Across these United States, “Doris D. Miller” is name that is found on streets, schools, parks, and other public places. In the City of Waco, Texas, one will find the Doris D. Miller Park and the Doris Miller Family YMCA. The heroic and valiant service of Doris “Dorie” Miller may be known to some but not all. I was not familiar with this World War II (WWII) hero until I saw the movie, Pearl Harbor, back in 2002.
In recognition of Black History Month, Dorie Miller is the subject of this post.
Named after the mid-wife who assisted in his delivery, Dorie Miller was born the 3rd of four boys to Connery and Henrietta Miller in 1919. The family worked a small sharecrop farm in Speegleville, TX, now considered a suburb of the City of Waco. Miller led what some would call a normal childhood. He worked alongside his siblings and parents to support the family farm and was noted for his hunting skills. He attended A.J. Moore High School where he played on the football team in the position of fullback. [Ref 1]
Towards the end of high school or perhaps shortly after, Dorie yearned to join the armed forces as war loomed on the horizon. He made several attempts to join different divisions of the military, and was finally successful in enlisting in the U.S. Navy in Dallas, TX on September 16, 1939. After basic training, Miller was assigned as a mess attendant, third class. This was one of the few positions that African Americans could serve in the military at the time.
According to the U.S. Navy [Ref 2], following training at the Naval Training Station, Norfolk, VA, Dorie was assigned to the ammunition ship USS Pyro, then transferred on January 2, 1940 to the battleship USS West Virginia where he became the head cook. He also distinguished himself as the ship’s heavyweight boxing champ on board the battleship.
In July 1940, he had temporary duty aboard the USS Nevada at Secondary Battery Gunnery School. On August 3 1940, he returned to USS West Virginia and was serving in that battleship when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
As the story goes, the USS West Virginia was anchored at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Dorie was collecting laundry in the hull of the ship when the attack began. When the air raid sirens started to alarm, Miller first headed for his battle station, the antiaircraft battery magazine amid ship, only to discover that torpedo damage had wrecked it. From there he proceeded to the ship’s deck where he was directed to help carry wounded fellow sailors to places of greater safety. Those he aided included the ship’s captain who had been wounded.
Miller pulled the wounded captain to safety before racing back to an unmanned antiaircraft gun in the midst of low-flying planes and a rain of bullets. Despite discriminatory policies that forbade Miller or other sailors of color to man heavy artillery, Miller seized control of a .50 caliber machine gun to fire at attacking Japanese planes. He committed his efforts to the defense of the West Virginia until superiors ordered all to abandon ship.
Miller described firing the machine gun during the battle, a weapon which he had not been trained to operate: “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 Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.” [Ref 1] Of the 1,541 men on West Virginia during the attack, 130 were killed and 52 wounded.
After the attack, the military awarded Miller the Navy Cross. Miller was the first African American recipient of this award, and is also the highest decoration the navy offers besides the Congressional Medal of Honor. The navy leveraged Miller’s new status by returning him to the home front for a short time to act as a recruiter.
Navy records also show that in 1943, Miller received a promotion to petty officer, ship’s cook third class, and was assigned to the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay in the spring of that year. Miller was on board this escort carrier during Operation Galvanic, the seizure of Makin and Tarawa Atolls in the Gilbert Islands. Liscome Bay’s aircraft supported operations ashore between November 20-23, 1943. At 5:10 a.m. on November 24th, while cruising near Butaritari Island, a single torpedo from Japanese submarine I-175 struck the escort carrier near the stern.
The aircraft bomb magazine detonated a few moments later, sinking the warship within minutes. Listed as missing following the loss of that escort carrier, Miller was officially presumed dead November 25, 1944, a year and a day after the loss of the USS Liscome Bay. Only 272 Sailors survived the sinking of the USS Liscome Bay and 646 died.
Other Honors: In addition to the Navy Cross, Miller 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.
The honors and citations that have been bestowed to this WWII hero are too numerous to cite here, however a few are listed below:
- The USS Miller (FF-1091), a Knox-class frigate, was commissioned on June 30, 1973 and named in honor of Doris “Dorie” Miller.
- On October 11, 1991, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority dedicated a bronze commemorative plaque of Miller at the Miller Family Park located on the U.S. Naval Base, Pearl Harbor.
- The heroics of Dorie Miller are captured in the movie, Pearl Harbor, which was directed by Michael Bay and released in 2001. Actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays the role of Head Cook Dorie Miller.
While awarded the Purple Heart posthumously, Doris Miller never received the Congressional Medal of Honor, which many believe he deserved. Those who fight for his legacy still lobby for its award today.
References for this post:
- Doris Miller, Waco History by Megan Danner, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/98
- Doris (Dorie) Miller, American Hero, Biographies of African Americans, http://www.pearlharbor.org/dorie-miller.asp