Before the War
Miller would not tell much about his life prior to World War II. Before joining the Army, John Miller had been employed at Thomas Alva Edison High School in Addley, Pennsylvania. He then taught English composition since 1933. Miller was married and was also the coach of the local baseball team in the Spring. Miller and Corporal Upham had an agreement to let a bet the whole company made go to $500 before Miller would tell Upham about life before the war so the two could split the reward and not $1000 as Upham suggested. Interestingly, Miller is never shown to wear his wedding ring.
The Second World War
After joining the US Army Rangers in 1942, Miller served in Tunisia, Africa and was involved in the battle of Kasserine Pass in 1942/43. That is where he first met Sergeant Mike Horvath, an honest and dependable soldier and friend. The two would serve together during Operation Torch, the Allied landings at Anzio, Italy in 1943, in Sicily. Transferring to the 2nd Ranger Battalion, Miller and Horvath next prepared for the assault on Hitler's vaunted Atlantic Wall defenses as part of Operation Overlord. This would be his last major scales battle.
Miller was somewhat of a mystery to his men, who were so intrigued by their commanding officer that they set up a betting pool to reward whoever could find out details about Miller's civilian life. Just before the Rangers embarked at Portsmouth, England, Miller's right hand began to shake uncontrollably for unknown reasons, though it hints he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He kept this a secret from his men except for Horvath.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Miller led Company C of the 2nd Ranger Battalion onto Omaha Beach in France. He started in an LCM like all the other soldiers he began to give his men orders after the coxswain told them to clear the ramp. Miller's men suffered high casualties during the attack, including fellow soldier Private Delancey and officer Lieutenant Briggs, but the German defenses were too weak to hold off the flow of American soldiers and equipment. Miller manage to reach the wall of barbed wire that separated them from the bunkers. Once most of his squad and enough soldiers from other company's arrived, he barked orders for the engineers to get the Bangalores ready. They soon breeched the bunkers.
They were unfortunately pinned down by a machine gun nest. Once using covering fire to get more men to a better position, he threw himself out of cover to give Private Jackson a chance to run out to better cover to take out the nest with his sniper. Once Jackson destroyed the nest, the soldiers killed the Germans as they fell down the hill. They soon secured e main bunkers and even took out a whole bunker themselves. Just like at the start, Miller drank from his canteen reminicing on what had just occurred.
The Rangers conducted numerous operations for the next few days, and on June 9 Miller was given a special mission by Lt. Col Anderson to retrieve a 101st Airborne paratrooper, Private James Francis Ryan, whose three brothers had been recently killed in combat. He picked a squad of eight men from his Company, Charlie. Those he chose were Horvath, Private Richard Reiben|Private Reiben]], Private Daniel Jackson|Private Jackson, Private Stanley Mellish|Private Mellish (though it would have been a soldier by the name Talbot but he was killed not long before Miller had accepted the mission), Private Caparzo, together with Corporal Upham of the 29th Infantry Division, and finally Medic Wade, Miller and his men set out for Neuville to search for Ryan.
Search for Ryan
They took off in the motor pool but found themselves attacked by 88 Anticraft guns. Miller and the others survived but were forced to continue on foot. While walking, Miller was questioned by Private Reiben as to why they were saving one man, eventually discussing why Miller doesn't "gripe" to those ranked below him but does so to is own superiors. He also complimented Jackson in his speech about his fantasy of assassinating Hitler and supported Upham's remark about the duty of a soldier.
Shortly after they arrived in Neuville, Miller and his men came across 101st Airborne troopers who were engaged in a firefight with Wehrmacht soldiers. After they detoured through the town, the team came across a family of civilians. Private Adrian Caparzo attempted to take a young girl to safety, having begged Miller to allow it because she reminded him of his niece back home. The Captain refused and took the girl off of him and ordered Mike to "take this goddam kid". However, Caparzo was then shot and killed by a German sniper whom Private Daniel Jackson soon sniped. Miller took Caparzo's dog tags stating "That's why we can't take children". The team then continues to trot through the rainy town, where they encounter another group of Airborne troopers.
After a case of mistaken identity involving a 101st Airborne soldier with a name similar to Ryan's, Miller learned of Ryan's rally point from a fellow paratrooper. The squad settled down in an abandoned church for a few hours of rest, and Miller revealed to Horvath his method of justifying his actions—that those lives lost under his command would save the lives of others. Miller had lost 94 men under his command (one of them being a soldier called Vecchio), and the stress of combat could be seen in his trembling hand.
