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Our War: Belleville engineer built pipeline through the jungle

Ardell Miller, 83, of Belleville, owns Bell City Battery in Belleville. During World War II he was a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 709th Engineers Petroleum Distribution Co. He laid a fuel pipeline through the jungles of Burma to supply bombers in China.
Ardell Miller, 83, of Belleville, owns Bell City Battery in Belleville. During World War II he was a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 709th Engineers Petroleum Distribution Co. He laid a fuel pipeline through the jungles of Burma to supply bombers in China.

Ardell "Spider" Miller spent most of 83 years at Bell City Battery in Belleville.

The business his father started is filled with batteries for cars, lawn mowers, motorcycles and emergency lights. There are old car parts, eggs he was chick-sitting for his daughter, pictures of his son and grandchildren and an enlargement from a Belleville Township High School yearbook.

In the enlargement are service pictures of Miller and other members of the Class of '42, including some who didn't come home.

"I went into the war invincible. We were just kids, and we all did," Miller said. "I lost a lot of friends from school."

Miller enlisted May 10, 1943, to avoid being drafted. He was assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 709th Engineers Petroleum Distribution Co. and sent to the China-Burma-India theater to build a pipeline from Calcutta, India, through Burma to supply 100-octane airplane fuel to allied bombers in Kunming, China.

"I just missed Europe. They picked guys in our unit for D-Day."

Through the mountains and jungles, they joined 20-foot sections of 4-inch diameter steel pipe, bolting together the flanged ends with a rubber gasket between. They bent the pipes to follow the terrain, and built wooden supports when the line crossed streams.

"Everything was muscle, and there were no cranes," Miller said. "They always told us two things when we'd ask for something -- 'Don't you know there's a war going on, soldier?' or 'You're in the Engineers Corps. You should be able to work that out.'"

Miller said they seldom faced Japanese troops.

"We saw some and shot at some, but it was never combat," he said. "Japs came in to camp once and the cooks said they saw them go out in the jungle, so we all got our carbines and shot away -- we all wanted to shoot and never got the chance."

He said the real enemy was the dampness that rotted boots in weeks, the occasional tiger, snakes, jungle rot, dengue fever and the mosquitoes carrying malaria.

"I was one of the lucky ones. I didn't get malaria. We had a company of 220 men, and at one time, 80 percent of them had malaria," Miller said.

He was also lucky one day when they were taking the pipeline across a small river that was swollen by the monsoons. They made a log bridge, and were crossing the slippery trunks.

Two soldiers from India's Pioneer Corps fell into the river, were swept away and drowned. A third Pioneer fell in and grabbed Miller's foot.

"He pulled me down and I was straddling that log," Miller said. "Guys came with a rope and got it around me and wanted me to move backwards. They said, 'Get up and walk,' but there was no way, that log was too slick. They pulled me out and the guy hung on my foot and came with me."

Miller got back to camp and was shaking hard. The lieutenant asked him what he was doing there, and Miller said he wasn't going back until they fixed the bridge.

"He didn't know what happened. He said, 'You could be court martialed.' I said, 'Good.'"

Leeches were plentiful.

"I was 18 and dumb as hell. We were surveying, and I took the rod by a tree. Next thing I know I started itching," he said. "I stripped down and had 90-some leeches on me."

He said many men in his company started smoking just to burn off leeches. They had fun getting the leeches off Miller that day, seeing how close they could come and not burn him -- too much.

Miller said his company would also walk atop the pipeline, looking to make sure Japanese soldiers had not shot holes in it. One time, they stepped on a 10-foot, 8-inch boa constrictor.

"They shot it. They thought the skin was worth money, and they were going to ship it home," he said.

But in that climate, the flies quickly claimed it. The lieutenant also wanted to know which Jeep they used to bring it back to camp.

"They said, 'That one over there.' Well, it was his Jeep. He got their names and they had to scrub it down -- the blood and everything."

In August 1945, Miller was on duty in a pump station on the pipeline. The stations were about 100 miles apart and connected by telephones.

"Well, a rumor came down the line. 'Hey, I just heard they dropped a hell of a bomb on Japan and the war is over.' I wondered if he'd been drinking."

But Miller said through the night, the rumor kept coming and got more specific. At 4:30 a.m., Miller got a pan from the kitchen and went out into camp beating it and woke everyone with the news.

The 24-year-old lieutenant and he had never gotten along, and the officer chewed out Miller and threatened him for spreading a rumor. The lieutenant said he would know if the war were over.

Later that day they learned the rumor was true.

"Guys came up to me and said, 'Hey, Miller. We sure are glad you got the word to us.'"

It was January 1946 before Miller and the company's work was done. He came home to get his '37 Ford off the blocks, to sow his wild oats and to again run the family battery business.

"We got in late, and there were these German POWs serving us food. They were all fat and clean. We were all yellow and skinny, and we were the ones who won the war," Miller said. "That just didn't seem right."

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