Doris “Dorie” Miller—-Rising to the Occasion

Doris “Dorie” Miller was born on October 12, 1919 in Waco, Texas, the son of Connery  and Henrietta Miller. They were sharecroppers who would eventually become subsistence farmers and thus the family was fairly poor. Doris was a big child, at 5′ 9:, 200 lbs. playing fullback on his high school football team. He was expelled from school due to engaging in numerous fights over racial issues. He worked on his father’s farm until he was 20 years old when he enlisted in the United States Navy in 1939.  He served as a Mess Attendant, Third Class and became the ship’s cook when he was transferred to the USS West Virginia battleship. A mess attendant prepares and serves food to the officers and the crew, clears the tables and cleans the dishes and makes the bed and cleans the bedroom and bathrooms for the officers. After temporary duty on the USS Nevada at Secondary Battery Gunnery School, he returned to the USS West Virginia on August 3, 1940.  At this point he stood 6′ 3″ and weighed over 200 lbs. Because of his size and strength, he competed in boxing competitions on the ships and became the Heavyweight champion of the West Virginia, an impressive feat considering the ship had a crew of approximately 2,000. He was advanced to Mess Attendant Second Class just before USS West Virgina was sent to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Dorie was awake at 6:00 AM on the West Virginia. He had volunteered as a room steward and made an extra five dollars each month providing wake-up services to duty officers, as well as doing their laundry, shining their shoes and making their beds. When the alarm for general quarters was sounded, he headed for his battle station, the anti-aircraft battery magazine amid ship. Unfortunately, the ship was under attack by  more than 200 Japanese torpedo planes, bombers and fighters and a torpedo had destroyed his battle station. Because of his size and strength he was ordered to run across the deck to retrieve injured shipmates and carry them to the quarterdeck where the were somewhat protected from the attack. He was next ordered to come to the aid of the injured ship’s Captain, Mervyn Bennion. He rushed to the bridge to attempt to carry Bennion to safety but the Captain refused to leave his post (Bennion would die of his wounds).

Miller was next ordered to help Ensign Victor Delano and Frederic H. White load the  #1 and #2 Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns. Delano expected Miller to load ammo into both guns but when he looked back around he saw that White had loaded both guns and was shocked to see Miller manning one of the guns and firing into the air at dive-bombing Japanese planes.

Despite having no training in operating the big guns, he bravely jumped into action. Miller later recounted: “It wasn’t hard. 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 Japanese planes. They were diving pretty close to us.” Later versions of the story had Miller shooting down four Japanese planes, but the truth is he probably didn’t hit any. During the time he was firing the gun only one Japanese plane was shot down. “One of the planes that he (Miller) was shooting at, and everyone else in the bay was shooting at, went down. He felt very pleased with that. And I don’t blame him. But there were a lot of other guys shooting at it also” Victor Delano related in 1993. Added White, “I did see Miller shooting but I would term it rather wild so I doubt that he hit anything. I certainly did not see him shoot down a plane.”

In fact, according to official records, the USS West Virginia did not have a record of anyone on board having shot down any planes that day. Nonetheless, the attempt by anyone on board to fire at the incoming planes certainly made it more difficult to press their attack. White later ordered Miller to help pull sailors out of the water and to safety. Eventually, because of the severe damage from explosions, the West Virginia began flooding and everyone was ordered to abandon ship. Of the 1,541 men on West Virginia during the attack, 130 were killed and 52 wounded. The ship had been struck by nine Japanese torpedoes.

Reports of the attack referenced the actions of an unknown Negro sailor. When he was identified as Doris Miller, Senator James Mead of New York introduced a Senate Bill seeking to award Dorie the Medal of Honor, the United States highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. On April 1, 1942, Dorris Miller was commended by the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox on May 27, 1942. The commendation cited cited his “distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard of his personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller despite enemy strafing and bombing, and in the face of 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 until ordered to leave the bridge.”  He was presented the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander in Chief for  the Pacific Fleet on board the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise for his extraordinary courage in battle. The citation read: “For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety…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..until ordered to leave the bridge.”

“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 W. Nimitz