The first black American hero of World War II, Doris Miller became an inspiration to generations of Americans for his actions at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Miller was born into a family of sharecroppers and raised near Waco, TX. Imposing in stature, he played football in high school and later showed skills as a heavyweight boxer. In 1939, at 19, Miller enlisted in the Navy as a mess attendant, the only job rating open to Blacks at the time.
Miller was serving aboard the battleship West Virginia when the Japanese attacked while it was moored at Pearl Harbor. When damage to the ship prevented him from reaching his regular battle station, Miller helped with efforts to rescue his shipmates, scores of whom were wounded or trapped in wreckage. He was later ordered to the bridge to assist in moving the ship’s captain, who had been mortally wounded.
After helping carry the captain to a more sheltered area, Miller took over an unattended 50-caliber machine gun nearby. Though never trained in its operation, he maintained fire on Japanese aircraft until ordered to abandon the bridge as fires raged out of control.
After the attack, West Virginia’s senior surviving officer wrote in his report that Miller’s contributions as a rescuer were crucial, “unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.” Thanks to press coverage and the tremendous interest of the Black community, Miller (who was often referred to as “Dorie” in press accounts), became, arguably, the best known enlisted sailor of World War II.
On May 27, 1942, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross “for distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor.” While presenting the award, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific fleet, commented: “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.”
After serving aboard the Indianapolis for nearly a year, Miller took overdue leave and made public appearances in California, Texas and Illinois before being advanced in June 1943 to the rating of officer’s cook, third class, and assigned to the new escort aircraft carrier Liscome Bay. On Nov. 24, 1943, he was killed in action along with more than 600 shipmates when a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank Liscome Bay during Operation Galvanic, the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. His body was lost at sea.
Miller received numerous posthumous honors. A destroyer escort, USS Miller (DE-1091), commissioned in 1973, was named for him. A number of elementary schools across the country have been named after Miller. A school, park, cemetery, and YMCA branch in Waco, TX, bear his name.
Although he was only the first of a number of African Americans to be recognized for their heroism in World War II, Miller is singularly remembered for providing inspiration to a campaign for equal recognition and opportunity for Blacks in the military, a campaign that bore fruit in 1948 when President Truman ordered “that there shall be equality and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces.”