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Great Woodwork P-61 Radar Operator Uniform Grouping “The Spook”


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Hey all, today I’ve got a nice grouping from the radar operator of a fairly famous P-61 Black Widow, “The Spook.” There is a TON of information on Miller and his crew and not much is out there from the night fighters, so feel free to enjoy the service of an impressive and rare flyer .



       Avery J Miller was born in the small town of Oil City, Pennsylvania in 1922 and joined the Pennsylvania National Guard after leaving high school in January of 1941. After completing his training, he was assigned as a private in the anti-tank company of the 112th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division. While part of the guard, Miller participated in the Louisiana maneuvers where he met General George Patton. At one point assigned to direct traffic for a large column of armored vehicles, Patton, acting as an umpire, came up and began complaining to the poor private about something long-forgotten, although it made a solid impression on the 19 year old who fondly remembered the general as “a stern, stoic sweetheart.”



       When Pearl Harbor was hit Miller realized his boredom with ground-pounder life and sought a transfer for a more exciting and growing branch of service--the Army Air Corps. Applying as an aviation cadet in 1942, he attended pilot school and completed the first two levels of training before washing out in the advanced program. Not wishing to waste his hard-earned flight skills, however, the army decided to transfer him to a very rare and brand new school for radar operation. Learning the complicated skills associated with incorporating the brand new radar technology into fully functioning multi-crew aircraft, the training he underwent was practically being written as he learned it. The skills needed were very high-functioning and any information regarding the methods or technology was highly classified. Many ROs would wash out, however, Miller completed his training (with additional gunnery training in each of the B17 turret positions, as all ROs were expected to operate external guns in case situations called for it), and joined the roster of first-generation ROs waiting for assignment.



       In March of 1944 the 548th Night Fighter Squadron was formed and before long Miller would join as a founding “plankowner.” For the next several months Miller and his squadron traveled up and down the west coast training with the P70. Like all night fighter units, Miller was paired to train with a pilot, Lieutenant Mel Bodes. Like bombers, the men trained as a team. The pilot and RO would have to work in unison to achieve successful nighttime interceptions, so tight cooperation was a necessity. At the end of stateside training in October they received an enlisted gunner and moved with the squadron to Ohau for some tropical field tests around the Hawaiian islands. While some members of the squadron went to Saipan for combat training, Miller and the others stayed in Hawaii doing practice patrols. In January of 1945 the squadron received orders they would finally be shipped to combat for the then unbeknownst invasion of Iwo Jima. With the ground echelon shoved onto four different ships bound for Iwo Jima, the flyers waited for the signal in anxious anticipation.



       When the invasion hit in February, most of the ground echelon awaited in fresh overalls and HBTs from the decks of their landing craft. The army wanted to get planes on the ground as soon as the first airfield was taken, so on D+8 the men of the 548th landed to the surprise of many a beachmaster. With shaking carbines and freshly pressed uniforms, the mechanics and support personnel were told to wait in foxholes near the airstrip until it could be fully secured from Japanese forces. It was a hard fought battle, but as we all know the marines took the strip and on March 6th Miller became one of the first P61s to land on the rocky volcanic island. Flying operations were set up almost immediately, running out of foxholes and empty cave systems. Miller, now with the brand new nose art painted by his pilot ascribing his plane with the name “The Spook,” began his first combat flying off of an island that was still only partially held in allied hands. The nightly patrols were meant to support the invading forces by creating a defensive perimeter around the island, preventing Japanese land-based bomber forces hitting the marines from above. For the entire time the 548th was the primary night-fighting force on Iwo Jima, no Japanese bombers hit the island whatsoever.



      For the entirety of their service on the island, the men were plagued by the stench of rotting corpses and mass swarms of festering flys. As mentioned earlier, the first month or so was run entirely out of foxholes in constant danger from Japanese attack. On March 25th a neighboring P51 squadron was hit by a large banzai charge from surviving Japanese, showing just how close to danger the men of the 548th were. Eventually the fright would subside as the marines overtook the remaining ground and some more regular, permanent structures could be built. It was constructing these buildings that Miller and the 548th had their first encounter with the local population. While in the process of building a hut, Miller and his pilot began noticing small pieces of equipment going missing. At first a flight compass, but then navigating tools, food, and watches. Deciding to perform a stakeout once they realized, they were shocked to find an elderly grandmother sneaking pieces from the crew’s hut back to her hiding hole 50 yards away where she and her infant granddaughter had waited out the fighting. After some gentle coaxing, Miller and his compatriots were able to get the couple to safety and more direct care.



       While the fighting was less severe, the P61s of the 548th were still important in keeping security on the island. While they were on Iwo Jima, the P61s performed escort missions for many of the B29 bombers seeking refuge. These emergency calls came up multiple times a week as hundreds of bomb crews out of fuel or damaged by flak sought out the island for salvation. The P61s would find the straggling bombers using their radar and guide them into the island where the crews could either ditch or attempt a crash landing. It is never harked on that much in the wartime unit history, but it is clear that this critical, forgotten job saved countless lives.The Japanese were deeply stung by the effectiveness of the new island and the threat of bomber raids was ever present. Flying between the hours of 1900 to 0400, the widow crews braved surprising cold, ever-present storms, and unceasing fog as added challenges to their intercepting and lifesaving tasks. It was these conditions that caused the first plane casualty in action.



