Doris “Dorie” Miller was one of the bravest men who ever lived, and was the first African-American man to receive the Navy Cross in history for courage under fire.
Born In Waco, Texas in 1919, Miller worked on his father’s farm until age 19. With dreams of becoming a military man, Miller enlisted in the United States Navy in 1938 to provide for his family and defend his homeland.
This was still very much a time of racism and segregation in America. The Navy would not allow blacks to enlist in combat roles, only as “mess attendants” – sailors delegated to the tasks of cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the ships’ quarters.
Miller served his country with great pride, despite the negative attitudes of society towards African-Americans at the time. After nearly two years of working on navy ships in various roles as a mess attendant, he was finally promoted to Ship’s Cook, third class, aboard the USS West Virginia.
After serving breakfast for the ship’s crew aboard the West Virginia on the morning of December 7th, 1941, Miller was collecting laundry when the ship was attacked by the first of several torpedoes.
Remembering his training, Miller immediately reported to his post in the ammunition holds of an anti-aircraft gun on board, only to find the gun was destroyed. Knowing time was against him, he raced to “Times Square”, the central intersection of the ship’s passageways.
The ship’s communication officer, Lt. Commander Doir Johnson, noticed Miller was a strong man. From Times Square, he ordered Miller to accompany him topside to the bridge. There lie Captain Mervyn Bennion, severely injured and suffering from a shrapnel wound to the abdomen.
Unable to remove the Captain from the bridge due to his critical state, Miller and another sailor carried him to a sheltered spot behind the conning tower. The captain, refusing to abandon his post, gave orders for the sailors to man .50 caliber anti-aircraft guns.
Miller loaded ammunition in one of the AA turrets, and knowing there was no time for hesitation, Miller started opening fire on Japanese airships from one of the .50 cals. Even without any formal training, he was able to take out one of the planes before running out of ammunition. Miller recalled after, “It wasn’t hard… I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine.”
After defending against japanese bombers under heavy fire, Miller made a sprint to carry Captain Bennion through thick smoke to the navigation bridge. The captain, already barely clutching onto his last moments, died shortly after.
With no time to lose, Miller accompanied his fellow sailors to the lower levels of the ship, wading through hundreds of feet of oil and water to save his crewmates. Without the courageous actions of Miller, a number of lives would have been lost to the depths of the bay.
After attempting to prevent the ship from capsizing by counter-flooding various compartments of the ship, the West Virginia was unable to be saved and sank to the bottom of the harbor. Miller and his crewmates, saving as many as they could on the way out, finally had no choice but to abandon ship.
The actions of “Dorie” Miller were – at first – unrecognized by the Navy. On the 15th of December, a list of awards was released commending the actions of the sailors that day. Among them was one commendation for an “unnamed Negro”.
The NAACP requested that President Roosevelt award the unnamed Negro with the Distinguished Service Cross. It wasn’t until March of the following year, 1942, that Doris Miller was announced as the unnamed Negro, and finally in May, “Dorie” was personally awarded the Navy Cross by the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Namitz. The Navy Cross was the third highest award that could be earned at the time, first was the Medal of Honor and second the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.
Doris Miller was a true patriot like many others during the war, and continued to serve his country well after the events of the Pearl Harbor raids. Eventually assigned to the USS Liscome Bay, Miller was killed by a torpedo from a Japanese vessel off of the coast of Butaritari Island, along with over two-thirds of the sailors on board. The first African American in United States history to be awarded the Navy Cross, Doris Miller was an inspiration to all, proving that the bonds formed between brother in arms are much more than skin-deep.