Who was Doris Miller?

Elizabeth Howe
October 02, 2020 - 10:51 am
SHIP'S MESS ATTENDANT DORIS MILLER

US Navy

Ship's Mess Attendant Doris Miller was recognized as one of the first U.S. heroes of World War II, was the first African American to earn the Navy Cross, and is now the namesake of the Navy's first aircraft carrier named for an African American or enlisted sailor. 

But who was Doris Miller? 

Doris Miller, or “Dorie” to his shipmates and friends, was a Navy cook -- one of the few ratings open to African Americans during World War II. On the morning of December 7, 1941, Miller was belowdecks on the USS West Virginia cleaning up breakfast when the alarms sounded. 

Miller was called on by an officer to assist in saving the captain's life -- he was bleeding out from a shrapnel wound. After aiding the captain, Miller loaded and fired an anti-aircraft machine gun—a weapon that, as an African American in a segregated military, he had not been trained to operate. 

"It wasn't hard," Miller reportedly said of firing the weapon. "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."

Miller stayed behind once the order to abandon ship was passed to help evacuate shipmates and save the lives of sailors in the burning water. 

Miller, a cook, was recognized for his actions that day. 

Nimitz Awards Miller the Navy Cross

“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," Admiral Chester Nimitz said when awarding Miller the Navy Cross.

Miller returned to duty first reporting to the USS Indianapolis, then the USS Liscome Bay. He was aboard the USS Liscome Bay in 1943 when it was struck by a torpedo off Butaritari Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. Almost two years to the day, Miller's family was informed that their son was missing in action.

Miller grew up on his family’s farm in Waco, Texas, the son of a sharecropper. He played football in high school and was the USS West Virginia's heavyweight boxing champion.

The first-ever aircraft carrier named after an African American sailor

“When Uncle Doris decided that he was going to step up to the machine gun and shoot, it was a ‘why not me?’ moment,” Henrietta Blednose Miller, a niece of Miller said during the naming ceremony at Pearl Harbor in January. “As we go through life, we’re all going to be confronted with ‘why not me?’ moments whether they are small or big, but with each one, you will be affecting someone if you take an action at that moment. At the time [Uncle Doris> did what he did, he did not realize how proud he was going to make this family."

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Reach Elizabeth Howe on Twitter @ECBHowe.

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