       In the early morning of April 20th, “Spook” and a few other P61s were returning from night combat patrols when they found the island once again engulfed in a thick, heavy fog. This weather was well-known as the most dangerous for the flyers, as it gave near-zero vision reaching several hundred feet up into their air blocking any hopes of a landing. A Marine PBJ began its approach first but crashed into the ground, killing all onboard. Waiting around in hopes of weather change, the P61s began waning on gas with no other option than blind landing or bailing out. While the first plane, “Midnite Madness,” came in fine with only minor gear damage, Miller and the crew of “Spook” were not so lucky. “Midnite” was stuck in the middle of the runway after her gears dug into the ground. Still operating on radio silence as usual, “Spook” was unaware of the impending danger. Landing off kilter in the blinding fog, “Spook” first hit the ground with her wingtip and began bouncing down the runway. Fortunately for all involved, one of these bounces scraped over the top of “Midnite,” destroying large chunks of either plane, but avoiding a more disastrous collision. As “Spook” crashed into the dirt just past her plane-shaped obstacle, her front cannons and bits of engine ripped off and scattered across the runway, with spare rounds flying in all directions. Somehow, none of the gasoline blew and the crew reached the end of the runway entirely unscathed with only a few bruises and an entirely trashed aircraft. The incident became squadron legend and even got reprinted in several army and civilian newspapers and magazines.



       Miller and Bodes managed to get a second aircraft, named “Spook II,” which would soon prove equally as disastrous as the first. Combat operations on Iwo Jima ceased on May 1st and the squadron began preparations for a move to Ie Shima in support of the invasion of Okinawa. Ironically enough, right after the 548th was placed off of patrol duty, Iwo Jima was successfully bombed by two large squadrons of Japanese bombers who had failed to be stopped by their new sister-squadron, the 549th. The squadron made their move on June 12th and started flying interceptor missions over the Ryukus and the Japanese mainland. Continuing their regular intercept missions, the P61 now undertook ground attack operations by attaching HVAR Rockets and multiple 500 lb bombs to their wings. It was on one of these missions that Spook II would meet her fate.



      Sent to scout out Japanese targets on the island of Kyushu, Miller used a large volcano to hone in the radar and guide them to the island. Once they got closer they spotted a Japanese airfield and  supply depot lying still in the dark of the night. On their first Bodes took them in and strafed the primary hanger and planes on the tarmac, the second time around they hit several fuel dumps which blew up and lit up the night. Despite caution from Miller, Bodes decided to go around yet again. On the third circle the 500 pounders made quick work of the hangers and led to their total collapse. Taking little heed of Miller’s warning, Bodes went around for yet a fourth attack this time using the HVAR rockets but had to pull out early as the Japanese AA gunners had managed to awake and reach their guns. Heavy flak peppered the sky and rocked Spook II thoroughly. Luckily the pair managed to pull out before they could be knocked out, however, the unseen damage from the flak would gradually tear their plane apart. Three minutes out from the Japanese airfield Miller recounts the plane began shaking and after 15 minutes was shaking so bad that pieces were falling off the plane, Bodes could no longer read the control panel, and control of the aircraft was becoming near impossible. To make matters work a large storm had been brewing and now the two were being tossed about and shaken in the middle of a tropical thunderstorm. It was then that they decided it was time to let Spook II go.



      From the beginning of their training both had been told it was better to crash land than bail out of the P61. The P61 was notorious for its structural soundness and was considered much safer for crashes than the risks taken when bailing out. Unfortunately, with the controls gone, the two had little choice. After the decision was made the pair waited until they were as close to Allied lines as possible and each gathered their emergency gear. As the plane began shaking more violently than ever, Miller was angered to find his emergency hatch on the floor of his “office” melded shut. Apparently, rust and old parts had come together to keep the hinges from opening and worry set in. Looking around for his fire ax, he could not find it as it had been temporarily removed by the same mechanic who had overlooked his hatch malfunction. In frustration, Miller began jumping up and down on the hole and after a few solid jumps, it gave way and “dropped me like an egg” into the dark, stormy night. As Miller pulled the cord and began his descent a violent airsickness overcame him. The storm was blowing him about like a leaf in the wind and he had to double himself over to prevent what he remembers as his number one fear at that very moment “vomiting on my flight suit.” Eventually he hit the ground near an army encampment on Okinawa. Landing on his rear, the wind picked up his parachute, dragging him across several bristly patches of plants and slamming him into a tree where he was now stuck. Before long “the biggest” African-American soldier he had ever seen approached the tree shouting “parachute! Parachute!” and pointed a rifle in his face. Unbeknownst to Miller, this night was the sole time Okinawa was put on black-alert (threat of Japanese paratrooper attacks). Luckily Miller remembered a surefire way to prove his American loyalty--swearing. Supposedly Japanese soldiers could speak english well, but never could learn how to properly swear. In his fright Miller “let loose the longest chain of profanities I had ever said.” His captor gave a big grin, lowered his rifle, and helped Miller down and back to his unit where he spent a week or so in a hospital recovering from his wounds and bruises. Bodes also survived the crash but got stuck on the .50 barrels of the turret when he jumped out, spending several minutes dangling on the back of a P61 hurtling out of control before letting loose and landing in the ocean.



