How Navy Hero Dorie Miller’s Bravery Helped Fight Discrimination in the U.S. Military

Dorie Miller, the primary American hero of World Struggle II, helped clear the way in which for others by doing what he was not allowed to do

AMONG THE PANTHEON of America’s heroes, none is extra unbelievable than the black son of Texas sharecroppers and grandson of slaves, Doris Miller. Miller, recognized to many as “Dorie,” was born on October 12, 1919, in the course of the darkest days of the lynching epidemic that blighted the South within the twentieth century’s first a long time. Solely three years earlier than Miller was born, his hometown of Waco grew to become the scene of one of the crucial brutal lynchings on document when 17-year-old Jesse Washington was burned alive on the garden of the town corridor. Miller was compelled to drop out of highschool with a purpose to assist help his struggling household—“We had been a bit hungry in these days,” his mom later defined—however when he couldn’t discover work, in September 1939, at 19, he joined the U.S. Navy. 

At the moment, black males serving within the navy weren’t solely ineligible for promotion, they had been consigned to the lowly messman department the place they had been tasked with making the beds and shining the sneakers of their white officers and ready on them within the officers’ mess. As one among Miller’s fellow messmen mentioned, they had been merely “seagoing bellhops, chambermaids, and dishwashers.” By regulation, they might not be educated in or assigned to some other specialty, similar to indicators, engineering, or gunnery. Their battle station was under decks within the “gap” or journal, the place they handed ammunition as much as the gunners. They weren’t even allowed to put on buttons marked with the navy’s insignia, an anchor entwined with a series, and needed to put on plain buttons as a substitute.

However, mentioned Miller, “it beats sitting round Waco working as a busboy, going nowhere.” After attending a racially segregated boot camp at Norfolk, Virginia, he was assigned on January 2, 1940, to the battleship USS West Virginia—which, as a result of rising tensions between america and the rising Japanese empire, was quickly transferred together with your entire Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor.

Miller’s dad and mom, Conery and Henrietta, farmed 28 acres exterior Waco, Texas. (Doris Miller Memorial)

There, on the morning of December 7, 1941, the fleet got here beneath assault from carrier-launched plane of the Japanese Imperial Navy. When the raid struck, Doris Miller, then 22 and a multitude attendant third Class, was under decks, doing the laundry of one of many ship’s ensigns. With the primary torpedo’s explosion, he reported to his battle station, the ship’s journal. He discovered the journal already flooded, nonetheless, and so went searching for reassignment. He encountered the ship’s communications officer, Lieutenant Commander Doir C. Johnson, who ordered him to the indicators deck, the place West Virginia’s commanding officer, Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion, lay mortally wounded. Miller, the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion, was ordered to elevate his dying captain and carry him to a spot of relative security, a sheltered spot simply aft of the conning tower under the port aspect antiaircraft weapons. 

By then the ship had sustained heavy injury from six Japanese torpedoes (a seventh didn’t explode) and two bombs, and had taken on a drastic record, silencing the port aspect weapons. Most of its starboard weapons had been nonetheless operational, nonetheless, so Lieutenant Junior Grade Frederic H. White ordered Miller to start out feeding ammo, packaged in 27-foot-long belts, to one among a pair of .50-caliber Browning machine weapons that stood idly close by, whereas White fired the gun at incoming Japanese planes. The deck was awash with oil and water, and fires raged. However Miller, discovering the second gun unattended, and with out orders and with completely no coaching in its operation, took management and opened hearth. “It wasn’t exhausting,” he later recounted. “I simply pulled the set off and she or he labored positive.” 

White later reported that Miller “didn’t know very a lot concerning the machine gun, however I informed him what to do and he went forward and did it. He had an excellent eye.” In accordance with Lieutenant Commander Johnson, who was additionally current, Miller dealt with his gun nicely, “blazing away as if he had fired one all his life.” Miller himself acknowledged that “when the Japanese bombers attacked my ship at Pearl Harbor I forgot all about the truth that I and different Negroes might be solely messmen within the navy and will not be taught the best way to man an antiaircraft gun.”

Solely when his gun ran out of ammunition and the critically broken West Virginia started to sink did he stop firing, and solely when Captain Bennion was formally pronounced useless did the little group of officers and males abandon the ship’s bridge. Descending to the boat deck, Miller helped pull sailors from the burning water, unquestionably saving the lives of plenty of males. By then, the ship was flooded under decks and quickly settling within the harbor’s shallow water, and its senior surviving officer gave the order to desert ship.

