His name was Doris, but he was a powerfully built football fullback, a heavyweight boxer, and the first black American hero of World War II.
He distinguished himself during the Japanese sneak attack against Hawaii on Sunday, December 7, 1941, and gave his life for his country two years later. Poems and songs were written about him, a Navy ship was named in his honor, and he was memorialized at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.
The Humble Origins of a Pearl Harbor Hero
Doris Miller, known as “Dorie” to his shipmates in the U.S. Navy, was a humble seaman from humble origins who became a legend and an inspiration to America’s black community during the war. His extraordinary courage on December 7 brought him the Navy Cross, a commendation by the secretary of the Navy, and praise from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet.
Dorie Miller was born on October 12, 1919, to Conery and Henrietta Miller of Waco, Texas. He had three brothers, one of whom would serve in the Army during World War II. Dorie attended Waco’s Moore High School, where he distinguished himself as a battering ram fullback on the football team. When not in school, the barrel-chested young athlete worked on his sharecropper father’s farm.
At the age of 19, Dorie decided that he wanted to travel and also earn money to help support his family, so he went to Dallas and enlisted in the Navy as a mess attendant, third class, on September 16, 1939, two weeks after the outbreak of World War II. After undergoing basic training at the Norfolk, Virginia, Naval Station, he was assigned briefly to the USS Pyro, an ammunition ship.
On January 2, 1940, Miller was transferred to the Colorado-class battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48). Commissioned on December 1, 1923, the 32,000-ton battleship mounted eight 16-inch guns and was regarded as one of the best vessels in the U.S. Fleet. Miller found his athletic prowess in demand aboard the “Big Weevie,” which had long emphasized sports activities for morale building among her crew, winning the Iron Man athletic trophy more than any other ship. The young Texan became the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion. He was assigned in July 1940 to temporary duty aboard the battleship USS Nevada and at the Secondary Battery Gunnery School and returned to the West Virginia on August 3.
“The Japs are Attacking Us!”
Early on the balmy morning of December 7, 1941, the battleships, cruisers, destroyers, minesweepers, submarines, and tenders of the U.S. Pacific Fleet lay at anchor, peaceful and unsuspecting, around Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On Battleship Row, the West Virginia was anchored next to the USS Tennessee and astern of the USS Maryland and USS Oklahoma. Sailors stirred from their bunks that morning, headed to the messes for breakfast, and readied themselves for morning colors and Sunday church services.
Aboard the West Virginia, mess attendant Dorie Miller was below deck collecting laundry and starting another routine day of menial tasks that were the prescribed functions of black sailors in the segregated U.S. Navy. At 7:55 am, his chores were abruptly interrupted by the sounds of explosions, guns firing, and seamen shouting, “The Japs are attacking us!”
Without warning and against almost no opposition, the first of two waves of 360 Japanese carrier-borne torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and fighters had burst through the overcast and swept in over the island of Oahu to attack the ships, airfields, and other U.S. military installations. Two years and three months after its outbreak, America had been suddenly and brutally thrust into the global war.
Led by Kate torpedo bombers, almost 200 planes in the first enemy attack wave flew in low and fast over Pearl Harbor, loosing their projectiles on Battleship Row. Three battleships—California, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—were struck. The second run hit a cruiser and capsized a minelayer, and the third struck another cruiser and the old battleship USS Utah. Under eight simultaneous dive bomber assaults, four more battleships—Nevada, Maryland, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania—caught fire, while the venerable battlewagon USS Arizona took hits in her forward magazine and boilers. She blew up with the loss of 1,103 officers and men. Within minutes, Pearl Harbor was an inferno of explosions, fires, and high columns of billowing black smoke.
Meanwhile, Japanese planes bombed and strafed the Ford Island and Kaneohe Naval Air Stations, the Marine Corps air base at Ewa, and the Army Air Forces’ Hickam, Wheeler, and Bellows Fields, where bombers and fighters were parked wing-to-wing and almost completely wiped out.
