Miller, who earned his wings at Naval Air Station Pensacola in 1952, accepted a commission in the Marine Corps and began flying fixed-wing aircraft — and later helicopters — during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
He also participated in atomic testing exercises in Nevada and the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, and was on the ship that recovered the Gemini astronauts, including Richard Gordon, his friend and former squadron-mate.
From 1963 to 1967, he flew as helicopter pilot for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson aboard Marine One.
Marine One is the call sign for any Marine Corps helicopter carrying the president.
“One time was with Johnson all by myself,” Miller said.
The president got out of a plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and was pointed to a waiting helicopter. There were two and Johnson was supposed to get in the chopper in front of Miller’s.
“I got on the radio and said, ‘Colonel, the man is headed this way!’”
Johnson got in, and Miller said he remembered thinking to himself: “You better make the smoothest landing you’ve ever made in your life.”
Miller said the five to six-minute ride was, thankfully, uneventful.
“I took him back and landed on the White House lawn.”
Johnson was a little gruff, and didn’t talk much, while Kennedy was outgoing and appreciative, Miller said.
“He was a (true) gentleman,” Miller said of Kennedy. “He always thanked you when he got out.”
Helicopters are staged right near the White House and are ready to move on a moment’s notice.
“There are always helicopters standing by on duty,” he said.
“In the event of an emergency, we have four minutes to get him.”
Miller said he’d also flown first families, vice presidents, foreign heads of state, members of Congress and the executive branch, and many of the country’s top military leaders.
In addition to his pilot duties, he served as the Marine Corps White House liaison officer.
He was awarded the White House Service Badge and the Presidential Service Medal, given to him personally by President Johnson.
In 1968, at Marble Mountain Air Facility in North Vietnam, Miller was assigned a daunting task: Build a helicopter squadron — from scratch.
“They gave me a sergeant major and a Bible,” he said laughing.
The squadron came together piece-by-piece, as UH1-E Huey helicopters dribbled in to the air facility.
The pilots, considered expendable by other squadrons, landed at their new home with something to prove.
“They thought, ‘I’m going to make them sorry they ever got rid of me,’” Miller said
Marine Light Helicopter Squadron — HMLA-167 — was officially commissioned on April 1, 1968, led by commanding officer Lt. Col. Tom Miller.
“The squadron was one of the first Marine Corps helicopter squadrons commissioned and outfitted totally in a combat zone,” Miller said.
The pilots, crewmen, and ground crews pulled together and jelled as a team right from the beginning.
“We were flying during the day, and doing maintenance during the night. These men worked around the clock.”
The squadron was assigned dual missions.
“We were to provide gunship capability for troop transports going into a war zone, and for emergency evacuations.”
“One day, at two in the morning, Marble Mountain was hit by I don’t know how many rockets, and mortar attack. Not one helicopter in the whole squadron was flyable. They clobbered us good.”
By 8 a.m., every helicopter was airborne.
“It’s a can-do squadron,” he said. “With the men and the attitude, the impossible just takes a little longer.”
At the end of the year, Lt. Gen. Robert Cushman selected Miller’s squadron as the “Most Outstanding Unit” in I Corps for 1968.
Of the four regions of South Vietnam, I Corps was located in the northernmost region, bordering North Vietnam.
Four years later, Cushman was promoted to four-star general when he became commandant of the Marine Corps.
In Miller’s 24 years of military service, he flew more than 5,000 hours, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, 15 Air Medals, and the Legion of Merit with Combat V.
Date of birth: March 15, 1929
Hometown: West Seattle
Residence: La Quinta
Branch of service:U.S. Navy; U.S. Marine Corps
Years of service: 1948 – 1972
Rank: lieutenant colonel
Family: Seven children, Tom Miller of Idaho, Susan Andrews, Kim Miller, John K. Miller of La Quinta, Michael Miller of Imperial Beach, Jim Miller of Huntington Beach, and Mark Miller (deceased); eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren