|The widely circulated Navy Recruiting poster featuring Dorie Miller.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Army installations on Oahu including Hickam Field and Schofield Barracks was indeed the Day of Infamy described by Franklin Roosevelt in his call for a declaration of war the next day. It was also one of those pivot points of American history and a burning memory for anyone alive and aware at the time.
I’m betting you know at least the rough details of that catastrophe, so this post is not going to detail them. If not, look it up.
What I do want to do today is account for one man, tell his story, and through him the story of African Americans in the United States Navy.
When the attack was over that Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, the pride of the Pacific Fleet, including its great battleships lay sunken, smoldering, and heavily damaged. More than 1500 were dead, thousand wounded. It was a naval disaster of epic proportions, perfectly executed by the Japanese Navy and but for the absence of the Fleet’s two aircraft carriers very nearly the knockout blow that was intended.
The scope of the disaster was kept from the American people, but became apparent. Followed closely by the loss of Wake Island, and the besieging of the Army at Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines, prospects for the US against the Empire of the Sun looked bleak.
To buck up sagging morale at home, authorities sought to play up the bravery of those who fought and died that morning. They began publicly handing out medals and citations as part of that campaign. 15 Medals of Honor were presented, all to Navy personnel, the biggest crop of such awards at one time in the service’s history.
Ten of the awards were posthumous. Eight went to officers, including Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, Commander of Battleship Division One on board the USS Arizona and to Captain Mervyn Sharp of the USS West Virginia and Captain Van Valkenburg of the Arizona. The later three won the award by simply being on the bridge and in command when killed. All of the recipients, living or dead were white.
All brave men, no doubt. But acts of heroism at least as great went unrewarded by the nation’s highest honor that day. Take the case of Ships Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller.
Miller was born in Waco, Texas on October 19, 1919. He was one of three brothers. He grew up working on his father’s farm, but unlike many young black men managed to remain in school through High School where he played football and excelled in sports. Leaving school as the Depression lingered, Dorie decided to enlist in the Navy in 1939 to earn money to help support his family and also for a bit of adventure far away from home.
He had few options in the Navy, which was then strictly segregated and had even barred Blacks from enlisting at all from 1919 to 1932. When recruitment resumed, the only positions opened to them were as messmates, cooks, and stewards—personal servants for officers.
It had not always been so. Blacks had served virtually without restriction, except for officer status, from the dawn of American naval service. Many, both free and slave, were experienced sailors in the coastal trades, fishing, whaling and even trans-Atlantic trades. After the war began they served on privateers, in the infant Continental Navy, and in the navies of the various states. Not only ordinary seamen, their ranks included ships carpenters, pilots, navigators, mates, and gunners. At least one rose to officer’s rank and command, Capt. Mark Starlin of the Virginia Navy. Despite command of the Patriot during the war, Starlin was returned to slavery afterwards.
Blacks served in the largely naval War of 1812 and were estimated to make up about 15% of all sailors in the antebellum Navy.
Black enlistment exploded during the Civil War, including many escaped or former slaves. Eight were awarded the Congressional Medal during that conflict. They also served in the Spanish American War, notching another couple of Medal citations, and in the Great White Fleet.
But by the turn of the 20th Century Jim Crow began to infiltrate the service, now dominated by officers of southern birth. Although all ratings were officially open to blacks, most were steered into servile positions. Only long serving old tars were allowed to remain in skilled positions. When the emergency of World War I passed, the Navy suspended black enlistment entirely allowing only men on duty in 1919 to remain until retirement.
That was the Navy Dorie Miller joined. He entered the Navy as Mess Attendant Third Class—essentially a waiter and dishwasher. After boot camp at Norfolk, Virginia he was assigned to sea duty on the ammunition ship USS Pyro. He was diligent, hardworking, and popular with officers and men. He advanced relatively rapidly up the ranks and was soon Mess Attendant First Class.
In January 1940 he got a plum birth on the USS West Virginia. Over six feet tall and a muscular 200 lbs. plus, Miller became Heavy weight boxing champ of the ship at a time when boxing was a highly competitive event in the Navy and closely followed by officers and men alike.
Later that year he was allowed to take training at the Secondary Gunnery School on board the USS Nevada. Soon after returning to the West Virginia he was promoted once again, this time to Ship’s Cook Third Class.
Miller was on duty Sunday morning collecting laundry from the mess when the attack began. He immediately responded to his battle station where he was assigned and an ammunition passer to the antiaircraft battery magazine amidships. Discovering the magazine destroyed by a torpedo blast, Miller reported to the deck where using his enormous strength he carried many wounded men to greater safety, often entering burning compartments to do so.
Then he was called to the bridge where he carried the fatally wounded future Medal of Honor winner Captain Sharp. With the bridge out of commission and confusion all around him, Miller found an unmanned 50 caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun.
Despite having no training on the weapon, he began firing at the still attacking Japanese aircraft. “It wasn’t hard,” he would later recall. “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.”
Despite his modesty, other witnesses testified that he brought down three, maybe four of the attacking aircraft. He abandoned his gun only when he was out of ammunition.
The West Virginia was sinking. More than 130 members of its crew had been killed and 52 badly enough injured to require hospitalization. The ship was later re-floated, repaired, and returned to action. But it might have been completely destroyed if not for the heroic action of Miller.
Although Miller was conspicuously overlooked when the Congressional Medals were handed out, his bravery did not go unnoticed. Especially after the war emergency required huge influxes of new manpower—which simply had to include more Black recruits. The brass was re-thinking the restrictions to servile duty and in 1942 enlisted ratings opened to all qualified personnel.
Miller was the perfect recruiting symbol to lure more Black recruits. He was commended the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox on April 1, 1942, and on May 27, 1942 received the Navy Cross, from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet on board aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Miller’s portrait was used on a recruiting poster widely distributed in Black communities.
He went on to serve aboard the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay. He was lost and presumed dead when a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank the carrier in the Gilbert Islands on November 24, 1943.
On June 23, 1973 the Navy commissioned the Knox Class Frigate the USS Miller in his memory.
He was portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2001 movie epic Pearl Harbor.