Heroes of the Harbor: Doris Miller


By: Steve Fagaly

The First U.S. Hero of World War II

When the first Japanese bomber entered Hawaiian territory on December 7th, 1941, very few people probably stopped and thought about how they could become a hero. As the first explosion shook the military installation, instincts kicked in and brave, albeit shaken soldiers manned their stations to fend off the ruthless attackers.

As the smoke cleared and the last of the Japanese bombers returned home, devastation and death were left in the wake and the once beautiful harbor was a warzone. Among the wreckage were countless fallen soldiers, lives ended so suddenly because of conflict and war. From the spoils, though, heroes rose, their acts of bravery felt throughout the harbor.

Born in 1919 in the southern city of Waco, TX, Doris Miller never knew where he was going to be on that ill-fated day, but like a man fulfilling a destiny he had long waited for, his actions earned him incredible praise.

As a Messman Third Class in the United States Navy aboard the West Virginia, Miller was in the midst of performing his daily duties when the first signs of attack rang out. When summoned to his battle station, Miller had found the anti-aircraft battery destroyed by an enemy torpedo. With his station gone, the soldier rushed to see what else he could do. A man of considerable stature, he was immediately selected by the ship’s communications officer, Lieutenant Commander Doir Johnson. It was Johnson’s decision that would later earn Miller the Navy Cross, making him the first African American to ever receive such an honor.

After assisting a gravely wounded Captain Mervyn Bennion, Miller manned a Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft gun, a weapon he had not be trained to use, and, alongside Lieutenant Frederic White and Ensign Victor Delano, whom he had once served as a room steward, and fired upon incoming bombers until he ran out of ammunition.

Miller was commended for his actions In the heat of battle, Miller continued to do whatever he could and after the Japanese continued their bombardment of the West Virginia, striking its deck and port side with bombs and torpedoes, Miller sprang into action. Unable to fight back any further, the Messman fought against oil and water to pull injured soldiers to safety.

By the time the Japanese forces pulled back, leaving the wreckage of man vessels behind them, over 2,400 soldiers had been killed, a number that would have definitely be higher if not for the heroics of men like Messman Doris Miller.

Before being transferred to the Indianapolis and, finally, the Liscome Bay, Miller was commended for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor, earning him an incredible deal of respect along with being recognized as one of the first heroes of the United States of World War II.

On November 24th, 1943, during the Battle of Makin Island, the Liscome Bay was struck by a Japanese torpedo and sank, claiming the lives of over 600 crewmembers. Among them was Doris Miller who, on December 7th, 1943, was presumed “missing in action.”

To hear more about the heroes of Pearl Harbor, explore the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu. Experience life aboard the vessels of World War II and take a somber trip through the Punchbowl National Cemetery to honor the fallen heroes of the United States of America.

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