Dorie Miller was a mess attendant on the battleship USS West Virginia when the Japanese launched a massive surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Sunday, December 7, 1941.
Miller was a former high school football champion who performed heroically on that terror-filled morning when the United States found itself under attack. As a kitchen worker, Miller had no training on any of the machine guns, but as the USS West Virginia took explosions from below and machine gun fire from the planes above, Dorie Miller saw that some of the shipboard guns were unattended. He began firing at the incoming enemy.
In the chaos of the attack, the number planes brought down by Dorie Miller is uncertain. Some say it was one; others say it was as many as three or four.
The West Virginia was slowly sinking, and the officers called for the men to abandon ship. Of the 1541 men on board during the attack, 130 died and 52 were wounded.
Though Dorie Miller had gone above and beyond his duty to defend his ship and his country, it was months before anyone knew his story.
- Dorie Miller’s Early Life
- Segregated Navy
- Unaware at Pearl Harbor
- That Morning
- What Happened That Sunday
- Miller Took Action
- Story Slow to Come Out
- Pushing for the Story
- President Concerned
- Pressure Continued
- Dorie Miller’s Next Assignment
- After the U.S. Tour
- Many Championed Miller For Medal of Honor
- Ships Named for Miller
Dorie Miller’s Early Life
Dorie Miller (1919-1943) was the third of four boys born to tenant farmers, Connery and Henrietta Miller. The story goes that Henrietta hoped that her third child would be a daughter, and so the name Doris was selected. (He was called Dorie most of his life.)
Dorie and his brothers attended a segregated high school in Waco. Dorie was tall and strong, and he soon became the high school football team’s star fullback. Those must have been good years, but Dorie soon saw that his parents needed more income, so he dropped out of high school to help the family.
When war in Europe started in 1939, the United States did not intend to be directly involved, but the administration knew that preparation for what was to come was key. The Navy and the Army were recruiting. Dorie Miller heeded the call and went to Dallas to sign up at the Naval recruitment office.
The Navy accepted men of all backgrounds, but the only option for Black sailors was in the steward department (service division, generally kitchen work.) The Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson in 1898, laid the groundwork for what became known as the Jim Crow laws. When President Woodrow Wilson took office, he insisted on strict segregation in the federal government.
But to Dorie Miller it was an opportunity. Miller learned to cook from his mother, so he was at ease in a kitchen. By enlisting, he would see more of the world and earn money to send home to the family.
Miller was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, for 8 weeks of training where he learned all aspects of being a mess attendant.
His first shipboard assignment was on an ammunition ship, but he was quickly sent on to the USS West Virginia in the Pacific Ocean. In 1940, the ship was assigned to Pearl Harbor for its base.
Pearl Harbor was a great port for the larger ships in the U.S. Navy. Battleships and aircraft carriers were often in port where they could be serviced and deployed. In the autumn of 1941, three aircraft carriers were based there along with seven battleships, all lined up along what was known as Battleship Row. An 8th battleship was in drydock being repaired.
Unaware at Pearl Harbor
There were tensions around the Pacific Ocean, but mainly between Japan and China. As an island, Japan had been trying for decades to expand its political and military influence in order to have access to raw materials, food, and labor. The United States was tangentially involved because the U.S. had a treaty with the Chinese that permitted American commerce to pursue interests along the Yangtze River.
Standard Oil and other companies had ships that traveled upriver, always accompanied by U.S. gunboats to protect against pirates. In 1937, one of the U.S. gunboats was bombed by the Japanese, but it was December 1937, and nothing else happened. The U.S. decided to let it go.
The United States continued to provide aid to China in China’s effort to ward off the Japanese attacks, but the American government had little reason to worry about Pearl Harbor. Military strategists felt that if the Japanese went beyond the areas where they were fighting in the summer of 1941, the most likely target would be the Philippines.
That first weekend in December of 1941 was business as usual in Honolulu. Many of the sailors had weekend passes, from which they usually returned late Saturday night or Sunday. Four of the eight battleship commanders were also on weekend leave.
