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Many of the heroes of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor have been honored with medals and citations. Some have even had US Navy ships named in their honor. One notable figure from the attack, however, is receiving an unprecedented honor. According to Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, the United States Navy is naming a new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier after African-American sailor and Pearl Harbor hero Doris Miller. The honor is even more remarkable considering aircraft carriers in the modern era are typically named for US presidents and other very high-ranking individuals. Miller, by contrast, was an enlisted sailor serving in a segregated military.

Doris Miller’s Heroism

Waco, Texas native Doris Miller was an unlikely hero on the morning of December 7, 1941. As a mess attendant aboard USS West Virginia (BB-48), he was stationed below deck, serving as a mess attendant, one of the few ratings available to African Americans at the time. When the attack began, however, Miller sprang into action, putting his life on the line for his countrymen. After finding his battle station inaccessible, Miller went up to the deck, where he was ordered to help move injured sailors to safety. He helped move the ship’s dying captain, Mervyn Bennion, who had been struck by shrapnel. Afterward—though he never trained on anti-aircraft weaponry—Miller jumped behind one of West Virginia’s guns and fired until he had expended all its ammunition.

The First of Many Honors

Admiral Chester Nimitz presents the Navy Cross to Doris Miller, 27 May 1942

Admiral Chester Nimitz presents the Navy Cross to Doris Miller, 27 May 1942

Several months later, Doris Miller became the first African–American serviceman to be awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy’s second-highest honor at the time. On May 27, 1942, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, personally presented Miller with the medal in a ceremony aboard USS Enterprise (CV-6).

Two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller was killed when the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56) was torpedoed and sunk on November 24, 1943.

Aircraft Carrier Named for Doris Miller

The announcement of the new aircraft carrier, expected to cost $12.5 billion, was officially made on January 20, 2020, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The carrier won’t be the first ship to bear Doris Miller’s name. The destroyer escort USS Miller (DE/FF-1091) was commissioned into service in 1973 and was active until 1991.

Doris Miller’s heroism has been captured in movies including Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor and the 2019 blockbuster Midway, which depicted his Navy Cross presentation. In addition, there have been many parks, streets, and schools named for the American hero.

Construction of the new aircraft carrier is expected to take seven to eight years.

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