Doris Miller was one of many final three males to depart West Virginia. He and his shipmates swam 300 or 400 yards to shore, avoiding patches of flaming oil from USS Arizona and strafing from Japanese planes. When he splashed ashore, Miller later informed his brother, “with these bullets spattering throughout me, it was by the grace of God that I by no means obtained a scratch.” Even then, Miller helped scores of injured sailors to security ashore.

The USS West Virginia, with the USS Tennessee behind it, burns as its keel rests on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. (National Archives)
The usWest Virginia, with the usTennessee behind it, burns as its keel rests on the underside of Pearl Harbor. (Nationwide Archives)

Of West Virginia’s 1,541 crewmembers, 106 had been killed and 52 wounded. Seven of the eight American battleships within the harbor that day had been sunk or badly broken. Miller attributed his survival to divine windfall: “It should have been on God’s power and mom’s blessing,” he later informed a newspaper reporter.

Appreciable controversy nonetheless exists as to how efficient Miller’s gunnery had been. Estimates—guesses, actually—ran as excessive as half a dozen planes shot down, and his justifiably proud niece later made the declare that his gunnery had saved the U.S. West Coast from invasion that December. However regardless of Miller’s greatest effort, simply 29 of the 350 attacking Japanese plane didn’t return to their carriers—and solely a kind of fell throughout the vary of any of West Virginia’s weapons. Even that one, an Aichi D3A “Val” dive-bomber, was most probably struck by hearth from West Virginia’s sister ship, USS Maryland, which was berthed ahead of it, on the starboard aspect of USS Oklahoma. In accordance with an ensign, Victor Delano, who had been beside Miller on West Virginia’s bridge, “everybody else within the bay” had been capturing on the dive-bomber as nicely. Mentioned Lieutenant White, firing alongside Miller: “I definitely didn’t see him shoot down a aircraft.”

Nevertheless many planes he could or could not have shot down, although, is inappropriate: Doris Miller’s heroic actions at Pearl Harbor helped launch a revolution. He deserves his area of interest within the pantheon of American heroes, for he offered an immeasurably vital image for black Individuals of their wrestle for desegregation and equal alternative—not solely within the armed forces, however all through the breadth of American society.

WITHIN WEEKS OF THE DISASTER at Pearl Harbor, the navy’s public relations officers launched plenty of tales, primarily based on after-action reviews of the assault, of heroism “equal to any in U.S. naval historical past.” These reviews referenced the actions of an unknown black sailor, and rumour tales quickly started to flow into. On December 22, 1941, the New York Instances printed a sketchy description associated by an unidentified naval officer who supposedly served on USS Arizona of a black sailor “who stood on the new decks of his battleship and directed the combating.” This mess attendant, “who by no means earlier than had fired a gun,” the story went, “manned a machine gun on the bridge till his ammunition was exhausted.” This messman was added—although not by identify—to the navy’s 1941 Honor Roll of Race Relations. On New Yr’s Day 1942, the navy launched its record of commendations for heroism at Pearl Harbor. On the record was a single commendation for the still-unnamed black sailor.

When Miller’s mom heard the information of the black sailor who manned a machine gun, she was assured it was her son: “That’s obtained to be Doris they speaking about,” she later informed Texas historian R. Chris Santos. Not till March 1942 did the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential African-American newspaper, launch a narrative that eventually recognized the black messman as Miller. 

Payments had been rapidly launched within the U.S. Home of Representatives and Senate to award Miller the Medal of Honor, however Georgia Democrat Carl Vinson, the Home of Representatives’ Chairman of Naval Affairs, averred that Miller’s deeds weren’t deserving of the nation’s highest award for valor; Secretary of the Navy William Franklin Knox and the congressional delegation from Miller’s residence state seconded him. Each on the time and since, quite a few historians and political leaders have argued that gallant as had been the sacrifices of the 16 males—all of them white and most officers and petty officers—who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his or her actions that day, Dorie Miller’s exploits had been at the very least of equal distinction, and all of the extra to be honored due to the oppressive racial stigma beneath which he carried out so heroically.

