortail flycatcher during a visit to Oklahoma, won Miller a prize.
Before his recent stroke, Miller had enjoyed good health overall, his daughter said. He’s had diabetes for years, but managed it well, and it kept him focused on healthy living.
Even into his late 90s, he was still walking six miles a day, his daughter said.
Kurth said her dad never talked about his military career or WWII experience before he moved to Tulsa.
“One day he just said to me ‘there are things you need to know,’” she said, adding that it came out of the blue.
He went on to tell her about his career.
“I can’t say we were ever close. He was a career man and never there,” Kurth said.
“But I’m glad we’re getting this chance now.”