The Story of Doris Miller and What It Means to be An American Hero

Remembering the black Navy sailor who began the dismantling of racism in the military.

Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller had never fired an automatic weapon before the morning of December 7, 1941. Yet, in the midst of the deadly attack that turned the tranquil waters of Pearl Harbor into a bloodbath, he grabbed a .50-caliber Browning machine gun and began firing at incoming Japanese fighter pilots.

Miller, an African American sailor aboard the battleship West Virginia, had survival on his mind that fateful morning. But not just his own. As smoke and flames engulfed the ship, he carried his wounded commanding officer to safety (he later died). He also helped to pull his fellow sailors from the oily, fiery water as the lower decks became flooded and the ship began to sink.

As for operating an automatic weapon for the first time, Miller later said, “It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine.”

It wasn't hard.

I find those three words fascinating. Miller was undoubtedly referring to the mechanics of using the weapon. However, I wonder if there was a deeper meaning behind what he said since he’d also made a conscious effort to save the lives of many of his fellow, white servicemen.

At that time, the Navy was segregated. Black servicemen were not permitted to receive training in any specialty areas, including gunnery and engineering. In fact, black sailors were not even eligible for promotions. They were systematically relegated to the low-ranking position of messman, meaning they were the ship’s housekeeping staff — chambermaids, launderers, cooks, and bakers.

Black sailors weren’t even permitted to wear buttons stamped with the Navy’s official emblem. Instead, they wore plain buttons.

It wasn’t hard because surely Doris Miller was not thinking about any of those injustices when, after the bombing started, he ran to “the hole,” which was his assigned battle station below deck. His job was to pass ammunition up to the gunners. When he saw the hole was flooded he retreated. Then, amidst the chaos of enemy gunfire and torpedo strikes, he quickly sought reassignment which led him to discover an unmanned machine gun. He immediately picked it up and began firing, even though he didn’t have orders to do so.

Survival instincts, I’m sure.

Miller probably had keen survival instincts. After all, he was a sharecropper’s son, born on October 12, 1919 in Waco, Texas; born during a year when America experienced some of the deadliest violence perpetrated against its black citizens. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Miller’s family struggled financially. As the Great Depression began to take hold of the country, job opportunities were practically nonexistent, especially for someone with brown skin. So, Miller joined the Navy in 1939. He was sent to boot camp at a segregated Naval facility in Norfolk, Virginia.

Grabbing that machine gun wasn’t hard because Miller wasn’t thinking about all of the times he’d been called “boy,” “n*gger,” or worse while on the ship. White sailors and officers (particularly from the South) often let their openly-racist behavior and rhetoric run free, and they did it without fear of punishment. I know this because I’ve interviewed several World War II Veterans, black and white.

Most importantly, as Miller stated, using the machine gun wasn’t hard because, contrary to what the Navy believed, black men were intelligent and competent enough to operate one.

After the word got out about Miller’s unquestionable bravery, the black community and particularly the black press, such as the Pittsburgh Courier, hailed him as an American war hero. Miller was thrust into the spotlight and became a household name. Activists such as Walter White, head of the NAACP, seized the opportunity to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to desegregate the Navy and grant equal opportunities to black sailors. It was another step toward pushing the military (and the country) forward in the area of civil rights — a fight that began a few years earlier through the efforts of A. Philip Randolph and others.

In addition, The Pittsburgh Courier started a campaign that called for the complete freedom of black Americans at home and those serving abroad. They called it “Double Victory” or “Double V.” At the same time, there was a push to admit Miller into the Naval Academy (no black student had graduated from the school). Others wanted him to receive the Medal of Honor just as several white servicemen had for their heroic deeds during the attack. Yet, Secretary Knox, along with a group of southern politicians opposed all of it.

However, under relentless pressure from the black community, FDR eventually directed Knox to award Miller the Navy Cross, the Navy’s third-highest honor. Miller was given the award on May 27, 1942 during a ceremony held on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor. Then, after almost one year at sea, he was ordered stateside to participate in a war bond tour to raise morale and garner support for the war.

During the tour, Miller traveled to his hometown of Waco and he made stops in Dallas, Chicago, and Oakland, California. In early 1943, he addressed the first black graduates from Camp Robert Smalls, the segregated boot camp facility located on an isolated part of Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. During his visit Miller encouraged the new sailors to “take advantage of their opportunities.”

After the tour ended the Navy promoted Miller to petty officer (cook third class) and assigned him to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. On November 24, 1943, the day before Thanksgiving, a single torpedo from a Japanese submarine hit the carrier and took it to the bottom of the ocean. Miller was one of over 600 crew members (out of 900) who was killed. His body was never recovered.

Miller’s life and death exemplified heroism and sacrificial service. He also started a movement within the military. Although progress was painfully slow, the Navy eventually began training black sailors in specialty areas, commissioning black officers, and desegregating its ranks. The first black midshipman, Wesley A. Brown, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1949.

The memory and legacy of Doris Miller continue to live on. In 1973, a destroyer escort was named after him. And just this year on MLK Day at a ceremony in Pearl Harbor, the Navy announced that an aircraft carrier will be named after Miller. The future USS Doris Miller is expected to be completed in 2023. It will be the first aircraft carrier named after an enlisted sailor and the first named in honor of a black American.

After reading about the announcement online I found it interesting that some of the readers’ comments were woefully insensitive and grossly ignorant. People were complaining that Miller wasn’t more of a hero than any other sailor in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. So, why was he special?

I guess they didn't take into account the discrimination and bigotry that Miller dealt with— not just on the battleship West Virginia, but as a young man growing up in Texas. Also, I guess they didn't consider that Miller was well aware of the violence and all manner of unequal treatment that black Americans had to endure everywhere in the country — how they were systematically locked out of homeownership, good schools, and well-paying jobs.

I’m sure Doris Miller carried all of that with him every single day. Even on the day he picked up the machine gun he wasn’t allowed to use and saved lives — perhaps even the lives of men who thought little of him. That’s what made him special.

Those who complain should try to understand that.

It isn’t hard.

Writing a book and other things that I hope will decolonize your mind.

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