It was a perfectly ordinary Sunday morning on board the battleship USS West Virginia. Twenty-two year old Mess Attendant Doris “Dorie” Miller had just served breakfast and was collecting laundry when, shortly before 8:00 a.m. the first Japanese torpedo struck the West Virginia. It was December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor.
Miller reported to his battle station, only to find it has been destroyed by a torpedo. He then reported to a central area of the ship where he was directed to the ship’s bridge to help bring the West Virginia’s wounded captain to safety. Captain Mervyn Bennison had been grievously wounded by shrapnel when a bomb hit the bridge. Captain Bennison refused to leave the bridge, held his wound closed with one hand, and continued to command his ship until he died at his post. He was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions.
What happened next was to further show just what kind of sailor-and man-Dorie Miller was. After seeing the wounded captain to a more sheltered area of the bridge, two officers, Ensign Victor Delano and Lieutenant Frederic White, ordered ordered him to come with them to load two Browning .50 caliber machine guns. Miller was expected to carry the ammunition and feed it to the gun. He had never fired the weapon before and was quickly shown how to do so. Ensign Delano was called away. When he returned, he saw Dorie Miller firing the machine gun at enemy planes. He kept shooting until he ran out of ammunition. Miller then helped carry wounded sailors to safety through the oil and water rapidly filling the ship. Dorie Miller was one of the last men to leave the stricken West Virginia.
Dorie Miller’s heroism nearly went unrecognized. The initial Navy list of commendations for actions on December 7 listed a single commendation for an unnamed “Negro sailor”. The sailor was later identified as Dorie Miller. On May 11, 1942, President Roosevelt approved the Navy Cross, at the time the Navy’s third highest award for valor, for Miller. On May 27, 1942 Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, then Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, presented the Navy Cross to Mess Attendant Second Class Doris Miller in a ceremony on the deck of the aircraft carrier Enterprise.
After completing a war bond tour, he was promoted to Cook Third Class and assigned to the escort carrier Liscombe Bay. On November 20, 1943, the Liscome Bay was sunk by a torpedo during the Battle of Makin. Dorie Miller was among the 644 members of the crew who died when the ship rapidly sank after its bomb magazine detonated. Dorie Miller was 24 years old.
Doris “Dorie” Miller was born in 1919 in Waco Texas, to Connery and Henrietta Miller. His unusual name came from the midwife who delivered him and was convinced the baby would be a girl. He was the third of four sons in the Miller family and grew up helping on the family farm during the Great Depression. He played football on Waco’s segregated A.J. Moore High School until he dropped out at age 17. He joined the Navy in 1939, becoming a Mess Attendant, one of the few jobs open to Black sailors in the Navy at the time. After training, he arrived at the USS West Virginia in 1940. At 6 foot 3 inches and over 200 lbs, he took up boxing and became the heavyweight champion of the ship.
Much like the civilian society of the time, the Navy was hardly an easy place for African-Americans. They were relegated to the hardest, dirtiest jobs and not allowed to advance. Segregation and prejudice were to face them at every turn. It was a widely held view that they would not make good soldiers or sailors and were only good for manual labor. Navy Secretary Frank Knox initially turned down a commendation for Dorie Miller, and later his participation in a war bond drive. Both decisions were only overturned after public pressure and the intervention of a few Senators.
Doris “Dorie” Miller served his nation, our nation, unto death with courage and dignity. When he, in the words of his Navy Cross citation “…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 directed at enemy attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.” he gave lie to the myth that Black men lacked what it took to be soldiers and sailors.
On a 2020 Martin Luther King Day ceremony at Pearl Harbor the Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, announced that America’s next aircraft carrier, CVN-81, will be named the USS Doris Miller. May her officers and crew serve with the courage of their ship’s namesake. Fair winds and following seas Seaman Miller.