Whereas this controversy raged within the press, Miller, who had been assigned to the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis on December 13, 1941, was on responsibility within the South Pacific at a time of nice shock and uncertainty. “Mom, don’t fear about me and inform all my buddies to not shed any tears for me,” he wrote residence, “for when the darkish clouds go over, I’ll be again on the sunny aspect.” However Miller’s occupational specialty remained within the messman department and his battle station remained within the “gap,” dealing with ammunition.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz awards Miller the Navy Cross; a Pittsburgh paper campaigned for him and started the "Double V" campaign, for victory both abroad and for black Americans at home. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz awards Miller the Navy Cross; a Pittsburgh paper campaigned for him and began the “Double V” marketing campaign, for victory each overseas and for black Individuals at residence. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

Within the States, politicians and journalists charged the navy with foot-dragging and indifference to blacks within the armed forces, with Walter F. White, government secretary of the Nationwide Affiliation for the Development of Coloured Individuals, mentioning that no citations had been awarded to black personnel “for acts of gallantry or heroism in the course of the assault,” and urging President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary Knox to grant official recognition to Miller. “With out in any method detracting from the heroism and gallantry beneath hearth of white Individuals who died at Pearl Harbor,” White urged, “the heroism of this Negro mess attendant deserves particular consideration.” 

Due largely to Miller’s inspiration and beneath rising stress to offer extra equal alternatives for black recruits, Knox introduced in April that “Negro recruits who volunteer for common service” could be educated at Camp Robert Smalls—an all-black part of the U.S. Naval Coaching Station at Nice Lakes, Illinois—as gunner’s mates, quartermasters, radiomen, yeomen, boatswain’s mates, radar operators, and different specialties moreover messmen. 

And on Might 11, President Roosevelt accredited awarding Miller the Navy Cross—on the time, the third-highest U.S. Navy award for gallantry throughout fight. It was the primary such medal ever awarded to a black sailor. On Might 27, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, offered Miller with the Navy Cross on the flight deck of the plane provider USS Enterprise. Nimitz—additionally a local Texan—mentioned then that Miller’s award “marks the primary time on this battle that such excessive tribute has been made within the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race, and I’m certain that the longer term will see others equally honored for courageous acts.” 

The Pittsburgh Courier continued advocating for Miller, in June calling for him to be returned to the States for a conflict bond tour. The paper demanded that Secretary Knox order him residence “in order that he could carry out the identical service amongst his those who the white heroes are performing amongst their individuals.” Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee for president, and New York’s common mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, additionally urged the navy secretary to permit Miller to return on a conflict bond tour. Miller himself was desperate to make the journey. As he wrote to the Courier on September 26, “I do hope your paper will proceed the marketing campaign in my behalf. It might be an ideal pleasure to get again for just a few days.”  

Miller speaks with sailors and a civilian at the Great Lakes, Illinois, Naval Training Station on January 7, 1943, as part of his war bond tour. (National Archives)
Miller speaks with sailors and a civilian on the Nice Lakes, Illinois, Naval Coaching Station on January 7, 1943, as a part of his conflict bond tour. (Nationwide Archives)

The marketing campaign bore fruit and Miller was ordered residence. After practically a yr at sea, he arrived at Pearl Harbor on November 23, 1942. Over the course of the following two-plus months, Miller gave talks in Oakland, California; in his hometown of Waco, Texas; and in Dallas and Chicago, selling conflict bond gross sales and accepting tokens of admiration from black communities.

Maybe most importantly, on January 28, 1943, Miller addressed the primary class of black sailors to graduate from Camp Robert Smalls. The best honor that the navy might pay Miller, the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier had written, “could be for it to abolish forthwith the restrictions now in power, in order that black Individuals can serve their nation and their navy in any capability. This motion by the navy wouldn’t solely reward a hero, however would serve dramatic discover that this nation is in reality a democracy in an all-out conflict in opposition to anti-democratic forces.” 

The main target of Miller’s discuss at Camp Robert Smalls was the super pleasure he felt within the navy and of the privilege of being part of it. “It’s virtually unbelievable simply what the right coordination and power of our navy truly is,” Miller informed a reporter, and he urged the brand new sailors to “make the most of their alternatives.”

