Capt. Milton L. Miller Sr., a lifelong commercial fisherman and 12th-generation member of an East Hampton family, died on Sunday in his sleep at the Hamptons Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Southampton. He was 97.
Captain Miller, who ran unsuccessfully for East Hampton Town Supervisor in 1997 on the Independence Party line, was a World War II veteran, having served in the Coast Guard as a chief boatswain’s mate in the Pacific Theater, assigned to LSTs, Navy tank-landing ships. While in the Pacific, he commanded 114 men and participated in many battles, including the Guadalcanal campaign, his family said.
He was born on Nov. 19, 1915, at the family homestead on Amagansett’s Atlantic Avenue, to Samuel R.G. Miller and the former Nettie M. Payne. Captain Miller’s father himself spent 35 years in the Coast Guard.
Captain Miller was one of five siblings. Russell G. Miller, Elizabeth Booth, Florence Reed, and Jessie Wikens all died before him. In an interview in 1993, Captain Miller recalled growing up in Amagansett, working alongside the Edwards brothers and other commercial fishermen from the time he could walk, sometimes spending the night sleeping on the beach under an overturned dory.
“I don’t know if we were that poor,” he said. “We always had plenty of food to eat, clothes to wear, plenty of fish to eat.”
During the worst years of the 1930s on the South Fork, he said, according to a transcript of that interview, “If you had any ambition, why would the Depression hurt you? You’ve got all the clams, scallops, oysters, fish. You was eating the best of stuff: lobsters and crabs. Got all the potatoes and stuff you wanted, cabbage, and all that stuff. Last you all winter.”
When the trains came through, Captain Miller said, the firemen would toss a bit of coal out for those in need. “Instead of putting it inside the train, he threw it outside, and then you’d go track-walking and pick up the coal.”
In 1933, he married Etta L. Midgett, his childhood sweetheart, with whom he had four children, Lois Kfoury of Fort Salonga, Lila Miller of Michigan, and Mickey Miller and Lori Miller-Carr of Springs.
Fishing for cod was an important part of winter subsistence here in those days. Captain Miller in the 1993 interview recalled staying up late at night baiting 500 hooks on a tub-trawl line, then getting up before daylight to row out through the ocean surf. It was cold work. “The time you pulled the codfish out of the water up into the boat, distance of three or four feet, it froze just like that, the whole piece stiff as a board.”
While the Depression was dragging on, Captain Miller enlisted with the Civilian Conservation Corps and walked the length of Long Island, helping protect its natural resources.
While taking a morning off fishing on Sept. 21, 1938, he was caught in the greatest hurricane of modern times to strike Long Island and New England. He recounted some of what he saw for the Public Broadcasting Service’s 1993 documentary, “The Hurricane of 1938.”
His house on Meeting House Lane in Amagansett lost part of its roof, and his boat and net, left at Gerard Park in Springs, were destroyed.
After the storm, Captain Miller joined the Coast Guard and was initially stationed at the Ditch Plain station. Late in life, he was an outspoken advocate for the preservation of the Atlantic Avenue station, which is now owned by the Town of East Hampton and undergoing a limited restoration.
After being discharged from the Coast Guard in 1945, he went back to fishing. He joined American Legion Post 419 in Amagansett and was its commander in 1946 and ’47. He was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 550 in East Hampton and a founding member of the East Hampton Baymen’s Association, for which he was its first vice-president, then president in 1962.
He spoke out frequently at town meetings and in letters to the editor of The East Hampton Star about subjects that concerned him, the United States Constitution, for example, or in 1976, when he helped successfully block a plan to lease public underwater land in Napeague Harbor for aquaculture. He ran for East Hampton Town bay constable on the Democratic ticket in 1977.
In his long life, he had several close calls while on the water. In 1964, an explosion on his boat nearly cost him an eye. In 1990, while power-seining at night, his boat was forced aground by large swells left over from a distant Hurricane Lili. In 1998, a heat-exchanger on his unnamed dragger exploded while he was north of Gardiner’s Island, injuring his face and left side.
In 1980, following a plane crash in Montauk after which fishermen helped rescue passengers, he was involved in setting up the East Hampton Dory Rescue Squad. The author Peter Matthiessen used him as a major source for his 1986 “Men’s Lives,” which in turn was made into a play of the same name by Joe Pintauro and staged at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor in its inaugural season. It was revived this past summer.
In 1996, after his wife died, Captain Miller moved to Barefoot Bay in Sebastian, Fla., where he stayed until 2008, when he returned to East Hampton, living in Windmill Village.
In addition to his children, Captain Miller is survived by 7 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. Two grandchildren died before him.
He left his body for medical research and left instructions in his will that no ceremony or service should follow his death.
His family has suggested memorial donations to the Amagansett Life-Saving Station, P.O. Box 51, Amagansett 11930.
In an elegiac letter to the editor on the eve of the 1997 election, Captain Miller wrote that he had “mapped out what we must face regardless of politics. I leave this to the voters who are the sailors, who will take us, and our future generations to come, on a safe voyage. I have had a wonderful sail.”