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Doris Miller

Doris “Dorie” Miller
October 12, 1919 – November 24, 1943
Notable: Soldier
Nationality: American

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Doris “Dorie” Miller was born just outside of Waco, Texas the third of Henrietta and Conery Miller’s four sons. His feminine name was inspired in part by the midwife who delivered him as well as his mother’s desire for a girl. The Millers earned a living as sharecroppers and their sons began pitching in on the family farm at an early age. During his childhood, Miller spent a good deal of time hunting with his brothers and developed incredible aim.

By his teens, Miller stood 6 feet 3 inches and weighed over 200 pounds which brought him to the attention of his high school’s football coach. He joined the team and played as a fullback but dropped out of school at the age of 17. The events leading up to World War II were underway and Miller desired to join the military. He was motivated in part by a desire to leave his hometown and see more of the world but also because his family was struggling financially and he wanted to help. Miller tried to enlist in several branches of the military but it would take three years before he was finally accepted by the US Navy.

Options were limited for Black recruits as they were barred from earning meaningful promotions or receiving specialized training. Most Black servicemen were relegated to performing the same types of unskilled service jobs that segregation and Jim Crow attempted to force upon Black men in civilian society. Thus when Miller completed training in Norfolk, Virginia at the Naval Training Station he became a mess attendant.

His first assignment was aboard the USS Pyro but he later received a transfer to the USS West Virginia. He began his term on the West Virginia on January 2, 1940, and during this time became the ship’s heavyweight champion. That July he was temporarily transferred to the USS Nevada but returned to the USS West Virginia in August and held the position of Cook, Third Class.

The USS West Virginia was docked with the Pacific fleet at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor naval base on December 7, 1941. Miller was below deck collecting laundry when the air raid sirens began to sound. He attempted to man his battle post but discovered it had been damaged.

Miller arrived on deck to find that Japanese fighter planes had launched a morning ambush that would leave the ship’s crew with 130 dead and 52 wounded. Two armored bombs and five torpedoes rained down on the ship’s deck and into its port side which caused the ship to begin sinking. The ship’s deck was covered in oil, water, and fire and Miller found his commanding officer laying mortally wounded from shrapnel.

Taking action, Miller used his size and strength to carry the wounded to safety despite the harbor still being under heavy fire. Black sailors had been barred from training with or using heavy artillery. Yet, Miller manned a .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun and returned fire. Despite his lack of training, it’s believed that Miller shot down between two to six Japanese planes before he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship.

Yet, despite his immense courage and sacrifice, Miller did not initially receive any official recognition. After the attack, Miller reported to the USS Indianapolis and the story of his actions was first attributed as that of an unnamed Black sailor. But picking up the story, members of the Black press and the NAACP identified Miller by name and lobbied for him to be honored for his bravery. CBS radio aired a broadcast that dramatized the attack and Miller’s life-saving efforts.

Congressional bids for Miller to receive the Medal of Honor were unsuccessful. The House of Representatives’ Chairman of Naval Affairs believed that Miller’s actions were undeserving of the award. This view was upheld by the Secretary of the Navy and congressmen from Texas. Instead in May 1942, Miller became the first Black sailor to receive the Navy Cross, the Navy’s third-highest honor. Unlike with other sailors or soldiers, military and government officials had to be shamed into giving Miller an award.

There was also a campaign to have Miller return to the mainland for a recruitment tour. He welcomed participating in this campaign as it would grant him a brief respite. Once back on duty he was still working in a similar position but received a promotion that allowed him to move from the laundry room to the galley. In early 1943, Miller was reassigned to the USS Liscome Bay. A few months later on November 24, 1943, the ship was attacked by the Japanese. This time a single torpedo fired from a submarine hit the ship and its various ammunition, weapons, oil, and fuel exploded moments later. The ship sank shortly after the attack.

Of the 900-plus sailors on board, 650 were killed. Though his body was never recovered Doris Miller was declared dead a year after the attack. While Miller never received the Medal of Honor, he posthumously received several awards including the Purple Heart. Following his bravery, the Navy had also created an officer training program for Black sailors. In early 2020, the Navy revealed plans to commission a new aircraft carrier in Miller’s honor. The USS Doris Miller will be the first supercarrier to be named in honor of an African American and the first to be named for an enlisted sailor.

Sources

  1. Cutrer, Thomas W., and T. Michael Parrish. 2019. “How Dorie Miller’s Bravery Helped Fight Navy Racism.” Navy Times. October 31, 2019. https://www.navytimes.com/military-honor/salute-veterans/2019/11/01/how-dorie-millers-bravery-helped-fight-bigotry-in-the-navy/.
  2. Danner, Megan. n.d. “Doris Miller.” Waco History. Accessed April 30, 2022. https://wacohistory.org/items/show/98.
  3. “Doris Miller – Above and beyond the Call of Duty.” 2021. VA History Office. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. November 15, 2021. https://www.va.gov/HISTORY/Features/Doris_Miller_001.asp.
  4. “Miller, Doris.” 2017. Naval History and Heritage Command. U.S. Navy. June 6, 2017. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/biographies-list/bios-m/miller-doris.html.
  5. Wamsley, Laurel. 2020. “U.S. Navy to Name Aircraft Carrier after WWII Hero Doris Miller.” NPR. NPR. January 19, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/01/19/797756016/u-s-navy-to-name-aircraft-carrier-after-wwii-hero-doris-miller.
  6. Whitaker, Matthew C. 2007. Doris (“Dorie”) Miller (1919-1943). January 19, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/miller-doris-dorie-1919-1943/.

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