Wednesday, December 7, 2016

75 Years After Pearl Harbor Dorie Miller’s Heroism Still Inspires

A memorial service for a Pearl Harbor veteran inside the Arizona Memorial.

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  That makes it a very big deal.  It is undoubtedly the last time that any of the aged and ailing survivors of the attack, now all nearing or past 100 years old will be alive to attend the annual ceremonies conducted at the Arizona Memorial built over the sunken battleship USS Arizona.  In recent years some Japanese veterans of the attack have attended the December 7 commemorations. This year with some delicacy Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will arrive in Hawaii the Day after Christmas to meet with President Barak Obama who annually spends the holidays in his childhood home state.  Together the two leaders will also visit the Memorial when Abe will toss a memorial wreath into the bay where leaking oil from the battle wagon still bubbles to the surface.  The gesture will reciprocate Obama’s solemn participation in commemorations of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima last year.  Like the President, Abe will express sorrow and sympathy to the dead and maimed but will stop well short of an apology for military action.

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 the 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.
The battleships USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee burn after the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor.
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, thousands wounded.  It was a naval disaster of epic proportions, perfectly executed by the Japanese Imperial 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 who were presented the award by simply being on the bridge and in command when killed.  All of the recipients, living or dead were white.

Dorie Miller in action on December 7,1941.

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 stewardspersonal 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.
White and Black sailor mixed on the deck of the USS Miami during the Civil War.

Black enlistment exploded during the Civil War, including many escaped or former slaves.  Eight were awarded the Medal of Honor 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.
Dorrie Miller on a souvenir button distributed in Black communities.

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 as 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.
Miller was featured on a widely distributed Navy recruitment poster.

Miller 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 Destroyer Escort the USS Miller in his memory.  She was latter reconfigured and reclassified as a frigate and was in Navy Reserve service until she was decommissioned in 1991
He was portrayed by Elven Havard in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! and Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2001 movie epic Pearl Harbor.
In 1945, just before her first collection of poems was published the young Chicagoan Gwendolyn Brooks had this printed in Common Ground, a periodical featuring Black writers.
Young Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a poem in Dorie Miller's voice.

Negro Hero (To suggest Dorie Miller)

I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them. However, I have heard that sometimes you have to deal Devilishly with drowning men in order to swim them to shore
Or they will haul themselves and you to the trash and the fish   beneath.
(When I think of this, I do not worry about a few Chipped teeth.)

It is good I gave glory, it is good I put gold  on  their  name  Or there  would  have  been  spikes  in the afterward  hands.
But let us speak only of my success and the pictures in the Caucasian dailies
As well as the Negro weeklies. For I am a gem.
(They are not concerned that it was hardly The Enemy my fight was against
But them.)

It was a tall time. And of course my blood was
Boiling about in my head and straining and bowling and singing me on. Of  course I  was  rolled  on wheels of my  boy itch  to get at  the  gun.
Of course all the delicate rehearsal shots of my childhood massed in mirage before me.
Of course I was child
And my first swallow of the liquor of battle bleeding black air dying and demon noise
Made me wild.

It was kinder than that, though, and I showed like a banner my kindness.
I loved. And a man will guard when he loves. Their white-gowned democracy was my fair lady
With her knife lying cold, straight, in the softness of her sweet-flowing sleeve.
But for the sake of the dear smiling mouth and the stuttered promise I toyed with my life.
I threw back!would not remember
Entirely the knife.

Still—am I good enough to die for them, is my blood bright enough to be spilled,
Was my constant back-question—are they clear on this? Or do I intrude even now?
Am I clean enough to kill for them, do they wish me to kill
For  them  or is my  place  while  death  licks  his  lips  and  strides  to them
In the galley still.

(In a southern city a white man   said
Indeed, I’d rather be dead.
Indeed, I’d rather be shot in the head
Or ridden to waste on the back of a Hood
Than saved by the drop of a black man’s blood.)

Naturally, the important thing is, I helped to save them, them and a part of
their democracy,
Even if I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to do that for them.
And I am feeling well and settled in myself because I believe it was a good job,
Despite this possible horror: that they might prefer the
Preservation of their law in all its sick dignity and their knives
To the continuation of their creed And their lives.

—Gwendolyn Brooks

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