(Doris Miller poster in the World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana)
Doris “Dorie” Miller was a true Texas hero. He was classified as a Navy Messman on December 7, 1941, serving on the USS West Virginia, a battleship. At the time, Messman was one of the few positions open to African American sailors. Miller was solidly built, carrying over 200 lb. on his 6’3” frame. He’d taken up boxing and was heavyweight champion of the West Virginia out of a crew of about 2,000. The West Virginia was on station in in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. That morning, he woke at 0600, as was his custom. He served breakfast mess and was still below deck collecting soiled laundry when the first torpedo hit the West Virginia just before 0800. He heard and felt the explosion and immediately went to his battle station, an anti-aircraft gun near the heart of the ship.
His gun station had been destroyed by the first of the 9 torpedo blasts to reach the ship. He immediately headed to the center of the ship to report for other duty and was ordered to the bridge by Lt. Commander D. C. Johnson, a communications officer. Their task was to rescue their wounded captain Melvyn Bennion who had suffered an abdominal wound, apparently from shrapnel. They were unable to remove him from the bridge, but moved him to a less exposed position there. Capt. Bennion refused to leave the bridge and endeavored to remain in command. Miller was then ordered to load the #1 and #2 Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft guns aft of the conning tower. Miller had never operated these guns before, but was quickly shown how to load them by Lt. F. H. White and Ensign Victor Delano. Delano had expected Miller just to load the guns, but the next time he saw him, Miller was firing one of them, and continued to do so until he had no more ammunition.
It has been written that African American sailors weren’t trained in boot camp to shoot anti-aircraft guns, but in reality, neither was any sailor who was not being trained for that particular duty. Nevertheless, 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.” Some accounts have him shooting down as many as four attacking planes, but in the chaos of that day, no kills were documented to his credit. Return fire was coming from all available guns, from every direction, and the enemy planes were swarming.
Miller was then ordered by Lt. C. V. Ricketts, White and Signalman Chief A. A. Stiewart to carry the Captain higher up on the bridge to escape the choking smoke and flames. They moved him, but Capt. Bennion was mortally wounded and soon died. The West Virginia continued to take hits from the Japanese aircraft. When there was a momentary break, White ordered Miller to help move more wounded to the quarterdeck, saving more lives in the process. The ship began sinking and Miller and the other crew abandoned her.
Miller’s bravery and willingness to serve in the time of crisis was duly reported by the Navy. As the commendations for that day were processed by the Navy in Washington, Miller’s was the only commendation for an African American. Miller was transferred to the USS Indianapolis, a Portland-class cruiser that would later transport to Tinian part of the atomic bomb that would lead to the Japanese surrender. He did not remain on the Indianapolis very long and she was later sunk in 1945. Miller’s case was supported by the NAACP which requested of President Roosevelt that Miller be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The commendation process continued until Sen. James Mead of New York introduced a bill to award Miller the Medal of Honor. This bill was matched by a House Resolution introduced by Representative John Dingell. Miller was then recognized as a hero and commended by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox on April 1, 1942, though Knox recommended against awarding him the Medal of Honor.
The NAACP continued to support Miller’s case and on May 11, 1942, President Roosevelt approved the Navy Cross. On May 27, 1942, Miller was personally awarded the cross by Admiral Chester Nimitz of Texas aboard the USS Enterprise, the image shown below. At that time, the Navy Cross was the third highest award for bravery in combat.
Miller received another promotion during this period to Petty Officer, Ship’s Cook Third Class on June 1, 1943 when he reported to his assignment on the escort carrier Liscome Bay. She had been launched earlier in the year and set sail for Pearl Harbor in late October. She joined the Northern Attack Force and in late November began the assault on Tarawa Atoll and Makin A. After launching numerous sorties off her deck, she suffered a torpedo hit from a Japanese submarine on November 23, 1943. Either she was hit by a second torpedo, or the fire spread from the initial one, but the damage spread to the bombs in storage which began to detonate and she quickly sank. There were about 920 crewmen aboard. Only 272 were rescued, but Miller was listed among the hundreds missing and presumed dead. His memorial service was held April 30, 1944 at Waco’s Second Baptist Church.
Miller had grown up in Waco as the third of four sons of Connery and Henrietta Miller, who were sharecropping farmers in the area. He was a football player and reasonably good student at downtown’s Moore High. In 1937, he began to struggle in school and decided to drop out. Some accounts say he was expelled for fighting over racial issues at Moore, then the segregated school for Waco’s African American students. After leaving school, he helped the family by hunting in the nearby woods and passed a correspondence course in taxidermy while also working on the family farm. In the fall of 1939 when he was about 20, he enlisted in the Navy and gained the rank of Mess Attendant, which rank he held at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Though he never received the Medal of Honor, he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. In his honor, a ship was named for him, the USS Miller, a Knox-class frigate. His acts were depicted in the feature film “Tora! Tora! Tora,” by Elven Howard and by Cuba Gooding, Jr. in “Pearl Harbor” from 2001. Numerous schools, parks and public buildings are named for him. The Doris Miller Foundation presents awards annually to an individual who has been outstanding in the field of race relations.
On October 12, 2015, an organization broke ground on the Doris Miller Memorial Park on the banks of the Brazos River, near where he lived. Funds are being raised by the nonprofit entity Cultural Arts of Waco. To donate or learn more about this project, please see http://www.dorismillermemorial.org.
© 2015, all rights reserved.