The Castaway's War: One Man's Battle against Imperial Japan

Image of The Castaway's War: One Man's Battle against Imperial Japan
Release Date: 
May 2, 2016
Da Capo Press
Reviewed by: 

In a conflict as massive as was World War II, it is inevitable that there would be a plethora of personal and personally heroic stories to be told. The two most famous ones that come to mind would be those of future U.S. President John F. Kennedy of PT-109 fame and future screen actor Audie Murphy who served in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).

Of course, there are many others who never attained the level of prominence and recognition of these two. Included is that of the book under review here, as much a biography as a tale of courage, fortitude and wartime sacrifice.

A quick summary can be best described as one of those instances where a naval officer, Lieutenant Hugh Barr Miller, survives the sinking of his destroyer, USS Strong, during the course of combat operations in the so-called “Slot” of the Solomon Islands campaign in the South Pacific. Indeed, it was a literal long (torpedo) shot by a Japanese destroyer which sent his ship to the bottom.  

Along the way, he rescues a few other survivors and guides them ashore in spite of his injuries, a la JFK; however, they leave him, per his orders, and then are never seen again. Relying on the training received from his grandfather on how to survive in the woods growing up as a child, he largely overcomes his injuries and obtains shelter, food, and water before commencing his one man campaign against the Japanese.

Miller’s efforts resulted in considerable intelligence gathered as well as harassment of local enemy forces, though not without considerable danger to himself as Japanese patrols were constantly on the lookout for shipwrecked American sailors and shot down pilots, most of whom were tortured and executed, if caught.

Eventually, Miller gets the attention of friendly forces and, in a rescue worthy of a Hollywood movie script, is whisked back to Allied control with all of his accumulated intelligence. He was feted as the “Navy’s one-man army” for his exploits. Awarded the Navy Cross (personally by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and later denied an upgrade to the Medal of Honor), he was exploited for morale purposes in turn by the media as a genuine war hero.

Following the war, there was talk of a movie treatment, with John Wayne no less, after the postwar publication of articles on his adventures, but eventually nothing came of it as his story was overshadowed by the release of a film with a similar story, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. Miller stayed in the Navy for almost 30 years before retiring and then returning to his real avocation, the law.

In the end, a possible combination of his wartime injuries, graphic enough to forego here but described in the book, and a smoking habit caught up with him, and he died in 1978 at the relatively young age of 68; his demise may also have been potentially hastened by the tragic death of a grown son in an airplane crash in 1965.

Author Stephen Harding is a previous bestselling author, journalist specializing in military affairs, and editor-in-chief of Military History magazine. He employed official histories and documents, magazine articles, newspaper accounts, personal memoirs, and interviews with many of Miller’s surviving shipmates of the USS Strong Association and family members involved in the story. 

The bibliography reflects this and his notes provide welcome additional information, clarification, and context. Very helpfully, the book also includes four excellent maps of the area of operations where the story took place as well as a diagram of the USS Strong in order to familiarize those who lack or otherwise have only a modicum of knowledge of Navy warships.

Although this is an essentially obscure World War II event, it needs telling, if for no other reason than to demonstrate to the generations that have followed that of the “greatest” the sacrifices were made by those who survived as well as those who paid the ultimate price.

One can only hope that even more of these personally heroic stories will be forthcoming in the future as this country continues to lose these citizen-soldiers and sailors at an unfortunate rate.

All of their stories need to be told, and this is one that needs to be read.