Dorie Miller was up early to help with breakfast preparations. He had some spare time so he was gathering laundry from the officers’ quarters—a task for which he could earn a little extra money.
Just before 8 a.m., there was a powerful explosion. A torpedo hit the USS West Virginia.
It soon became clear that the entire harbor was under attack. Unbeknownst to the United States, the Japanese had moved aircraft carriers within a couple of hundred miles of Hawaii. On that fateful morning, they were in the process of launching 353 planes. Most flew low to attack the ships in port, but some of the fighter planes continued inland to attack the airfields where US planes were parked.
The Japanese calculated that if they could take out aircraft carriers and the battleships that were routinely based at Pearl Harbor, they might bring an end to the U.S. aid to China. They would also be able to dominate the Pacific Ocean.
That was their intent that morning.
What Happened That Sunday
Though officially Black sailors activities were restricted to service responsibilities, most captains realized that in the heat of battle, every man needed to help.
Captain Mervyn Bennion of the West Virginia was no different. Mess attendants like Dorie Miller were assigned to battle stations where they were responsible for managing the ammunition and handing it off to the sailors firing the guns at each station.
When the alarm sounded and Miller arrived at his assigned station, he found it in flames. Within a moment, he was tapped by an officer to come with him to the ship’s bridge. The captain was hurt by flying debris from one of the other nearby battleships. Miller was among the larger men on the ship—he had won the heavyweight boxing championship staged during the men’s free time. Officers knew he was strong enough to help carry the injured captain to a more secure place.
Miller helped move the captain. The officer who brought him up maneuvered into position so that he could begin firing one of the two machine guns on the bridge. He indicated that Miller should do the same. The Japanese planes were dive-bombing the men on deck.
Miller Took Action
Miller was never trained on the use of a machine gun but he hunted with his father as a young boy and had watched many sailors use the guns. He instinctively knew how to fire the 50-caliber Browning machine gun.
In the chaos of the attack, reports varied, but Miller brought down one—and perhaps as many as four Japanese planes. He fired until he ran out of ammunition. By then the men were being ordered to abandon ship. The West Virginia had been severely damaged and was slowly sinking to the harbor bottom. (Later it was revealed that 7 torpedoes, two bombs, and overwhelming machine gun fire were responsible for the downing of the West Virginia. Of the 1541 men on board during the attack, 130 were killed and 52 wounded.
Ultimately, no battleship in Pearl Harbor escaped untouched. Seven of the eight battleships sank or were badly damaged. The USS Arizona, berthed on one side of the West Virginia, exploded and sank quickly. Eleven hundred crew members died. The Oklahoma, just in front of the West Virginia, capsized and trapped many.
That day Japan destroyed 188 planes and damaged 150 more. Almost 2400 Americans were killed, including Mervyn Bennion, captain of the West Virginia who did not recover from his wounds.
On December 8, the United States declared war on Japan.
Story Slow to Come Out
The few reporters stationed in Honolulu scrambled to cover the attack, but details were slow to emerge. Rumors preceded actual fact on many of the issues.
A few weeks after the bombing, a reporter learned that a sailor on the nearby USS Tennessee, berthed next to the West Virginia during the attack, noted that a “Negro messman” had behaved heroically.
The sailor who reported this was from a separate ship, so he didn’t know Dorie’s name. And of course, many of the men in the Pearl Harbor attack were reassigned so there was no easy way to track the story.
But Black editors noted the mention. When the editor of The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s most widely circulated black newspapers, heard that a Negro messman might have been a hero, he pounced on it. He assigned a reporter to get to the bottom of the story. There were no funds for reporters to travel that far during wartime, but the reporter followed the leads he had within the Navy. Even after many written requests went unanswered, the reporter continued to write: “Who was the Black messman on the West Virginia?”
If the Black press had not stayed on top of this story, Dorie Miller’s heroism might never have been shared with the public.
Pushing for the Story
Soon all the Black press took up the cause. The pressure on the Navy press department became overwhelming. Finally, the Navy named Dorie Miller as the hero.
Had this information not been picked up by the Black media, Dorie Miller probably would never have been identified. He had no idea anyone was looking for him.
