On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2020, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly christened a new Navy aircraft carrier in honor of the African American WWII hero Doris "Dorie" Miller. The ceremony was held in Pearl Harbor, the site where Miller demonstrated combat valor that earned him the Navy Cross in 1941.
Miller's service in the racially segregated Navy
Born in 1919 as the grandson of enslaved laborers, Dorie Miller was raised in the segregated community of Waco, Texas. After dropping out of high school in order to help his family make ends meet, Miller looked to the armed forces for a source of steady work. In September 1939, at 19 years old, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
At that time, African American men who wished to enlist had to attend a racially segregated boot camp and were restricted to serving in the role of messman. Black mess attendants essentially worked as servants to white officers. They were responsible for shining shoes, making beds, doing laundry and waiting tables. And, instead of wearing buttons with the Navy's insignia on their uniforms, men like Dorie Miller were given uniforms with unmarked buttons.
On the basis of race, these mess attendants were ineligible for promotion or special training. And the only interaction black Navy servicemembers were allowed to have with gunnery was to feed ammunition to primarily white gunners.
Becoming a Pearl Harbor hero
Miller was transferred to Pearl Harbor aboard the battleship West Virginia, due to growing pressure between U.S. and Japanese forces.
Dorie Miller was below decks doing laundry the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a surprise attack. He immediately sought an assignment and was tasked with carrying his mortally wounded commanding officer, Capt. Mervyn Sharp Bennion, to shelter.
While the battleship sustained continued torpedo damage and heavy air fire, Miller started feeding ammunition into a machine gun, under orders from a junior commissioned officer. Noticing an unattended second gun, Miller jumped into action, launching fire on the Japanese planes overhead with absolutely no training or experience.
According to Navy Times, Miller later recalled that "when the Japanese bombers attacked my ship at Pearl Harbor 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."
After exhausting his store of ammo, Miller proceeded to rescue other Sailors from the waters and decks as they were engulfed in flames. He was one of the last three men to exit the West Virginia.
Miller's heroism soon circulated in stories out of the Navy's press office, although his name remained unattached to his actions. Eventually, after much debate, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross in May 1942, becoming the first African American Sailor to be recognized with the medal. He then conducted a war bond tour, speaking across the country and urging black communities to support the war effort.
Miller's death and legacy
On Nov, 24, 1943, Miller was aboard the escort carrier Liscome Bay, which was loaded with massive quantities of oil, bombs, and ammunition. After being hit by a Japanese torpedo, the ship exploded, killing Miller in action.
While Miller's actions and memory did not end racism and segregation in the U.S. Navy, they did serve as a catalyst for lasting change. After his death, the Navy launched a program that graduated 13 African American officers in 1944. In 1973, a new Navy destroyer was named in Miller's honor to carry on his legacy.
"He died as he lived, an American sailor defending his nation, shoulder to shoulder with his shipmates, until the end," Modly said during the recent aircraft carrier naming ceremony. "Dorie Miller stood for everything that is good about our nation. His story deserves to be remembered and repeated wherever our people continue to stand the watch today."