A late-February lunch conversation turned to the subject of Black History Month, and specifically to a man named Doris Miller. That’s right, his first name was Doris; but to friends and anyone wishing to avoid his wrath, it had better be Dorie.
An African American born in Waco, Texas, in 1919, he worked the fields of his father’s farm with his three brothers. A muscular 200-pound teenager, he learned early on to physically defend himself against the racial slurs and teasing his name prompted. His size and athletic agility made him a star halfback on the high school football team.
At age 19, he joined the Navy. After completing basic training, he was assigned as a messman/cook. At that time, African Americans could not apply for any other naval rates (job specialties). In 1940, Miller joined the 1,500-man crew of the battleship USS West Virginia and soon achieved distinction as the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion, gaining the nickname “Raging Bull.”
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Miller awoke at 6 a.m. for laundry detail, his shop anchored in Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese attack commenced, he raced to his battle station, a gun battery magazine amidships, only to discover that it had been destroyed. He then proceeded to the bridge. Miller’s award citation reads in part: “While at the side of his captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.”
The details of Miller’s heroic actions are even more amazing. Having never been trained to operate a Browning .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun, he is credited with downing one, and possibly several, Japanese aircraft. Two armor-piercing bombs had taken out portions of the ship’s superstructure, and five torpedoes had ruptured its hull, causing numerous explosions.
As the USS West Virginia settled to the harbor bottom alongside the pier, the crew was ordered to abandon ship. But the West Virginia would rise from the mud of Pearl Harbor to sail again, participating in several Pacific island campaigns, including the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
She would be the only ship present at Pearl Harbor on the Day of Infamy to participate in the Japanese surrender ceremonies on Sept. 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay.
For his selfless acts of bravery, Dorie Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, which was presented by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. He was the first African American in history to receive this award. He was also awarded the Purple Heart.
Miller’s courage and sacrifice have since been recognized and honored by the naming of schools, roads, housing complexes, plaques, the issuance of a postage stamp displaying his image and, in 1973, the commissioning of the frigate USS Miller. His actions during the attack were portrayed, with no mention of his name, in the movie “Tora, Tora, Tora.”
Miller was cited by name in the film “Pearl Harbor,” the role played by a somewhat diminutive version of the real-life Miller — Cuba Gooding Jr.
This is the first of a two-part series. The conclusion of this column will be published
PAT GRANT has lived in Glendale for more than 30 years and was formerly a marketing manager for an insurance company. He may be reached at email@example.com.