Captain Bennion’s Posthumous Medal of Honor
Aboard the West Virginia, messman Miller and other sailors scrambled topside to assist on deck when they felt the ship convulse and heard the din of sudden war overhead. The Big Weevie was burning and severely damaged after taking hits from two 1,000-pound bombs and six or seven torpedoes. She listed rapidly, but this was corrected by prompt counterflooding, allowing the battlewagon to settle almost upright on the harbor bottom. Her blackened, battered superstructure remained above water.
On deck, Miller was knocked down by the force of another explosion, but he recovered and assisted fire and rescue parties that had been organized by the ship’s well-trained crew. Because of his considerable physical strength, Miller was able to carry several wounded men to safety. Despite frequent enemy dive bombing and strafing, all hands fought the fires. “Their spirit was marvelous,” reported the ship’s surviving executive officer. “Words fail in attempting to describe the magnificent display of courage, discipline, and devotion to duty of all.”
On the West Virginia’s exposed battle conning tower, her skipper, Captain Mervyn S. Bennion, doubled up. Steel fragments, probably from an armor-piercing bomb that had just struck the nearby USS Tennessee, had torn into his stomach. Lt. Cmdr. T.T. Beattie, the ship’s navigator, loosened Bennion’s collar and summoned a pharmacist’s mate. Under continued strafing and as fires swept toward the bridge, Dorie Miller joined Lieutenant D.C. Johnson, the ship’s communications officer, in dragging the almost disemboweled Captain Bennion to cover and attempting to move him from the bridge.
But the skipper, knowing that he was dying, maintained command and was concerned only for his ship and crew. Lying on the deck of his bridge, he ordered that he be left alone, and his life flickered out a few minutes later. Along with Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, killed aboard his flagship, the Arizona, Captain Bennion was later awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Vice Admiral Walter S. Anderson, himself a prewar skipper of the West Virginia, said later, “He was a bona fide hero. I did not personally know enough to recommend him for the Medal of Honor, but I am glad he got it, because that captain of the West Virginia merited it if anybody ever did.” Bennion was one of 105 men killed out of the battleship’s complement of 1,500.
“I Just Grabbed Hold of the Gun and Fired”
After the attempt to assist his dying skipper, mess attendant Miller joined Lieutenant F.H. White on the ship’s forward guns. Without hesitation, he positioned himself behind a big .50-caliber antiaircraft machine gun. He had never been instructed how to fire a gun, but Miller quickly figured out how the weapon worked and began firing at strafing Japanese planes. “I just grabbed hold of the gun and fired,” he reported later. “It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger, and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns…. Those Jap planes were diving pretty close to us.”
During a visit to San Francisco in December 1942, the soft-spoken, courteous Miller explained, “I forgot all about the fact that I and other Negroes can be only messmen in the Navy, and are not taught how to man an antiaircraft gun. Several of the men had lost their lives—including some of the high officers—when the order came for volunteers from below to come on the upper deck and help fight the Japanese. Without knowing how I did it, it must have been God’s strength and mother’s blessing, I ran up … and I started to fire the big guns. I actually downed four Japanese bombers.” Some witnesses said that Miller may have actually shot down five aircraft, although the actual extent of any damage inflicted on the Japanese is unknown.
Dorie fired unflinchingly at the enemy raiders for about 15 minutes before running out of ammunition. Then he was ordered to leave the crippled ship. After helping to rescue more shipmates, he dived into the harbor and swam to safety ashore. Dorie had to swim part of the way underwater, beneath burning oil leaking from the Arizona and other nearby ships.
Recognition by the Press: “The First Negro Hero”
In the wake of the disaster at Pearl Harbor, the press and stunned Americans searched for heroes as compensation and morale builders. The Navy obliged, and newspapers carried stories about the heroism of men like Admirals Bennion and Kidd and Chief Watertender Peter Tomich, who sacrificed himself in the boiler room of the capsizing battleship Utah so that his crew could escape. But the acts of bravery at Pearl Harbor were all attributed to whites, except for one newspaper story about an unnamed “Negro mess attendant.” The “Jim Crow” Navy of the time was not ready for a black poster boy.