During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.
For 18 months between 1942 and 1943, Doris Miller lived as a hero.
Miller, the third son of Texas sharecroppers, enlisted in the U.S. Navy in September of 1939 as a mess attendant, the only job open to black sailors at the time. Two years later, Miller was aboard the USS West Virginia, moored in Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese attacked and the United States was pulled into World War II.
A former high school fullback and the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion, Miller was tasked with helping wounded sailors off the deck while Japanese bombs rained down on the harbor. An officer ordered him to the bridge. From there, Miller got behind a .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun and, despite having no training, fired until he was out of ammunition.
Miller and a lieutenant “maintained their fire until the machine guns were put out of action by the encroaching flames from numerous blazes set by enemy bombs,” a Navy spokesman told The Pittsburgh Courier in 1942.
The captain then ordered everyone to abandon ship. Miller was one of the last three men off the West Virginia before it sank, according to the Navy Times. On his way to safety, he helped pull men from the burning water.
The ‘unknown Negro messman hero’
The story of the “unknown Negro messman hero” spread quickly. Some said he dropped as many as half a dozen Japanese planes from the sky. Miller himself, in the Navy’s version of events issued to the American press, thought he got one.
“‘It wasn’t hard,” Miller is quoted as saying. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about 15 minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”
In their 2017 biography, historians T. Michael Parrish and Thomas W. Cutrer concluded it was unlikely any gunfire from the West Virginia took down aircraft based on its position in the harbor.
Still, at the time, Miller was celebrated for his bravery.
It took several months for the Courier, once the country’s most widely circulated black newspaper, to learn Miller’s identity. The story was front-page news.
Doris, his birth name given by an aunt, was masculinized to “Dorie” in that initial report. The nickname stuck.
“Add the name of Dorie Miller, 22-year-old mess attendant in the United States Navy, to the illustrious ‘honor roll’ of Negro fighting heroes, who have inscribed their names in the red ink of raw courage,” the Courier printed beneath a large photo of Miller in uniform.
“No longer is his name unknown.”
The so-called “scoop of the year” was the result of an exhaustive effort by the newspaper to unmask Miller after several other national publications picked up the sensational story. The newspaper’s coverage, part of its Double V campaign that demanded black Americans risking their lives abroad receive full citizenship rights at home, not only lauded Miller’s actions. It took the segregated Navy to task for its treatment of black sailors.
“It had been a Jim Crow institution for a long time,” Parrish, the historian, said in an interview with the Waco Tribune-Herald. “The Navy had a long tradition of undemocratic and abusive policies that it was trying to overcome. Doris Miller, by serving in the Navy, chose the most difficult challenge that an African American could have in those days. The potential for disrespect, overwork, abuse and low pay was continual.”
He was capable of much more than a service job, but Miller was “not trained to serve or handle anything but a tray of food,” one Courier reporter wrote.
Miller “was allowed to enlist only in the rank of a messman. He served meals, cleaned up after the officers, and did the menial work which is the role of the Negro messman thru-out the Navy,” the newspaper reported.
Miller the celebrity
For those 18 months he was a public figure, Miller was in high demand. Due in large part to the Courier, Miller was given time off for a publicity tour of sorts. A write-in campaign to President Franklin Roosevelt sought to get Miller into the Naval Academy.
Miller, by Parrish’s estimation, became the most famous African American in the country, surpassing even the popularity of fighter Joe Louis. Bills were introduced to award Miller the Congressional Medal of Honor, although the suggestion was met with resistance. Many thought his actions were not as deserving as other honorees, all white and most of them officers.
One of the earliest campaigns was supported by James M. Mead, a Democratic senator from New York. In a statement to the Courier, Mead called the effort “a simple act of justice by those who represent a grateful nation.”
Navy Secretary William Franklin Knox opposed the Medal of Honor for Miller but agreed to the Navy Cross, at the time the third-highest honor given to sailors.
Miller received the cross aboard a warship in the Pacific in May 1942. It was presented personally by then-Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the commander in chief of the Pacific fleet.
“This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race, and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts,” Nimitz remarked during the ceremony.
Distinguished in death
On Nov. 24, 1943, Miller died as a hero. He was among the more than 600 presumed lost when a Japanese torpedo sunk the escort carrier Liscome Bay in the Pacific. He had risen to the rank of cook, third class. In death, Miller was entitled to several other distinctions, including the Purple Heart.
He was just 24 years told.
Two months after the sinking of the Liscome Bay, the Navy opened an officer training program for black sailors at Camp Robert Smalls. The first 13 black officers were commissioned on March 17, 1944. The armed forces would not be desegregated until four years later.
Miller “died for his country so that his people might rise another notch in dignity and courage,” a Courier reporter wrote in 1956. “Every blow struck for civil rights is a monument to Miller, citizen.”
Since then, the Navy has commissioned a frigate in his honor, the USS Miller, his story was given the Hollywood treatment in 2001’s “Pearl Harbor,” and memorials in his Waco hometown bear his name. Just this year, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Navy honored Miller by naming an aircraft carrier for him. It was the first named for an African American and the first for an enlisted sailor, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
One distinction still eludes him. Despite numerous campaigns over the last eight decades, Miller never got his Medal of Honor.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section on that day.
Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.
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