WHILE THE REVOLUTION he had helped to encourage unfolded round him, Miller himself was transferred for reassignment. On June 1, 1943, he arrived aboard the newly constructed escort provider USS Liscome Bay as a mess attendant and was promoted to cook dinner, third class. His new ship was a CVE—a so-called “child flattop.” Sailors sardonically claimed “CVE” stood for “Flamable, Susceptible, and Expendable.” Solely two-thirds the size of such fleet carriers because the Enterprise, escort carriers had been inexpensive and extra rapidly constructed, but in addition comparatively gradual and fewer well-armed and armored. 

The Liscome Bay supported the Marine landings on Makin and Tarawa, pounding Japanese gun emplacements and air bases. With Thanksgiving approaching, Miller wrote to his mom that he didn’t anticipate the conflict to finish quickly however requested that she “put together a spot on the desk for me in 1945. I’ll eat dinner with you all with a smile. Inform my buddies to stay the life that I’m dwelling.”

However on the early morning of November 24, 1943, the ship’s lookout shouted, “Christ, right here comes a torpedo!” A single torpedo from Japanese submarine I-175 struck the provider on the starboard aspect. Miller responded to common quarters, however just a few moments later the ship’s plane bomb journal exploded. “We had been hit simply again of midship” and simply aft of the engine compartment, recalled a survivor, Fireman Third Class Robert E. Haynes. “From right here on again, all the pieces was immediately gone.”

The thinly armored Liscome Bay carried over 200,000 kilos of bombs, 120,000 gallons of bunker oil, many hundreds of gallons of aviation gasoline, and innumerable portions of 20mm and 40mm cannon shells, all of which exploded. Many of the crew died immediately, and Liscome Bay sank inside 23 minutes. 

The casualty record was among the many largest of any navy vessel within the conflict. Solely 272 officers and enlisted males survived from the crew of greater than 900. Doris Miller was not amongst them. He was listed as “presumed useless” and after 12 months was reported as killed in motion. His physique was by no means recovered.

Called the "Golden Thirteen" (above), the navy's first black officers were commissioned on March 17, 1944. Below: a 2010 postage stamp honoring Miller. (Naval History and Heritage Command; USPS)
Referred to as the “Golden 13” (above), the navy’s first black officers had been commissioned on March 17, 1944. Under: a 2010 postage stamp honoring Miller. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command; USPS)

Doris Miller’s loss of life, nonetheless, was not in useless. The reminiscence of his life has burned brightly for example of how an underprivileged and oppressed younger man from rural Texas can rise above poverty and racial discrimination—not solely to show nice braveness, devotion, and patriotism, however to assist alter the course of American historical past. In January 1944, lower than two months after his loss of life, the navy opened a modest officer-training program at Camp Robert Smalls for black sailors, commissioning its first 13 black officers on March 17, 1944. Now, wrote one newspaper, “the heroic custom of Dorie Miller at Pearl Harbor will function an eternal inspiration” to each younger man “to extra absolutely serve his nation and the navy.”

On June 30, 1973, on the christening of a destroyer escort, the USS Miller—named in his honor—Texas Consultant Barbara Jordon predicted that the “Dorie Millers of the longer term can be captains in addition to cooks.” And, certainly, by this yr, 2019, the U.S. Navy had eight black admirals in its ranks.

So how ought to Doris Miller be remembered? Ronald Reagan didn’t get the information precisely proper when, in a 1975 speech, he regaled his viewers with the story of “a Negro sailor whose complete duties concerned kitchen-type duties,” who shot down 4 dive-bombers with a borrowed machine gun. In accordance with Reagan, Miller’s heroism single-handedly ended racial inequality in America. “When the primary bombs had been dropped on Pearl Harbor,” Reagan intoned, “that was when segregation within the army forces got here to an finish.”

That, in fact, was not true; vital as they had been, Doris Miller’s heroic actions on the day of the Pearl Harbor assault didn’t sound the loss of life knell of racism in America. However Miller’s heroism—and the legend it engendered—had been instantly answerable for serving to to roll again the navy’s coverage of racial segregation and prejudice, and served as a strong catalyst for the civil rights motion of the Nineteen Fifties and Nineteen Sixties that introduced an finish to the worst of America’s racial intolerance. Because the Pittsburgh Courier proclaimed in 1956, Doris Miller had “died for his nation in order that his individuals may rise one other notch in dignity and braveness. Each blow struck for civil rights is a monument to [Dorie] Miller, citizen.” ✯

TEACHABLE MOMENT                                           

It started with my grandfather. 

