Hometown hero: Learn about Miller Xavier Aydell, the Livingston Parish native who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor 79 years ago

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LIVINGSTON PARISH, La. (THELIVINGSTONPARISHNEWS)- He was ready to go home, having just completed his four years of service in the U.S. Navy.

He had already shipped off his trunk of belongings, keeping only his seabag with a change of clothes.

He had just written a letter to his cousin stationed on the mainland, and the two were supposed to meet up for a brief visit before he made the homebound journey to Louisiana.

He had his family waiting for him, and hopefully a long, happy life ahead.

But first, Petty Officer Second Class Miller Aydell and the rest aboard the USS Arizona had to go to Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii, for repairs after their warship collided with another during an evening exercise.

It was supposed to be a brief stop.

Aydell never made it home, along with hundreds of others.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor shortly before 8 a.m. local time on Dec. 7, 1941 — “a date which will live in infamy,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said at the time — and wrecked the military base in less than 90 minutes.

During the attack, the Arizona was hit by Japanese torpedo bombers who dropped armor-piercing bombs, including one that detonated in a magazine. The violent explosion sank the ship, killing more than 1,100 officers and crewmen, including Aydell.

Unlike many of the other ships sunk or damaged that day, the Arizona was irreparably damaged. The wreck still lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor beneath the USS Arizona Memorial.

The surprise military attack, which came while peace negotiations were ongoing, threw the U.S. fully into World War II, a conflict that didn’t end until 1945 after tens of millions had died.

Among the first casualties for the U.S. was Aydell, a native of Livingston Parish who grew up in French Settlement.

He was 22.

‘A very popular young man’

Miller Xavier Aydell was born Oct. 2, 1919, the firstborn to Theresa Vicknair Aydell, a homemaker, and Austin Aydell, a farmer. Miller had one sibling, his sister Palmire, who was born in 1922.

They were a well-liked family in the close-knit bayou community, especially Miller, according to local historian Dale Aydell, also a member of the French Settlement Historical Society.

For his high school graduation, Miller designed an invitation featuring a six-pointed star inside of a five-pointed star. At each of the points were his classmates’ names as well as the name of the principal and a teacher.

A copy of the handwritten invitation is framed in the Creole House Museum, along with other belongings of Miller.

“From what we’re all told, he was a very popular young man,” Dale Aydell said. “Obviously he was smart, and he seemed to be a personable guy, from all the stories passed down through the years. And as you can see, he had nice handwriting.”

One of 10 graduates from French Settlement High School’s Class of 1937, Miller had big dreams of going to college, even planning to attend what is now Southeastern Louisiana University.

But coming from a poor family in a small village, he needed a way to afford it.

To raise money, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his first cousins Victor and Alvin, who had completed successful tours of duty with the U.S. Navy. Four years didn’t seem too great a price to pay if it led to a prosperous life.

“What Miller would’ve gone on to be, who knows,” Dale Aydell said. “Obviously he could draw, so maybe he would’ve been a drafter or an engineer.

“But his dad was just a poor farmer, so he had to find a way to pay for college. So listening to his cousins, he decided to go in the Navy to raise money. It was during peacetime, so he figured he could go serve and then come back and go to college.”

Miller was never able to live out his dream.

‘He probably never had a chance’

Miller enlisted in 1937 and attended boot camp training at San Diego. He requested an assignment to the same ship his cousins had previously served, the USS Arizona, the second and last of the Pennsylvania class of “super-dreadnought” battleships built for the Navy in the mid-1910s.

It was the only ship Miller served on.

By the time Miller enlisted, the ship had begun participating in fleet maneuvers from the waters along the Pacific Coast. In 1938, it became the flagship for Battleship Division 1. As a member of the Pacific Fleet, the ship had participated in a variety of tactical exercises and battle maneuvers.

Miller paid a visit to his family after boot camp, but once he was on his ship, he never returned to French Settlement. He was able to visit his cousins Victor and Alvin in San Diego, and he frequently wrote to his family and spoke often of coming home and going to college.

“But he never got to go back home,” Dale Aydell said.

Shortly after his four years of service ended Oct. 7, 1941, Miller addressed one final letter, which hangs in the Creole House Museum, to his cousin Evan, who was stationed on the mainland. In the letter dated Nov. 18, 1941 — less than three weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor — Miller said he planned to get a shore pass and meet Evan on the mainland.

First, the Arizona had to temporarily dock at Pearl Harbor for some repair work after a collision with the USS Oklahoma a few weeks before.

Miller didn’t expect to be there long: In anticipation of his discharge and return to French Settlement, he shipped home his trunk with his books, personal items, and all but the bare necessities he needed to meet Evan before the journey home.

“The story that’s told is that Miller and Evan were supposed to meet that Sunday afternoon, Dec. 7th,” Dale Aydell said. “Miller probably had the shore pass in his pocket in the attack. But the Japanese had other plans.”

The attack on Pearl Harbor began at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time on Dec. 7, 1941, when hundreds of Japanese fighter planes descended on the base and destroyed or damaged nearly 20 American naval vessels, including eight battleships, and more than 300 airplanes.

More than 2,400 Americans were killed, including 45 natives of Louisiana.

At 8:10 a.m., an 1,800-pound bomb smashed through the deck of the battleship USS Arizona and landed in her forward ammunition magazine. The ship exploded and sank with more than 1,100 men trapped inside.

Given his position as a water tender, a position responsible for maintaining the fire room, properly supplying water to the boilers, and adjusting the burners, Miller’s sleeping quarters likely would’ve been at the bottom of the ship.

“He probably didn’t have a chance,” Dale Aydell said.

A newspaper article detailing Miller’s passing hangs in the Creole House Museum, along with the certificate commemorating the Purple Heart he received for his service, among other honors. His name is also etched in the USS Arizona Memorial.

Despite not being able to receive a proper burial, a cenotaph was laid for Aydell at the Whitehall Community Cemetery near Maurepas. It’s still there to this day, next to the grave where his parents are buried.

Inside the Creole House Museum, just above the letter Miller wrote to Evan more than 79 years ago, is a commemoration to Miller signed by Roosevelt, who declared war on Japan one day after the attack.

The commemoration concludes with the following passage:

“He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives – in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.”

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