Doris “Dorie” Miller was folding laundry on the USS West Virginia when Japanese bombs began dropping on ships socked at Pearl Harbor.
In the 1940s, the Navy relegated most black men to menial non-combat roles like cooking, cleaning and shining officers’ shoes. Miller was a mess attendant but knew he was meant for more than that. When he heard the explosions he dropped his laundry and went straight for a weapon.
According to NPR, Miller soon realized the antiaircraft battery magazine had been damaged by a torpedo, so he went up to the deck and started to carry the wounded off to safety. The former high school football star and the USS West Virginia heavyweight boxing champion carried off several of his crew mates and the ship’s captain.
“Miller went topside, carried wounded on his shoulders, made several trips up and down, wading through waist-deep water, oil-slicked decks, struggling uphill on slick decks,” Navy Rear Adm. John Fuller said in 2016.
Seeing an unmanned .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun, Miller rushed to the offense. It didn’t matter that he had never used the gun before.
“It wasn’t hard,” the National African American History Museum in Washington, D.C. reports Miller saying in an interview. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about 15 minutes. I think I got one of those [Japanese] planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”
As the Navy Times reports, USS West Virginia communications officer, Lt. Cmdr. Doir C. Johnson, said Miller was “blazing away as though he had fired one all his life,”
The Dec. 22, 1941, edition of the New York Times showed a sketch of the battle as described by an officer who served on the USS Arizona. The illustration portrayed a black sailor “who stood on the hot decks of his battleship and directed the fighting.”
The mess attendant, “who never before had fired a gun, manned a machine gun on the bridge until his ammunition was exhausted.”
After the attack, more than 100 sailors aboard the USS West Virginia were dead, and the ship was left to sink into the Pacific. Many more may have died were it not for Miller’s bravery, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Navy Brass.
On May 27, 1942, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, awarded Miller the Navy Cross. This made him the first black sailor in the history of the U.S. Navy to be named with such an honor.
“This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts,” Adm. Nimitz said at the ceremony.
Miller’s face soon graced posters for war bonds. The sailor enjoyed some time off, back in the contiguous 48, promoting that cause. Two months later, he was back in the fray.
Miller was aboard the USS Liscome Bay when the Japanese returned for revenge. Miller’s ship was sunk for a second time in the war. This time, he was not as fortunate.
There were about 900 sailors aboard the ship when it was struck by Japanese torpedoes. Nearly 650 of those men died in the attack.
Miller’s body was never recovered.
The hero was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart, and prompted the Navy to initiate an officer-training program for black sailors.
“Doris Miller stood for everything that is good about our nation,” said Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly, “and his story deserves to be remembered and repeated wherever our people continue the watch today.”
Miller’s legacy lives on today, and not just in history books and museums. The Navy is naming its latest aircraft carrier after the hero. This marks another milestone in U.S. military history, as “the first time an aircraft carrier has been named for an African American, and the first time a sailor has been so honored for actions taken as an enlisted man,” NPR reports.
“We honor the contributions of all our enlisted ranks, past and present, men and women, of every race, religion and background,” Modly said. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, ‘Everybody can be great — because anybody can serve’. No one understands the importance and true meaning of service than those who have volunteered to put the needs of others above themselves.”
“His actions of that time still resonate with us here today, 75 years from them,” said Navy Capt. Stanley Keeve, commander, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. “He was living proof that one man can make a difference.”Whizzco