From messman to Pearl Harbor hero

Doris Miller speaking at the Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Illinois.--PHOTO COURTESY U.S. NAVY.--Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives collection

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack that brought the United States into World War II. Altogether, 2,390 Americans lost their lives that Sunday morning in the attack at Pearl Harbor. Twelve ships sank or were beached, and nine were severely damaged. The U.S. lost 164 aircraft. On the Japanese side, 64 died, five ships sank and 29 planes were destroyed.

One of the true heroes of the Japanese attack, Doris “Dorie” Miller (1919–1943) was a messman, or assistant cook, on the USS West Virginia. After dragging his wounded captain to safety, Miller, manned the .50 caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun for 15 minutes during the attack and strafed the Japanese planes until he ran out of ammo. Despite having no weapons training, Miller is credited with downing Japanese planes. He was awarded the Navy Cross, the third highest honor awarded by the US Navy at the time, and was the first African American serviceman to receive that honor.

Before 1922, the Navy was authorized to recruit Blacks under the same conditions as members of other races. During the 1923 Tea Pot Dome scandal of  the Warren Harding administration, instructions were immediately issued to discontinue recruiting “Negroes” in ratings other than messman.

According to BlackPressUSA, The Pittsburgh Courier obtained the confidential report in 1942 detailing the enlistment of Negroes. It read, in part, that “where qualified Negroes in competition for advancement in ratings attained them, an assignment had to be found where the rated Negroes exercised little or no military command” (as in giving orders to white sailors). It was against that backdrop in 1939 that 19-year-old Miller signed up for a six-year hitch as Messman 3rd class. He was soon promoted to second class, then first class, and finally to ship’s cook, third class.

“You have to understand that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president in 1932, he opened up the Navy again to Blacks, but in one area only; they were called mess attendants, stewards, and cooks,” says Clark Simmons, who was a mess attendant on the U.S.S. Utah during the Pearl Harbor attack. “The Navy was so structured that if you were Black, this was what they had you do in the Navy — you only could be a servant.”

On the morning of December 7, the Naval History & Heritage Command reported that “Miller had arisen at 6 a.m., and was collecting laundry when the alarm for general quarters sounded. He headed for his battle station, the antiaircraft battery magazine amidship, only to discover that torpedo damage had wrecked it, so he went on deck. Because of his physical prowess, he was assigned to carry wounded fellow sailors to places of greater safety. Then an officer ordered him to the bridge to aid the mortally wounded captain of the ship. He subsequently manned a 50 caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship.”

Miller described firing the machine gun during the battle, a weapon which he had not been trained to operate: “It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”

Of the 1,541 men on West Virginia during the attack, 130 were killed and 52 wounded. Although Miller’s courage under fire was initially overlooked, the Black press seized his story and pressured the Navy to recognize him. In 2001, Black Press historian Clint Wilson wrote: “For months, the Navy didn’t disclose Miller’s name. In fact, his heroism wasn’t known publicly until nearly a month after the Pearl Harbor attack and then in a dispatch via Ralph Jordan, a correspondent for INS, the International News Service. It took three months of intense digging by Black reporters for the Pittsburgh Courier and other papers to finally find out the Pearl Harbor hero’s name. Miller became a celebrity when he returned stateside. He was featured on several national radio programs and a number of columnists, Black and white, praised his heroism. Two liberal members of Congress took it a step further. On Monday, March 14, 1942, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., introduced a bill authorizing the President of the United States to present Miller with the Congressional Medal of Honor “in recognition of distinguished and courageous service at the risk of his life and above the call of duty while aboard a United States battleship at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.” A similar measure was introduced in the Senate by James Mead.

Miller was commended by the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, personally presented the Navy Cross to Miller on board aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) for his extraordinary courage in battle. Speaking of Miller, Nimitz remarked: “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.”

The Pittsburgh Courier called for Miller to be allowed to return home for a war bond tour like white heroes. In November 1942, Miller arrived at Maui, and was ordered on a war bond tour while still attached to the heavy cruiser Indianapolis. In December 1942 and January 1943, he gave talks in Oakland, California, in his hometown of Waco, Texas, in Dallas and to the first graduating class of African-American sailors from Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Chicago.

Doris Miller reported for duty at Puget Sound Navy Yard in May1943. His rate was again raised, to Petty Officer, Ship’s Cook Third Class on 1 June, and he reported to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. After training in Hawaii for the Gilbert Islands operation, Liscome Bay participated in the Battle of Tarawa which began on November 20.

On November 24, a single torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-175 struck the escort carrier near the stern. The aircraft bomb magazine detonated a few moments later, sinking the warship within minutes. There were 272 survivors. The rest of the crew was listed as “presumed dead.” On December 7, 1943 — exactly two years post Pearl Harbor — PO Miller’s parents were notified their son “was dead.”

Miller’s sacrifices afforded him a reputation far above his rank. In addition to the Navy Cross, Miller received the Purple Heart, American Defense Service Medal – Fleet Clasp, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. In 1942, Miller’s actions were dramatized on the CBS radio series “They Live Forever” and his face adorned the U.S. Navy recruiting poster “above and beyond the call of duty.” Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1945 poem “Negro Hero” is narrated from Miller’s point of view.

Although he was not identified by name, he was portrayed by Elven Havard in the 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” In 1973, the Knox-class frigate USS Miller was named for Miller. Oscar Award winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed Miller in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor,” and in 1991, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. dedicated a bronze commemorative plaque of Miller at the Miller Family Park located on the U.S. Naval Base, Pearl Harbor. 


Contact Tribune staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or

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