One of the earliest American war heroes of World War II, Doris Miller served in the US Navy during a time when segregation in the military and racial discrimination in the country were the norm. He joined the Navy as a messman primarily because that was the only position reserved for Americans of African descent in the Navy. Working in the ‘hole’ of USS West Virginia, he performed the most menial of tasks without questions or reservations. Big and strong, he earned the respect of his shipmates by becoming the heavyweight champion onboard the battleship. He first saw action during the Japanese raid of Pearl Harbour in 1941; one he served with utmost valour and distinction. For someone who was never trained to operate an anti-aircraft gun, he excelled at it when the occasion demanded it from him. For his heroics, he was awarded the Navy Cross, and yet he was never promoted or trained to serve in a combat role. Nevertheless, Doris Miller paved the way for reforms in the US Military, which by the late 1960s had completely integrated African-American servicemen into all walks of combat service.
Childhood & Early Life
The third of four boys to Connery and Henrietta Miller, Doris Miller was born on 12 October 1919 in Waco, Texas; a dark period where the southern U.S. states were so marred by segregation and race violence that lynching of African Americans had become commonplace.
He attended A.J. Moore High School and although he was a good student and played fullback for football team, he dropped out of school when he was forced to repeat his eighth grade.
He assisted his father in sharecropping and shortly before his 20th birthday in 1939, he enlisted to serve in the US Navy for a period of six years.
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After completing his training at Norfolk-based Naval Training Station, Doris Miller was promoted to Mess Attendant Third Class, and was initially assigned to the Pyro, an ammunition ship.
He was transferred to the battleship USS West Virginia on 2nd January 1940. As a messman, he was responsible for doing the laundry, making the beds and shining the shoes for officers on the ship.
Aboard the Virginia, he took up competitive boxing, and quickly became the heavyweight champion on the ship and by February of 1941, he was promoted to Mess Attendant Second Class.
In July 1941, he served on the lead battleship USS Nevada for roughly a month before being reassigned back to USS West Virginia stationed at Pearl Harbour.
On the morning of 7th December 1941, he was below decks collecting laundry right around the time when the first wave of attacks by 200 odd Japanese dive bombers, torpedo planes and fighters commenced on the US fleet docked at Pearl Harbour.
As the general quarter alarm blared, he ran to his battle station amid ships only to find the anti-aircraft gun battery there damaged by a torpedo. Making his way to the deck, he worked tirelessly to carry wounded sailors to the ship’s safer sections, including a mortally wounded Mervyn Bennion, the ship’s Captain.
An officer, having spotted two unmanned anti-aircraft guns ordered him to supply ammunition. With the officer needed elsewhere, he instructed Miller on how to operate the gun, and Doris Miller manned the gun impressively, despite his lack of formal training. By the time ammunition ran out, he had shot down at least three Japanese planes.
Days after Pearl Harbour, he was transferred to USS Indianapolis, a battle cruiser where he spent the next 17 months.
By January 1st, 1942 the Navy released a commendation list for Pearl Harbour heroes; it contained one unnamed black sailor. Thanks to the journalistic work by the Pittsburgh Courier, Doris Miller was confirmed the unnamed sailor and he was formally commended and awarded with the Navy Cross.
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While still attached to the USS Indianapolis, he returned to Pearl Harbour for a war bond tour. During the tour, he also spoke in front of the graduating class of non-commissioned sailors at the Illinois based Great Lakes Naval Training Station.
He reported to Puget Sound Navy Yard in mid-1943 and was assigned as Cook Third Class to Liscome Bay, a newly constructed escort carrier as part of the Northern attack force tasked with invading the Gilbert Islands. Unfortunately, the Liscome Bay was struck by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine on 24th November 1943. It engulfed in flames within minutes and sunk with most of her crew on board.
Undaunted in the face of enemy fire and bombing at Pearl Harbour, he first helped his drowning crewmates get to a safe spot on the ship, and then manned an anti-aircraft machine gun, and bravely fired away at Japanese dive bombers shooting down a few in the process; the latter is remarkable given he had no prior training of operating a gun of that nature.
For his Pearl harbour heroics, Doris Miller was presented with the Navy Cross on May 27th, 1942 by Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz. At the time, the Navy Cross was the second highest gallantry award in the US Navy and he was the first ever African-American to receive the award.
He received other awards, prime among them being the Purple Heart, the Fleet Clasp, the American Defence Service Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
When the Liscome Bay was sunk by a Japanese submarine, only 272 men were rescued. Doris Miller’s parents were notified of their son’s ‘missing in action’ status. They finally decided to hold a memorial service for him on April 30th, 1944 at the Second Baptist Church, Waco.
Doris Miller was officially declared dead by the Navy on November 25th, 1944.
Doris Miller’s heroics set in motion several reforms in the US Navy. One of them was the Officer’s Training Program for African-American sailors at Camp Robert Small in January 1944 and three months later saw 13 black officers get commissioned. Today, there are several African-American admirals serving in the US Navy.
A Knox class frigate, USS Miller was commissioned on June 30th, 1973 in his honour.
He has been portrayed in popular Hollywood movies like Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Pearl Harbour (2001).