Black History Month: Doris Miller, American Hero

February 06, 2018

During the attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, many heroes stepped forward, putting their lives at risk in order to assist their fellow serviceman. Among them was a Cook Third Class named Doris Miller, an African-American sailor who had started his day serving breakfast to the crewmen aboard the USS West Virginia (BB-48).

Doris Miller

Office of War Information illustration showing Doris Miller defending Pearl Harbor

When the attack on his ship began, Miller rushed from his regular duties to his battle station at an anti-aircraft battery magazine, but he found that it was already destroyed. He then headed to the central meeting point known as Times Square, where Lieutenant Commander Doir Johnson saw potential in the former boxer's large, muscular build. Miller was ordered to help move the ship’s captain, Mervyn Bennion, who had been mortally wounded by shrapnel during the attack.

Miller’s heroism involved moving the captain to shelter before being ordered to assist with a .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun. Miller, who was more familiar with the mess hall than with machine guns, began operating the weapon, much to the surprise of his crew mates, who had expected him to merely feed ammunition to a more-experienced sailor.

Doris Miller's story is an inspiring one that was tragically cut short with the sinking of the USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56) on November 24, 1943. He’s been honored many times, beginning with the Navy Cross, making him the first African-American to earn the award. Later, a Navy frigate—the USS Miller (FF-1091) was named for him,  and there are numerous tributes to him in his hometown of Waco, Texas, including a memorial, a school, and a community center. Adding to the list is a new biography by authors Thomas W. Cutrer and T. Michael Parrish, who saw an opportunity to once again examine the heroic tale of Doris Miller.

Doris MIller

Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement

Rather than focusing on his military career including his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor and his tragic death two years later, Cutrer and Parrish decided to expand beyond the stories we’ve heard to link Miller with the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement tells the story of the American hero, a story that brought the issue of racial segregation in the US military to light.

According to the authors, Miller's heroic actions at Pearl Harbor sparked a chain of events that led to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and brought American racial intolerance into the spotlight. Though Miller was assigned to work in the mess hall, he didn't hesitate to put himself in harm's way to help the ship’s captain and protect the men serving beside him.

Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement was released on the 76th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, on the same day a bronze statue dedicated him was unveiled in Waco. The story of Doris Miller’s heroism has been credited for the surge in African-American enlistment during World War II, and for the challenges to American racial prejudices that would change American society forever.

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