The story of Doris Miller has been glamorized in motion pictures, but few know the real story of the Black cook who became a hero during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Doris “Dorie” Miller was born on October 12, 1919 in Waco, Texas, the son of Connery and Henrietta Miller. They were sharecroppers who would eventually become subsistence farmers and thus the family was fairly poor. Doris was a big child, at 5′ 9:, 200 lbs. playing fullback on his high school football team. He was expelled from school due to engaging in numerous fights over racial issues. He worked on his father’s farm until he was 20 years old when he enlisted in the United States Navy in 1939. He served as a Mess Attendant, Third Class and became the ship’s cook when he was transferred to the USS West Virginia battleship. A mess attendant prepares and serves food to the officers and the crew, clears the tables and cleans the dishes and makes the bed and cleans the bedroom and bathrooms for the officers. After temporary duty on the USS Nevada at Secondary Battery Gunnery School, he returned to the USS West Virginia on August 3, 1940. At this point he stood 6′ 3″ and weighed over 200 lbs. Because of his size and strength, he competed in boxing competitions on the ships and became the Heavyweight champion of the West Virginia, an impressive feat considering the ship had a crew of approximately 2,000. He was advanced to Mess Attendant Second Class just before USS West Virginia was sent to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Dorie was awake at 6:00 AM on the West Virginia. He had volunteered as a room steward and made an extra five dollars each month providing wake-up services to duty officers, as well as doing their laundry, shining their shoes and making their beds. When the alarm for general quarters was sounded, he headed for his battle station, the anti-aircraft battery magazine amid ship. Unfortunately, the ship was under attack by more than 200 Japanese torpedo planes, bombers and fighters and a torpedo had destroyed his battle station. Because of his size and strength he was ordered to run across the deck to retrieve injured shipmates and carry them to the quarterdeck where they were protected, somewhat, from the attack. He was next ordered to come to the aid of the injured ship’s Captain, Mervyn Bennion. He rushed to the bridge to attempt to carry Bennion to safety but the Captain refused to leave his post (Bennion would die of his wounds).
Miller was next ordered to help Ensign Victor Delano and Frederic H. White load the #1 and #2 Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns. Delano expected Miller to load ammo into both guns but when he looked back around he saw that White had loaded both guns and was shocked to see Miller manning one of the guns and firing into the air at dive-bombing Japanese planes.
Despite having no training in operating the big guns, he bravely jumped into action. Miller later recounted: “It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Japanese planes. They were diving pretty close to us.” Later versions of the story had Miller shooting down four Japanese planes, but the truth is he probably didn’t hit any. During the time he was firing the gun only one Japanese plane was shot down. “One of the planes that he (Miller) was shooting at, and everyone else in the bay was shooting at, went down. He felt very pleased with that. And I don’t blame him. But there were a lot of other guys shooting at it also,” Victor Delano related in 1993. Added White, “I did see Miller shooting, but I would term it rather wild, so I doubt that he hit anything. I certainly did not see him shoot down a plane.”
In fact, according to official records, the USS West Virginia did not have a record of anyone on board having shot down any planes that day. Nonetheless, the attempt by anyone on board to fire at the incoming planes certainly made it more difficult to for the Japanese to press their attack. White later ordered Miller to help pull sailors out of the water and to safety. Eventually, because of the severe damage from explosions, the West Virginia began flooding and everyone was ordered to abandon ship. Of the 1,541 men on West Virginia during the attack, 130 were killed and 52 wounded. The ship had been struck by nine Japanese torpedoes.
Reports of the attack referenced the actions of an unknown Negro sailor. When he was identified as Doris Miller, Senator James Mead of New York introduced a Senate Bill seeking to award Dorie the Medal of Honor, the United States highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. On April 1, 1942, Doris Miller was commended by the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. The commendation cited his “distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard of his personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller despite enemy strafing and bombing, and in the face of serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety and later manned and operated a machine gun until ordered to leave the bridge.” On May 27, 1942, he was presented the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander in Chief for the Pacific Fleet on board the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise for his extraordinary courage in battle. The citation read: “For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety… in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun.. until ordered to leave the bridge.
“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.” – Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
He was reassigned to USS Indianapolis on December 13, 1941 and his rank was raised to Mess Attendant First Class on June 1, 1942. Later that month the Pittsburgh Courier called for him to be honored like some of the white war heroes and allowed to return home for a war bond tour. He arrived at Pearl Harbor on November 23rd and was ordered on a war bond tour while still attached to USS Indianapolis. Over the course of the next few months he gave talks in Oakland, California, in his home town of Waco, Texas and in Dallas, Texas. He also spoke to the first graduating class of Negro sailors from Great Lakes Naval Training Station, in Chicago, Illinois.
On June 1, 1943, Miller received another promotion, that of Petty Officer, Ship′s Cook Third Class and he was reassigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. On November 24, 1943, during the the Battle of Tarawa, a single torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-175 struck the escort carrier near the stern. The aircraft bomb magazine detonated a few moments later, and the warship was sunk within a few minutes. There were only 272 survivors and the rest of the crew was listed as “presumed dead.” On December 7, 1943, exactly two years after his courageous effort during the Pearl Harbor attack, Miller′s parents were notified their son’s death.
Many petitioned for Miller to receive the Medal of Honor for his acts on December 7, 1941, and while he never received the award, he has been honored repeatedly over the years.
In addition to the Navy Cross, Doris was entitled to the Purple Heart Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, Fleet Clasp, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. Commissioned on 30 June 1973, USS Miller (FF-1091), a Knox-class frigate, was named in honor of Doris Miller. The War Department issued a recruitment poster adorned with his portrait entitled “above and beyond the call of duty“. He has been portrayed in a number of movies including 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! in which he was portrayed by Elven Havard and 2001’s Pearl Harbor, in which he was portrayed by Cuba Gooding, Jr. The Doris Miller Foundation was founded in 1947, to give an annual award to the individual or group considered outstanding in the field of race relations. In February 2010, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his name and on June 30, 1973 the USS Miller (FF-1091), a Knox-class frigate, was commissioned in his honor and he has had numerous schools and community buildings named after him. On January 20, 2020, the United States Navy named an aircraft carrier in honor of Miller. The Gerald R. Ford-class carrier named after Miller will be deployed in major combat operations, crisis response and humanitarian relief. According to Popular Mechanics “The reasons for the naming are twofold: to honor the U.S. Navy’s enlisted sailors and their heroes and to honor the contributions of African American sailors. The USS Miller will be the first aircraft carrier in the history of the U.S. Navy to be named for either.”
Doris Miller is one of those individuals whose lives are forever etched in stone because of his actions during a moment of crisis. Though his time on Earth was short, history has remembered him for his valor and his dedication to his country.
The Dorie Miller story from the Vince Sanders’ “Documents of Truth”
Doris Miller (Wikipedia.com): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doris_Miller
Doris Miller (Answers.com): http://www.answers.com/topic/doris-miller
Naval History and Heritage: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq57-4.htm
Badass of the Week – Doris Miller: http://www.badassoftheweek.com/dorismiller.html
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