Remembering a hero: First aircraft carrier named after Black WWII sailor
This article appears in Winter Boomers magazine.
The U.S. Navy is honoring an American hero as well as the contributions of countless other Black sailors as it names a new aircraft carrier for Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller.
USS Doris Miller will be the first aircraft carrier named for an enlisted sailor and the first named for an African American.
Miller, who was known to his friends as "Dorie," was noted for his bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He earned the Navy Cross, which was at the time the Navy's third highest award. He was its first Black recipient.
"Doris Miller came from humble beginnings. The son of sharecroppers. His story shows that where we start is not an indicator of where we finish," said Regina T. Akers, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Miller was serving on the USS West Virginia as a messman, a racially segregated branch of the Navy that no longer exists. The native of Waco, Texas, was 22 and his ship's heavyweight boxing champion.
At the time Navy policy limited opportunities for Black sailors, Akers said. They were tasked with making beds, shining shoes and swabbing decks. They were ineligible for promotion and not trained to specialties such as engineering or gunnery.
Miller was below decks collecting laundry when a torpedo struck his ship. He raced to his battle station at midship prepared to do his job, which was handing ammunition to a gunner, but it had been destroyed, Akers said.
He moved to the deck and helped carry the wounded, including the ship's captain, to a more secure lower bridge. He made several trips up and down, slogging through the rising water of the slowly sinking ship.
It was a dangerous situation, Akers said. The oily waist-deep water was on fire in places, and enemy planes continued to strafe and bomb overhead.
Miller then loaded and fired a .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun until it ran out of ammunition. While Miller would not have been trained to operate the weapon, he was familiar with guns from his upbringing in Texas, Akers said.
Under these incredible circumstances he was able to shoot down two or three planes, he said in an interview in 1942.
No one is credited with shooting down any planes during the attack because in the chaos it was impossible to tell who was responsible.
"The significance is that he chose to man the gun under fire during two waves of attack. He chose to do that," Akers said.
Miller stayed behind after the command to abandon ship was passed to help evacuate shipmates and rescue sailors in the burning water. More than 100 men aboard the ship died.
While the Navy first reported only that a "colored" mess attendant manned the antiaircraft gun and shot at Japanese planes, journalists with the Black press, especially the Pittsburgh Courier, verified his name put pressure on Congress to honor Miller.
Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, awarded Miller the Navy Cross on May 27, 1942.
Miller became the first Black hero of World War II, as well known as Joe Louis or Lena Horne, Akers said.
"He demonstrated that race, rank or rating in no way hinders heroism, dispelling the myth about the inability to perform in combat with Whites," she said.
Miller fought with distinction, and his wartime service was used as an example in the fight for civil rights and equality in the U.S., Akers said.
Two years after his heroism at Pearl Harbor, Miller was killed when a torpedo sank USS Liscome Bay off Butaritari Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.
"Miller's heroism and war record need to be told and retold for today and future generations," Akers said.