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Heroic actions live on forever

Doris “Dorie” Miller is an American hero. Born in 1919 in Waco, Texas, he was the son of Coney and Henrietta Miller who were African-American sharecroppers. Having grown to 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing over 200 pounds “Dorie” attended high school and played football at Waco’s A. J. Moore Academy until at age 17 he was forced to quit school to help his impoverished family.

In 1939 at age 19 “Dorie” enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The Navy that he joined was as segregated as any organization in America at the time. Discrimination was practiced as a matter of course. There were no black officers and while 10,000 blacks had served in the Navy during World War I the Navy did not recruit blacks again until 1939 to fill a need for messmen.

In 1939 African-American recruits like Miller were assigned to the messmen branch where, as one of Miller’s fellow messmen said, we were “seagoing bellhops, chambermaids and dishwashers.” By regulation they were not eligible for promotion and could not be trained in or assigned to any other specialties. One of the cruelest slights they had to endure was not being allowed to wear standard Navy buttons, bearing the Navy insignia, on the uniforms.

In the months before the United States entered World War II civil rights leaders attempted to convince the Roosevelt administration to desegregate the armed forces and to promote racial equality within the services. In response to the pressure from black leaders, the President, perhaps fearful of political repercussions from southern Democrats, suggested that replacing white bands on battleships with black bands would help promote racial harmony. The President’s suggestion was hardly a ringing endorsement of what the black leaders were asking for.

Later a Navy board appointed by Navy Secretary Frank Knox determined that blacks should remain messmen because there were few other non-rated specialties they could qualify for and that if “restricting (blacks) to the messmen branch was discrimination, it was consistent with discrimination practices against (blacks) and citizens of Asian descent throughout the United States.”

On Jan. 2, 1940 Miller was assigned to the Battleship West Virginia in the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. At 7 on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the West Virginia was berthed alongside Ford Island with her sister battleships. Messman “Dorie” Miller at the time was collecting officers clothing to be washed when general quarters were sounded. He immediately headed for his battle station in the antiaircraft magazines amidships only to find that space already flooded. Reporting to an officer he was told to report to the West Virginia’s bridge and on arrival there, because of his size and strength, was directed to move the West Virginia’s mortally wounded skipper Captain Meryn Sharp Bennion to a place of safety behind the ship’s conning tower.

By this time the ship had sustained severe damage from two bombs and six Japanese torpedoes, smoke rose into the sky from numerous fires as the West Virginia took on a steep list with her decks awash with water and oil. Ordered by Lt. Frederic White to supply ammunition to 50-caliber machine guns Miller quickly saw that one 50 caliber machine guns was unmanned and despite having no training on the weapon began firing it. “It wasn’t hard,” He later recounted, “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine.”

There has always been some dispute as to how many Japanese aircraft Miller shot down but he manned the gun until the ammunition ran out. At that point he descended to the boat deck and assisted in pulling many from the harbor water that was covered with burning oil. Later as the West Virginia settled on the harbor bottom Miller was one of the last sailors to leave the ship.

In the days following the attack stories began to surface about an unnamed African-American sailor who had performed gallantly during the attack. Perhaps the Navy wanted that gallant African-American to remain unknown so it was not until March 1942 that an influential African-American paper, the Pittsburg Courier announced that the unnamed black was Doris Miller.

On May 27, 1942, on the flight deck of the carrier Enterprise Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander of the Pacific Fleet awarded Messman Doris Miller the Navy Cross in recognition of his bravery and actions during the Pearl Harbor attack. It was the first Navy Cross ever awarded to a black sailor. However, to this day this many feel Miller should have been awarded Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits.

Miller would later go a War Bond Tour following which in June of 1943 he was assigned to the small and slow escort carrier Liscome Bay. On November 24 1943, while supporting landings on Makin and Tarawa islands, the Liscome Bay was hit by a single Japanese torpedo that set off massive explosions causing the carrier to sink within 23 minutes. Out of a crew of over 900 only 272 officers and men survived. Doris Miller was not one of the survivors.

In 1972 Doris Miller’s deeds were remembered when the Frigate bearing his name joined the Navy. That vessel was decommissioned in 1991 but now a new ship bearing the name Doris Miller will join the fleet. Scheduled to be laid down in 2023 and commissioned in 2030 the USS Doris Miller will be the fourth vessel of the Gerald R. Ford class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. It will be the first carrier named after an African-American and the first named for a Navy enlisted man.

Doris Miller is an American hero who happened to be an African-American. He was a man who rose above the racial discrimination of a Navy, that seemed to actually disdain the service of African Americans, to fight to save his ship and save the lives of fellow crewmen.

Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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