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This Day in History: Doris Miller, an “improbable American hero”

On this day in 1919, an “improbable American hero” is born. Doris “Dorie” Miller was the grandson of slaves and the son of poor Texas sharecroppers. His boyhood friends would remember him as a “real sweet person, not rowdy like the other boys.” He was a “nice fellow” whom they called “Power” because he was so big: 6 feet, 3 inches tall.

The boy called “Power” enlisted in the Navy in 1939 as a Mess Attendant, third class. Back then, his race prevented him from serving in any other capacity. Of this situation, Miller merely remarked that “it beats sitting around Waco working as a busboy, going nowhere.”

Miller was stationed aboard USS West Virginia just a few years later, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It was early in the morning, and Miller was collecting laundry. “All of a sudden there was a noise overhead,” one of Miller’s friends recalled. “We began to realize that these were not drills; they were the real McCoy.”

Miller’s battle station had been destroyed, so he moved to a more central location aboard ship. Remember, at this juncture, everything would have been complete mayhem. The Japanese were flying overhead, dropping bombs. Fires and explosions were tearing through ships. The Navy had been abruptly thrust into war. Sailors had mere seconds to make the mental adjustment.

Miller began pulling wounded sailors to safety. The Captain of the ship had been hit, and he had a huge, gaping wound in his abdomen. Miller pulled the Captain to a place of greater safety, too. Another officer saw Miller and ordered him to supply ammunition to two inactive machine guns on deck. But Miller started firing those guns! He’d never fired such a weapon before, nor had he been trained in using them (again) because of his race.

“It wasn’t hard,” Miller said later. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. . . . 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.”

Accounts vary on how many planes Miller hit. The Navy credits him with one, but he may have hit as many as six.

It soon became clear that West Virginia could not stay afloat. Miller evacuated with the crew, but he rescued even more men as he went.

Word got out about the heroic mess attendant—except no one knew his identity! Civil rights groups began to wonder why the Navy could so quickly identify white heroes, but could not seem to identify its black ones. Finally, in March 1942, the Navy named Miller as the hero, and a letter of commendation was issued.

“[W]e would like to know why it required so long to identify Mr. Miller,” a Pittsburgh Courier article demanded, “and why to date he has received no reward for his heroism.”

The bad news? Yes, our Navy used to be segregated and injustices occurred. The good news? We Americans are always learning, always bettering ourselves, and always working toward more freedom and equality.

Thus, the Navy did the right thing: In May 1942, Admiral Chester Nimitz himself awarded the Navy Cross to Miller. “This marks the first time in the present conflict,” Nimitz said, “that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race, and I am sure that the future will see others similarly honored.”

Sadly, Miller would not live to see the end of the war—or the desegregation of the Navy, which he has been credited with prompting. Instead, Miller was killed in late 1943 when his ship, USS Liscome Bay, was sunk by a Japanese submarine.

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