As a younger man, Livingston Brizill Sr. served within the U.S. Marine Corps in World Struggle II. He enlisted the yr after the Marine Corps first opened its doorways to African Individuals. It was 1943 and he was 18, and one of many first from Philadelphia to signal on. Many years later, as a curious youngster who cherished historical past, I consistently picked his mind over video games of checkers, or whereas he devoured the Philadelphia Inquirer on his option to consuming his subsequent cigarette. I used to be in awe of his encyclopedic data of historical past, World Struggle II particularly. It was throughout this well-spent time that my need to show historical past solidified and my curiosity within the conflict grew.

As a lot as my grandfather spoke concerning the conflict, although, he didn’t speak about his service. His modesty and humility wouldn’t permit it. I gathered that he had occupation responsibility within the Pacific islands and labored on water purification. Like most African Individuals who served in World Struggle II, he didn’t see fight. Certainly one of my most prized possessions was his 1944 camp yearbook, handed on to me by my grandmother, that detailed the coaching he obtained at Montford Level, in North Carolina, earlier than transport out. This ebook gave me a window into his coaching and preparation in a segregated Marine Corps. Within the few pictures that I’ve seen from his service, I might inform he was proud to put on the uniform.

Livingston Brizill joined the Marines in 1943; he later helped feed a love of history in the author—his grandson. (Courtesy of Dante R. Brizill)
Livingston Brizill joined the Marines in 1943; he later helped feed a love of historical past within the creator—his grandson. (Courtesy of Dante R. Brizill)

After I realized my dream of changing into a historical past trainer, starting in 2004, I couldn’t assist however replicate on our time collectively. One yr, whereas instructing concerning the Japanese assault at Pearl Harbor, I confirmed a Nationwide Geographic documentary, Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Assault—fittingly narrated by Tom Brokaw, creator of the ebook The Biggest Technology. There was a brief phase on a younger African American mess attendant stationed aboard the battleship USS West Virginia. I had heard about Doris “Dorie” Miller earlier than, however not on this method. I might lastly join a face—an individual—along with his heroism. He was extra than simply the white officers’ mess servant; he was somebody who confirmed that he had abilities past these assigned to him.

I paused the clip and talked about that it’s not too late to award Dorie Miller the Medal of Honor, however that it must be demanded by the citizenry. From that day on, I grew to become impressed to make Miller recognized exterior of the 4 partitions of my classroom. I made a decision to put in writing a ebook—a short historical past geared toward college students. Certainly one of my functions in doing so was to encourage amongst readers an curiosity within the African American expertise within the conflict, so it could by no means be forgotten.

Today author Brizill teaches history to high school students. Inspired by the Dorie Miller story, he uses it to inspire his students. (Courtesy of Dante R. Brizill)
Right this moment creator Brizill teaches historical past to highschool college students. Impressed by the Dorie Miller story, he makes use of it to encourage his college students. (Courtesy of Dante R. Brizill)

Over time, I’ve found that after I present ardour and curiosity in one thing, it sparks one thing inside my college students, and this was the case once more. All through the writing course of, my college students inspired me, changing into my cheerleaders. “When is that ebook popping out?!” was a well-recognized chorus. Lastly, in November 2018, Dorie Miller: Greatness Below Fireplace was launched. I knew I had achieved one among my objectives when a pupil emailed me after studying it. “A ebook by no means stops when you shut it, it stops the place you select,” he wrote to me. “Subjects and other people like this needs to be immortalized, by no means to be misplaced to time.”

If it wasn’t for my grandfather and his service, I in all probability wouldn’t have taken the curiosity in World Struggle II that I did and are available throughout one among its first heroes: Dorie Miller. We might imagine we all know all that we have to know concerning the conflict, however as we dig a bit deeper and uncover tales like my grandfather’s and other people like Dorie Miller, we are going to proceed to search out methods to be impressed by these women and men who served us honorably. ✯

—Dante R. Brizill has been instructing historical past at Elkton Excessive Faculty, in Elkton, Maryland, since 2006. His ebook is on the market on


This story was initially printed within the December 2019 problem of World Struggle II journal. Subscribe right here.


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