The Navy was in no rush to make a big deal of this story. Navy Secretary Frank Knox was a firm believer in the necessity of segregation. If Blacks only worked as stewards, it was possible to house and feed the men separately.
But if Blacks began to be assigned to other roles, how would the Navy maintain segregation on a ship?
After The Pittsburgh Courier broke the story, public pressure grew more intense. The NAACP, the National Negro Council, and many Black newspapers urged for Miller to be honored in some way.
Hoping to end the public outcry, Secretary Knox wrote a letter of commendation to Miller and arranged for him to be promoted to mess attendant first class. As far as Knox was concerned, his duty to Dorie Miller was done.
But President Franklin Roosevelt received many complaints about racism in the Navy. The president knew something more needed to be done. He ordered that Miller should be given the second-highest medal given to men in combat, the Navy Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor).
On May 27, 1942, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, took part in a ceremony on the USS Enterprise. Two thousand sailors were in attendance and numerous awards were given out, including the Navy Cross to Dorie Miller. He was the first Black recipient to receive the Navy Cross medal.
With more pressure being placed on him, Secretary Knox announced that an expanded section of the U.S. Naval Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, would offer additional training for Black recruits.
But this changed little. Segregation was deeply ingrained in the Navy. Even under the best of circumstances, the societal restrictions that were in place would not have altered substantially. And wartime meant that hierarchical changes like that were at a standstill.
Finally, when the Navy experienced a shortage of sailors as the Korean War neared, they opened up more positions to people of color.
Dorie Miller’s Next Assignment
After the USS West Virginia, Dorie Miller became Cook Third Class on the USS Indianapolis.
As momentum around Miller’s heroism built, the Navy decided to bring him home for public appearances. (This was common for men who had good war stories to tell. See Harlem Hellfighter: Henry Johnson.) The purpose was twofold—to raise money for war bonds and to increase recruitment. Miller was well-spoken and represented the Navy well.
His experience was also documented for a biography being put together by the Naval History and Heritage Command. He was asked about the moment when he stepped in to fire a machine gun on which he had never been trained: “It wasn’t hard. 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,” Miller related.
After the U.S. Tour
In the spring of 1943, Dorie Miller was called back from the United States to serve on a new escort carrier the USS Liscome Bay. The ship was operating in the Pacific near the Gilbert Islands.
At 5:10 a.m. on November 24, 1943, the ship was hit by a single torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine. The torpedo detonated the bomb magazine on the carrier; the bombs exploded, and the ship sank within minutes.
Miller was initially listed as missing along with many other men whose fate was unknown. A year later, November 1944, his status was changed to “presumed dead.” Only 272 men survived the attack.
Many Championed Miller For Medal of Honor
There have been continuing efforts by different Miller champions within and outside Congress to posthumously award Dorie Miller the Medal of Honor. Many point out that those who received the Medal of Honor were simply doing their jobs. In Miller’s case, he went above and beyond what was expected of him in order to serve his country.
Other Black military—originally passed over because of discrimination—have now been honored, Henry Johnson among them. Many think it is still Dorie Miller’s time.
Thus far, Dorie Miller has not been given a Medal of Honor, but he has been recognized in many other ways. There is a Dorie Miller Park in Hawaii, and many schools and buildings throughout the U.S. have been named in his memory. There is also a building at the Great Lakes Naval Station (Illinois) named in his honor.
He was also one of four Naval heroes featured on U.S. postal stamps in 2010.
In 2019, a monument was completed in his memory in his hometown of Waco, Texas.
Ships Named for Miller
For a sailor’s family, there must be particular joy in having a ship named for your loved one. In 1973, Dorie’s mother christened a destroyer escort named for him. And on Martin Luther King Day, 2020, the Navy chose Dorie Miller as the man to honor with a $12.5 billion aircraft carrier. It is the first aircraft carrier named for a Black sailor.
For another story of an African-American hero during World War II, read about Charles David, Jr., who served in the Coast Guard.
And to read a story about World War I soldier whose family overcame all the resistance to honoring him properly, read about World War I veteran, Henry Johnson, a proud member of the Harlem Hellfighters.