      These are but a few of the many stories from Lieutenant Miller as recorded in the squadron history, several interviews, and the memories of his grandson. Miller was essential in the creation of the squadron history several years ago, filling in the gaps of the unofficial records from the war. As a result, many of his accounts and photographs scatter the book and inform the reader about the complexities, dangers, and realities of night fighter operations. After their second crash they received a third plane, this time named “anonymous” as both the CO and their fellow pilots made quite the fuss about naming yet a third plane Spook, many of the other pilots swearing they would not fly with such an unlucky mark. After the war Miller returned home a decorated hero who had pioneered the development of electronics usage in military aircraft and set the Air Corps record for most planes lost by a P61 crew. His plane, “Spook,” would go on to gain popularity as the cover for several books and the base of a popular Revell model kit. After a brief relief from service, he rejoined the air force in the reserves and served until 1970. He continued to fly in the F4 Phantoms at the Wolf Pack University for pilots and navigators while with the 445th FIS. He even became the first back-seat flyer to command his own squadron, the 4457th CCTS, before retiring and becoming a social studies teacher. Despite his injuries from the bailout of Spook II, Miller was not awarded the Purple Heart as the paperwork was lost during the war. In 1991 he finally received his honor and became heavily involved in the Night Fighter veteran network, even speaking at the Smithsonian dedication for their own P61.



      I am very proud to now take care of some of Lieutenant Miller’s items. These all came from his grandson who decided to pass on the items sitting in storage to someone who would care for them and appreciate them. Included is one of his two original AN-S-31 Flight Suits which has been modified with shortened sleeves. While he did not keep many things from WWII, he was certain to keep the suit he wore so many times high up in the pacific. His grandson believes that he cut the sleeves down to help keep temperature balance when wearing a flight jacket. There are several photos of him in a long-sleeve suit, which his grandson believes was a second he wore for ground duty but it is possible he just cut the sleeves down after this photo was taken. Also included were some small bits from his medal sets, one of his Berkshire caps with white and black cover, all three levels of navigator wings, various insignia, an original photograph, some of his mugs from the 445th, and a cd of him at the smithsonian. The book is “Deny Them The Night Sky,” and is the unit history he helped to create. For the sake of how uncommon P61 crews are to find, I have also attached some images of the items retained by his grandson in case anyone is interested. They include his Cold War flight suit, his original ribbon and medals, gunnery wings, and even the compass that was stolen by the civilian on Iwo Jima.
























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Miller and Bodes training stateside, Miller on left

Skeet shooting in Hawaii

Boxes, Miler, and their gunner. They made the squadron sign on Iwo Jima

Only known photo of a P61 with a B29, taken of “Spook” from a B29 they were guiding to Iwo Jima



The crash of “Spook”



Damage to “Midnite Madness”

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Miller is wearing a crimson red cap in this photo, apparently they asked command if they could make special ones for the squadron (their P61s were marked with crimson highlights) and they ended up getting approved.

Unfortunately “Spook II” was lost before a photo could be taken according to Miller. It was painted the same. This is their third plane, note the parachutes painted on the side to represent their escape.




“Anonymous” landing at Ie Shima

The squadron baseball team, Miller is the far right kneeling

Miller in his last flight before retirement

The following were kept by the grandson, I am still waiting on some pictures for the rest of his medals


This compass is the one stolen by the grandmother, he kept it on him for years after.

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Still works

His Cold War flight suit

Also a good pic of the radar “office”

Not pictured are his Cold War flight helmet, the rest of his medals, a Japanese NCO sword, and his 1911

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DUDE!!!!  Man I was looking forward to this group since you posted a couple weeks ago.


What a complete group - P61 stuff is rare and so cool - I feel like they had to be a "super cool" set of guys 


That photo of the radar station is top notch!  Im sure someone might be looking something like that doing a restore or something.


Just a great group!


Congrats on finding this and keeping it safe.  



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Wow, that is awesome.   Congrats, great group.  Not much out there on the P-61 squadrons!  And as a 7th AF collector, this one is top notch!

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27 minutes ago, manayunkman said:

Great collection!


Is this the squadron insignia?



Yes, I also included it on the info card. It was done by the pilot of "Spook" and features "Scopie" the cat searching out with his flashlight.

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  • 7 months later...

This group is up for sale in the sale section, sadly letting it go to a good home to help fund a new 36th purchase as I focus


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That is a very nice grouping!!!! The P-61 was an outstanding bird. I really like that your photo has the seat in it. One crashed in the  Mojave and I was lucky enough to visit that crash site. Everyone got out. It was the chase plane for the YB-49

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