Former Alabama QB Miller remembered on Veterans Day

With all the renewed Heisman chatter surrounding AJ McCarron after the senior led unbeaten Alabama to another victory over LSU, it is good to remember that the Crimson Tide have had plenty of great quarterbacks over the years.

Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler are probably the most famous, but the Crimson Tide also produced Pat Trammell, Steve Sloan and Richard Todd, all outstanding leaders who didn’t win the Heisman. Whether he wins college football’s most celebrated individual trophy or not, McCarron certainly fits into that fraternity.

But there is one Alabama quarterback who should be remembered above all the rest, not because of his play on the field — even though he led the Tide to an undefeated season and a national championship — but for what he did after leaving Tuscloosa.

Hugh Barr Miller, Jr. quarterbacked the Tide in 1930, the 37th season of Alabama football and the team’s ninth as part of the Southern Conference. Coached by Wallace Wade, Miller’s job was to take the snap from center and hand the ball to legendary fullback Johnny Cain. Cain would later be named to the Alabama All-Century Team and the College Football Hall of Fame. Miller received no such distinctions.  

He didn’t need them, though. That team was so good that Coach Wade often started the second string and would only bring the starters onto the field if things remained uncomfortably close in the second quarter. They beat Ole Miss 64-0, LSU 33-0, Florida 20-0 and Georgia 13-0. The closest game was a 12-7 win over Vanderbilt at Legion Field in Birmingham.

After going undefeated and outscoring opponents 268-13, Miller and the Tide beat Washington State 24-0 in the Rose Bowl to capture the national championship.  

Thirteen years later, Hugh Barr Miller thought of those days often as he lay shoeless in the jungle, wondering how many more minutes he would live.  

Miller signed up for the Navy immediately after Pearl Harbor and was a lieutenant in the Pacific on the USS Strong, a Fletcher-class destroyer engaged in the Solomon Island campaign. On July 4, 1943, the Japanese destroyer Niizuki fired a torpedo salvo that struck the Strong on the port side, sinking her in 15 minutes.

“There were 23 of us in the water that night, clustered in two life nets and some pieces of raft,” Miller would later write. “Eleven days later there were four of us left on Arundel Island, far behind Japanese lines.”   

Wounded and suffering from internal hemorrhaging, Miller assumed he would be dead within a day, so he ordered his men to take all the rations and make their way south to a coconut plantation where they might get help. He even gave one of his men the boots off his feet.

But one day led to another and Miller did not die.

“I got to thinking about myself then and got to realizing that I wasn’t showing up as the kind of guy I thought I was, just lying around waiting to die without a fight,” Miller wrote. “So I had a little conversation with the Lord lying there on the edge of the jungle that evening, and I told Him that if He’d give me water, I’d get up out of there and do something about this situation.”  

That night it poured for four hours, and Miller filled and drank water from his cracker tin several times. The following two days he hobbled and often crawled down the beach and through the jungle, avoiding Japanese patrols, drinking the water he could find and eating coconut meat along the way. As he grew stronger and continued to evade contact, he watched with glee as an American PT boat assaulted Japanese barges. Miller was able to take shoes from a dead Japanese soldier, along with tins of meat, packs of iodine, a knife and several hand grenades.  

Soon, the sailor and former quarterback who thought he would dead before sunrise became a one-man hunter, killing five Japanese patrolmen with one grenade and stripping them of their weapons and supplies. In 43 days, from the sinking of his ship on July 4 until rescue by Marine Sea Plane on August 16, Miller killed 15 enemy combatants. He was heralded as a hero and a “miracle” by the officers who found him.

“When we got back to Munda, it was time for lunch,” he wrote. “That was the first meal I’d had since our ship went down. … I had lost 40 pounds during the 43 days I was missing, but I started then and there to get it back.”