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Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle
Dorie Miller receives Navy Cross
Photograph courtesy National Archives 80-G-23588

Played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., in Pearl Harbor

After a boyhood of farming and football in Waco, Texas, Doris “Dorie” Miller enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1939. He was 19 and wanted to see the world and earn some money to send home.

Miller joined the Navy as a mess attendant, third class, but was soon promoted to second class, then first class, and finally to ship’s cook, third class.

“You have to understand that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president in 1932, he opened up the Navy again to blacks, but in one area only; they were called mess attendants, stewards, and cooks,” says Clark Simmons, who was a mess attendant on the U.S.S. Utah during the Pearl Harbor attack. “The Navy was so structured that if you were black, this was what they had you do in the Navy--you only could be a servant.”

After training in Norfolk, Virginia, and serving a stint on the ammunition ship Pyro, Miller was assigned to the battleship West Virginia in 1940. He soon won renown as the best heavyweight boxer onboard.

With the exception of a training stay at Secondary Battery Gunnery School, Miller would remain on the West Virginia until December 7, 1941, when the ship was in port at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The morning of the Japanese raid, Miller was doing laundry rounds when the call to battle stations went out. He rushed to his station, an antiaircraft-battery magazine. (It was common for everyone, even a cook, to have an assigned combat task.) Seeing the magazine damaged by torpedo fire, he went above decks to help the wounded to safety.

Word came that “the captain and the executive officer, the ‘XO,’ were on the bridge and they both were injured,” says Simmons. “So Dorie Miller went up and physically picked up the captain and brought him down to the first aid station. And then he went back and manned a .50-caliber machine gun, which he had not been trained on.”

“It wasn’t hard,” said Miller shortly after the battle. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about 15 minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”

Just days after the attack, Miller was transferred to the U.S.S. Indianapolis. In May 1942 he became the first African American to receive the Navy Cross, presented for courage under fire.

Miller continued to serve in the Pacific and was reassigned in 1943 to a new escort carrier, the U.S.S. Liscome Bay. Early on November 24, 1943, off Butaritari island, in the South Pacific, a Japanese submarine’s torpedo ripped into the Liscome. The torpedo detonated a bomb magazine, sinking the ship within minutes and eventually killing 646 of its 918 sailors, including Dorie Miller.

Miller’s sacrifices afforded him a reputation far above his rank. In honor of those sacrifices, the U.S. Navy in 1973 commissioned a new frigate--the U.S.S. Miller.


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