Following the attack, the reports from all of Pearl Harbor’s ships and shore facilities of the events of December 7, 1941 were assembled and analyzed; then, the process of confirmation and then giving commendations to all personnel cited in the hundreds of reports began.
The Navy Board of Awards was established on February 12, 1942. A Navy spokesman recommended that the ‘unknown Negro mess man’ be considered for an award (the sole commendation to an African American.)
The unknown Negro mess man was named to the 1941 Honor Roll of Race Relations. On March 12, 1942, Dr Lawrence D Reddick announced, after corresponding with the Navy, that he found the name was ‘Doris Miller.’ (Aiken)
Let’s look back …
Doris Miller was born on October 12, 1919, the third of four sons to Connery and Henrietta Miller in Waco, Texas. He was named for the midwife present at his birth.
The family lived in a three room farmhouse near Speegleville, Texas where his father was a farmer. His life had begun in a time of controversy, turmoil and violence, although his immediate surroundings appeared to be peaceful and simple. Everyone in America struggled through the Great Depression. (Baltimore AfroAmerican)
Along with his siblings, Doris worked to support the family farm from an early age. In his youth, he became an excellent marksman as he hunted for small game with his brothers.
Doris also had a successful school career at AJ Moore High School. His tall stature gained the attention of the football coach at the school who recruited Doris as a fullback on the team.
However, as Doris became older, and as war loomed on the horizon, he longed to join the armed forces much to the chagrin of his parents. After several attempts to join different sectors of the military, Doris enlisted in the US Navy in Dallas, Texas, on September 16, 1939.
Unfortunately, at the time of his enlistment, discrimination limited the areas of service for African Americans in the military. After training, his assignment was as a mess attendant, third class. (Danner; Waco History)
“You have to understand that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president in 1932, he opened up the Navy again to blacks, but in one area only; they were called mess attendants, stewards, and cooks,” says Clark Simmons, who was a mess attendant on the USS Utah during the Pearl Harbor attack.
“The Navy was so structured that if you were black, this was what they had you do in the Navy – you only could be a servant.” (National Geographic)
After training in Norfolk, Virginia, and serving a stint on the ammunition ship Pyro, Miller was assigned to the battleship West Virginia in 1940. He soon won renown as the best heavyweight boxer onboard.
With the exception of a training stay at Secondary Battery Gunnery School, Miller would remain on the West Virginia until December 7, 1941, when the ship was in port at Pearl Harbor, Hawai‘i.
The morning of the Japanese attack, Miller was doing laundry rounds when the call to battle stations went out. He rushed to his station, an antiaircraft-battery magazine. Seeing the magazine damaged by torpedo fire, he went above decks to help the wounded to safety.
Word came that “the captain and the executive officer, the ‘XO,’ were on the bridge and they both were injured,” says Simmons. “So Dorie Miller went up and physically picked up the captain and brought him down to the first aid station. And then he went back and manned a .50-caliber machine gun, which he had not been trained on.” (National Geographic)
He committed his efforts to the defense of the West Virginia until superiors ordered all to abandon ship.
“It wasn’t hard,” said Miller shortly after the battle. “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 Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.” (National Geographic)
Here’s a clip of Cuba Gooding, Jr portraying Miller in ‘Pearl Harbor.’
Of the 1,541 men on West Virginia during the attack, 130 were killed and 52 wounded. Then, word circulated about the ‘unknown Negro mess man’ and his actions that day.
On March 14, 1942, The Pittsburgh Courier released a story that named the black mess man as ‘Dorie’ Miller. This is the earliest found use of ‘Dorie,’ an apparent typographical error. (Some sources have further misspelled the name to ‘Dore’ and ‘Dorrie.’
Various writers have attributed ‘Dorie’ to other suggestions such as a “nickname to shipmates and friends”… or “the Navy thought he should go by the more masculine-sounding Dorie.” (Aiken)
On May 27, 1942 in a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Chester W Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, personally recognized Miller aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise.
Miller became the first African American recipient of the Navy Cross, the highest decoration the navy can offer besides the Congressional Medal of Honor. (Danner; Waco History)
The Navy’s commendation noted, “For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawai‘i, by Japanese forces 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 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 directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.” (Navy)
The Pittsburgh Courier called for Miller to be allowed to return home for a war bond tour like white heroes. In November 1942, Miller arrived at Maui, and was ordered on a war bond tour while still attached to the heavy cruiser Indianapolis.
In December 1942 and January 1943, he gave talks in Oakland, California, in his hometown of Waco, Texas, in Dallas and to the first graduating class of African-American sailors from Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Chicago.
Miller then reported to duty aboard the aircraft carrier Liscome Bay as Petty Officer, Ship’s Cook Third Class. After training in Hawai‘i for the Gilbert Islands operation, Liscome Bay participated in the Battle of Tarawa which began on November 20, 1943. (Philadelphia Tribune)
During the battle of the Gilbert Islands, on November 24, 1943, a single torpedo from a Japanese submarine struck the escort carrier near the stern. (Texas State Historical Assn)
The aircraft bomb magazine detonated a few moments later, sinking the warship within minutes. There were 272 survivors. The rest of the crew was listed as “presumed dead.”
On December 7, 1943 — exactly two years after Pearl Harbor —Miller’s parents were notified their son “was dead.” (Philadelphia Tribune)
In addition to conferring upon him the Navy Cross, the Navy honored Doris Miller by naming a dining hall, a barracks and a destroyer escort for him. The USS Miller (a Knox-class frigate) is the third naval ship to be named after a black navy man.
In Waco, a YMCA branch, a park and a cemetery bear his name. In Houston, Texas, and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, elementary schools have been named for him, as has a Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in Los Angeles.
An auditorium on the campus of Huston-Tillotson College in Austin is dedicated to his memory. In Chicago, the Doris Miller Foundation honors persons who make significant contributions to racial understanding. (Doris Miller Memorial) In Honolulu, there is a Doris Miller Loop, just mauka of the airport. (There are many more memorials to Doris Miller.)
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