Hello, and welcome to the latest post in our Texas Folks series. I want to introduce you to a remarkable young man born from humble beginnings who went on to become a national hero. This is the story of Doris Miller.
Miller was the son of a sharecropper, the third of four children. Born in Waco in 1919, Miller was named such when the midwife that delivered him asked to name the baby boy. According to his mother, the midwife ‘just liked the sound of Doris.’
“Doris was never ashamed of his name. He was proud of it,” said his mother, Henrietta. “It never gave him any trouble.”
Money was tight for the family of six. Miller and his brothers worked long hours along with their father in the cotton and cornfields to support each other. As a result, he grew tall and muscular and eventually joined the Moore High School football team as a skilled fullback. To help make ends meet, Miller found a job at a diner in town as a short order cook.
Miller was itching to find a better way in life. He was already physically fit, mentally sound, and certainly capable of hard work. He tried to join the Civilian Conservation Corps without success. Then he tried for the Army to no avail. Finally, he was accepted into the Navy. In September 1939, Miller was sworn in as a mess (kitchen) attendant third class in Dallas, TX. He was twenty years old.
The USS West Virginia
December 7th, 1941 found Miller aboard the USS West Virginia, also known as the Wee-Vee. On that fateful Sunday, not long after dawn, Miller was busy collecting laundry when the general quarters alarm sounded off. He quickly headed to his station only to find it destroyed by torpedo fire. Then he ran to the deck and discovered utter chaos as Japanese bombers hammered the battleship.
Using his great physical strength from football and heavyweight boxing, Miller carried many wounded sailors off the deck to safety. He was then ordered by an officer to help the ship’s captain, Mervyn Bennion.
Captain Bennion was gravely injured, having been hit in the stomach with a huge splinter of shrapnel. Miller and a few other men were able to move Captain Bennion to cover but the leader of the ship refused further aid and insisted the sailors save themselves. Captain Bennion held his own and stayed in command of the ship until he finally died from blood loss. He was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor for his exemplary service.
Captain Mervyn Bennion
5/5/1887 – 12/7/1941
Miller was then commanded to man a .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun. Despite never receiving combat or weapons training he jumped into action. “It wasn’t hard,” he said later. “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 Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”
Once the ammunition ran dry the sailors were ordered to abandon the sinking ship. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox commended Miller’s service in April 1942.
On May 11th, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the Navy Cross for Miller: an award given for extraordinary heroism second only now to the Medal of Honor.Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz presented Miller with the prestigious award aboard the Enterprise, and on May 27th, 1942, Doris Miller became the first black man to ever receive the Navy Cross.
Its citation reads:”For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and 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 directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.”
Fleet Admiral Nimitz presenting the Navy Cross to Miller
Regarding Miller’s commendation Nimitz said, “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.”
A Navy recruiting poster published in 1943
After reassignment to the USS Indianapolis on December 13th, 1941 Miller was called on by the Pittsburgh Courier to go on war bond tours. For the next few months he toured and gave speeches at various events in California and Texas. He also spoke to the first graduating class of black sailors from Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago.
After receiving a promotion to Petty Officer, Ship′s Cook Third Class.
The insignia for Miller’s rank
Miller was sent to work on the escort aircraft carrier USS Liscome Bay in the spring of 1943. He was on board during Operation Galvanic, also known as the Battle of Tarawa. You can watch a short film about Operation Galvanic here. A warning though: The film becomes graphic about halfway through.
Near Butaritari Island, just before dawn on the 24th day of November, a single torpedo from a Japanese submarine hit Liscome Bay by the stern. This hit detonated the bomb magazine which quickly sank the ship. Of the 919 people on board only 272 survived.
Unfortunately, Doris Miller was among those lost at sea and was declared dead on November 25th, 1944; a year and a day after the ship sank.
Today marks what would have been Doris Miller’s 98th birthday so we honor this sailor, Texas native, and American hero. Though his earthly time was brief, the impact made by his selfless actions at Pearl Harbor still ring loud to this day. God bless you, Mr. Miller!