Doris “Dorie” Miller, 1st African-American awarded Navy Cross
“… when the Japanese bombers attacked my ship at Pearl Harbor I forgot all about the fact that I and other Negroes can be only messmen in the Navy and are not taught how to man an antiaircraft gun.” - Doris “Dorie” Miller, 1st African-American to receive Navy Cross
On December 7, 1942, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On board the USS West Virginia, moored at battleship row, was Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller. Miller was below decks working on the laundry when the first torpedo struck.
On the signals deck, the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Mervyn Sharp Bennion, lay mortally wounded, refusing to leave the deck.
Miller, the ship’s heavy weight boxing champion was tasked with moving Bennion to a sheltered spot aft of the conning tower.
The ship was hit by two bombs and six torpedoes causing it to list. The port guns went silent, but the starboard guns still were operational.
Miller was ordered to feed ammo into a pair of .50-caliber Browning machine guns. As Lt. J.G. Frederic H. White fired one gun at the Japanese, Miller took control of the other gun.
“It wasn’t hard. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine,” recalled Miller.
White later reported that Miller “didn’t know very much about the machine gun, but I told him what to do and he went ahead and did it. He had a good eye.”
Lt. Cmdr. Johnson recalled Miller “blazing away as though he had fired one all his life.”
Out of ammunition Miller made his way down to the boat deck, helping pull sailors from the burning water, saving lives. The order was given to abandon ship. Miller would be one of the last three men to leave the West Virginia.
Later, Miller told his brother that, “with those bullets spattering all around me, it was by the grace of God that I never got a scratch.”
The after-action reports of the heroism “equal to any in the U.S. naval history” included the actions of a unknown black sailor. How to honor the heroic actions of the unnamed African-American was debated.
Miller became a catalyst for desegregation and equal opportunity. An all-black section of the U.S. Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Ill. was created to provide equal opportunities for black recruits.
On May 27, Adm, Chester W. Nimitz presented Miller with the Navy Cross.
As part of a public campaign, Miller was assigned to promote war bond sales for two months. The son of a Texas sharecropper, Miller would address the first class of black sailors to graduate Camp Robert Smalls.
As opportunities for African Americans grew in the military. Miller was reassigned to the USS Liscome Bay as a mess attendant and was promoted to cook, third class.
His new ship was a CVE, assigned to support the Invasion of Makin.
On November 24, 1943, the Liscome’s lookout shouted, “Christ, here comes a torpedo!”
The ship’s bombs, bunker oil, aviation fuel and cannon shells exploded. The ship sank within 23 minutes.
Miller was listed as “presumed dead”. His body never recovered.