Making their way to the rally point, Miller and his squad found a field into which numerous gliders had landed or crashed. They met a soldier called Lieutenant Dewindt. He told them what happened to him on D-day and then gave miller a bag of dog tags to search through. Miller forgot how inhuman he was being by looking through the tags and not caring that they were dead people whose friends and allies were walking past listening disgracefully. He realized this when Wade interrupted them and ordered them to put the tags back in the bag. He looked shameful as he watched the patrol walk on.
They later found a 101st Airborne paratrooper in the patrol who had known Ryan, and indicated that Ryan had set out with a mixed unit to defend a bridge at Ramelle. Continuing the search, the squad next encountered a German machine gun emplacement. Miller's men were reluctant to attack the position, but Miller was steadfast and set on destroying it in spite of the risk. T-4 Medic Irwin Wade was killed by an MG42 during the attack, and a lone German soldier was taken prisoner. Although affected by Wade's death, Miller was forced to let the German go in the hope that he would be picked up by advancing Allied forces.
The release of the prisoner was too much for Private Richard Reiben, who turned on Miller and refused to continue with the mission. Horvath quickly intervened, throwing him to ground, and threatened to shoot Reiben. This made Jackson threaten to shoot Horvath, causing chaos as the rest of Miller's men started to shout at him to do something and how the mission was pointless.
With that, Miller surprised everyone by suddenly revealing his home town and civilian occupation. Opening up to his men for the first time, Miller made it clear that he followed orders from his superiors in order to expedite his own return home to his wife, and that every soldier that died under his command made that goal more distant. He offered for Reiben to leave willingly, even wanting to sign the papers, but he just wants the man to understand that he is still human and is just trying to get back to his wife.
Miller then proceeds to begin burying the dead soldiers, his own men helping one by one.Reiben silently rejoined the squad, and after Wade's burial they proceeded on to Ramelle.
Battle at Ramelle
Private Ryan was finally found outside of Ramelle on June 13. After returning to the village, Miller spoke with Ryan and told him of the deaths of his brothers. Surprisingly, Ryan refused to leave with the Rangers and made it clear that he intended to stay with his unit and defend Ramelle's bridge against an expected German attack. The small unit of paratroopers in Ramelle had very few weapons, and Miller, the ranking officer, decided to stand with them and prepare a suitable defense. Miller taught the men how to make sticky bombs and designated everyone's role such as Jackson serving as a sniper in a bell tower and Melish as a machine gunner. As a fallback position, a bombed-out structure on the opposite bank of the Merderet River was designated by Miller as "The Alamo," from which explosives planted around the bridge could be detonated if the Germans could not be stopped. Miller also ordered Ryan to never be more this "2 feet away and that's not negotiable".
Once the Germans attacked the Rangers and paratroopers were able to fight on the move, but were soon overwhelmed by the numerical superiority and equipment of the Germans.
The survivors retreated across the bridge to The Alamo, but Captain Miller was knocked to the ground by the blast of a German Tiger Tank shell. The detonation device for the explosives had been knocked out of his hands, and as he moved across the bridge to retrieve it, Miller was shot in the chest. The shot had come from the opposite bank and had been fired by the same German soldier that Miller had set free earlier. Although the Germans were soon driven off by U.S. air and ground reinforcements, with P-51s and M4 Shermans. Miller was fatally wounded. Most of Miller's men had also been killed. As Reiben sought aid for his dying captain, Miller's last words to Ryan were, "James, earn this. Earn it." With those words Captain Miller passed away, the tremble in his hand finally stilled.
Visited By Ryan
Decades later in June 1998, an elderly James Ryan visited Miller's grave at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France. Ryan sought approval from his wife in the hope that he had lived up to the sacrifice made by Miller and his men.
Miller, being a captain, is an assertive but well liked leader in the Army. Due to his history as a school teacher and teaching "a thousand kids" like Private Ryan, he knows how to handle them so the men look up to him. He is so revered that many soldiers have crafted rumours of Miller being an invincible and true soldier, his own squad joking he was bred to fight.
However, Miller hides his vulnerable side from his men, particularly the moment when he privately cried at having lost medic Wade due to his rather rare error to attack the machine gun nest because he "didn't feel good about anything" after having lost many soldiers over his service. He justifies it through a "sacrifice the few to save the many" philosophy, hence why he is internally against the mission to rescue Ryan, as "the mission is the man" so he "better be worth it, because [he] wouldn't trade 10 Ryan's for one Vechhio or Caparzo".