The Unforeseen Legacy of Doris Miller

Margaret Dudley

Doris Miller stood for everything that is good about our nation, and his story continues to be remembered and repeated wherever our people continue the watch today

Doris Miller was born to Connery and Henrietta Miller, sharecroppers in Waco, Texas, on 12 October 1919. He had to drop out of school to help support his family, working as a cook to supplement the family income during the Great Depression. In 1939, just before his 20th birthday, he enlisted in the United States Navy, and after training in Norfolk, Virginia, Miller became a Mess Attendant, one of the few positions open to African Americans in the Navy. He was assigned to the USS West Virginia, which soon left to join the rest of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in response to increasing Japanese aggression.

Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, African-American roles in the Navy were limited to messman and general service. Segregation was deeply ingrained into the military structure, and many of the leading military and political figures believed that not only would any white serviceman refuse to serve under a black man, but they truly thought that such areas of authority were beyond the capabilities of any person of color. There was some discussion of finding other areas of service for blacks in the Navy, but very little came of it, until December of 1941.

On Sunday 7 December 1941, Mess Attendant Third Class Doris Miller was retrieving laundry when the Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. He arrived on deck, where he encountered his mortally wounded commanding officer and carried him to safety. He proceeded to one of the machine guns and although black sailors never received training on the anti-aircraft guns, he opened fire on the Japanese planes overhead. After the gun ran out of ammunition, Miller assisted in evacuating sailors after the order to abandon ship and was one of the last three men to leave the vessel as it sank. Even after leaving the ship, he helped numerous sailors to safety.

Miller receives Navy Cross from Admiral Nimitz aboard the USS Enterprise, image from National Archives

Doris Miller’s heroic actions stirred the nation, but he was not formally identified or recognized for his role in saving lives at Pearl Harbor for a few months. Accounts circulated about an unnamed black sailor who had manned a machine gun despite never firing a gun before, but it wasn’t until March 1942 that the Pittsburgh Courier identified the sailor as Doris Miller. Still, debates in the political spheres stalled any formal recognition or award for Miller’s actions. In May of 1942, Miller was presented with the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, making Miller the first black sailor to receive such an honor. Miller’s image was used for recruitment posters, and he was even recalled to the United States for a war bonds tour before returning to active service in the Pacific.

Doris Miller continued to serve in the Navy as a mess attendant until 24 November 19423, when his carrier, USS Liscome Bay, was hit by a torpedo during the Gilbert Islands Campaign and its bomb magazine exploded, and most of the crew were killed. Miller was “presumed dead” and although his body was never recovered, he was declared killed in action after a year. Miller was 24 years old.

Mess Attendant First Class Doris Miller left behind a legacy that impacted generations to come. His actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor alone saved numerous lives, risking his own to ensure the safety of sailors escaping sinking ships and perilous waters and Japanese fire. In April 1942, even before Miller was officially awarded the Navy Cross for his deeds, Secretary of the Navy William Franklin Knox announced the opening of an all-black naval training base in Illinois, ceding to the call for increased equal rights among black recruits. Miller’s presence and talks during his 1942-43 war bonds tour incited a tremendous reaction and inspired new sailors, particularly African Americans, to “take advantage of their opportunities” and serve their country for the freedom of all.

WWII Poster of Doris Miller, image from Library of Congress

In 1944, the Navy initiated a black officer’s training program (black sailors were previously only allowed to enlist) and produced its first black officers in March of 1944. Although Miller’ actions and service did not immediately break down the barriers in racial segregation within the US military, it certainly paved the way for new steps to be taken towards equality, and along with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s eventually led to desegregation in the military.

The United States christened the destroyer escort USS Miller in June 1973, and in 2020 the United States Navy announced its intention to name the future Ford class aircraft carrier after Doris Miller. The USS Doris Miller, the first to be named for an enlisted sailor, is expected to be delivered to the Navy in 2032. Former Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly summarized, “Doris Miller stood for everything that is good about our nation, and his story continues to be remembered and repeated wherever our people continue the watch today.”

Doris Miller’s legacy survives today and reminds us of service and heroism in the face of prejudice and hardship, and that the fight for freedom is freedom for all.

Sources

Doris Miller Memorial, “Doris’ Story”, https://dorismillermemorial.org/doris-story/

Naval History and Heritage Command, “Doris Miller”, https://www.history.navy.mil/r...

Naval History and Heritage Command, “The Negro in the Navy”, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/n/negro-navy-1947-adminhist84.html

Naval Times, “How Doris Miller’s bravery helped fight Navy racism”, https://www.navytimes.com/military-honor/salute-veterans/2019/11/01/how-dorie-millers-bravery-helped-fight-bigotry-in-the-navy/

History
Contributor

Margaret Dudley, Content Creation Coordinator, National Museum of the Pacific War

Ruth Ann Hattori, Marketing Director of the National Museum of the Pacific War