History mystery of World War II intrigues 11-year-old
SALEM – Gabby Peppers is fascinated with the past, particularly a history mystery she discovered while walking in a cemetery with her dad.
Walking in cemeteries and reading grave markers is one of the favorite activities of the 11-year-old Salem resident and her father, Todd Peppers. A little more than a month ago they were walking in one of the older sections of Sherwood Memorial Park in Salem when Gabby noticed bronze grave markers for the Miller brothers, Richard and Earl.
“We assumed they were twins because they had the same birthday,” said Gabby. Then they noticed that brothers who had both served in the Air Force Bomb Squad during World War II had died about a week apart, Richard Edward Miller on Aug. 24, 1943, and Earl Thomas Miller on Aug. 31, 1943. They were 28 years old.
It turned out their planes were shot down on opposite sides of the world. ”Earl was over Lille, France, and Richard was over Hankow, China,” said Gabby. She discovered how and where they had died after some concentrated sleuthing.
She checked 1943 obituaries in the Salem Times-Register on microfilm in the Salem Library which led them to burial records at Sherwood. Those confirmed the twins’ bodies were actually interred there, and the markers were not just memorials.
She also used AirForce.com, FamilySearch.org “where you can look up people. It took us a while to find them,” she said, “because their father’s name was spelled wrong.”
Gabby also used “the free version of Ancestry.com, posted messages on Air Force forums, and lots of stuff. We went to the Salem Public Library and looked at obituaries in the Salem Times-Register on microfilm. That was really cool,” she added.
From her various sources, Gabby learned Earl was a brakeman. Richard worked for Eastern Airlines. They enlisted together on January 1942, right after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese.
Both became second lieutenants and navigator/bombardiers.
When Richard was shot down, he was part of the crew on a B-24 over China with their mission to take out a Japanese airbase.
Earl was onboard the “King Bee,” with the plane’s target a German airbase. A direct hit cut the King Bee in two.
Amazingly, Air Force photography captured the death throes of the King Bee after it was hit by flak and was falling to the earth. A second aerial photo shows the plane’s wreckage on the ground.
A typed eye-witness account by Sgt. Clinton Guy about the loss of the plane, dated Sept. 4, 1943, said: “We were over target and bomb-bay doors were just opening. I was facing the rear of our ship, and looking through our front bomb-bay. The lost ship was at that time flying to the right of ours. Suddenly, I saw it nose over and as it came into full view, I saw that the rear third of the ship was missing. The remaining section went into a tight spin for about 1800 ft. then went into a flat spin. I followed it visually until the ship was almost to the ground, and knowing the crash was inevitable, turned away.”
The twins’ first resting place was in an American military cemetery in the Netherlands, Gabby said she found. In 1948 the government brought their remains back to Salem, and they were laid to rest next to family and close to the entrance to Sherwood that is opposite what today is the Salem Family YMCA. “They’re near the fence, by a tree,” she said.
Their funeral was held at College Lutheran Church in Salem, according to the cemetery’s records.
Also in the family plot are the twins’ parents, Sidney H. and Dove Miller, and a younger sister, Thelma.
Gabby documented what she named “The Search for the Miller Twins” in a PowerPoint presentation she showed her sixth-grade class at North Cross School on April 5.
She did the presentation just for fun. “I didn’t need any extra credit in history,” explained Gabby, who added, “I got a blue lollipop for it.”
She told her classmates how she got interested in the Miller boys and sources she used for her research. With the help of Salem Museum Director John Long, she got grainy photographs of the Miller twins from the 1930 Andrew Lewis High School yearbook.
Both were in the Mythology Club and Science Club, according to the yearbook. A paragraph next to Earl’s photo read: “For the past four years, we have been trying to tell the Miller twins apart. We haven’t succeeded yet, but we do know that Earl is the ideal schoolmate. With his hearty grin, he has made many friends and we know that he will continue doing so.”
Next to Richard’s picture, the yearbook said: “Yes, this one is Richard, you really can’t tell our twins apart. They are as nearly alike in their abundant ability as in their looks, too. With such an excellent high school record, we feel that life holds nothing but success for Richard, and we hope that he receives as much as he deserves.”
Gabby’s search showed the twins’ oldest sister, Elizabeth, had been a member at St. Timothy’s in Vinton, although she and her dad have not found out anything about where Elizabeth is buried. “We’ll probably go to Vinton sometime,” she said.
Todd Peppers added he hopes someone still living in Vinton might remember Elizabeth. “We’re going to try to contact one of her oldest sister’s graduating mates,” Gabby said. “I want to find out more about the twins, to find out if they were nice or mean,” she continued. “They look nice to me.”
She has been interested in history “since I was probably 6 or 7,” she said. “I had a big fascination with President Lincoln.”
What does the middle school student plan to be when she grows up?
“I want to be an author,” she said. Actually, she already is. She has written a fantasy “a fairy elf war. The main character goes evil and tries to kill everybody,” Gabby said. “My English teacher likes it. There’s no title yet.”
She has her book on a zip drive right now. Gabby writes on Quibblo, a writing and quiz site. “I use an alias, though. My parents insist.
Gabby’s family include her dad, Todd, who is a political science professor at Roanoke College; mom Michele, an office manager at Net Venture, 9-year-old brother Sam, and two dogs, Liza and Charley. A couple of times a week she goes to Salem Terrace senior living community to eat with her great-grandmother, Marjorie Maurer, and her friends. “She’s become a bit of a mascot,” her dad said.
Also in her leisure time, Gabby plays the piano, reads and plays sports.