Doris Miller was working as a mess attendant on the battleship West Virginia the morning of 7 December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. An alarm sounded, and as the ship drew heavy fire, Miller raced to assist the West Virginia’s fatally wounded commanding officer. He also fired a machine gun against enemy planes.
For his bravery and “distinguished devotion to duty” that day, Miller in 1942 was awarded the prestigious Navy Cross, the second-highest military decoration, making him the first African American to receive the medal.
Now, 78 years after the attack, the US Navy is set to recognise the sailor with another honour on Monday, when it is expected to name a CVN-81 aircraft carrier after Miller, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
“I think he is an American hero because he went beyond” what was expected of someone of his rank, Doreen Ravenscroft, a team leader for the Doris Miller Memorial, said on Saturday.
“His human instinct was to defend his team on board the West Virginia and the United States. He certainly deserves the honour.”
Miller was born October 12 1919, in Waco, Texas, where he was a high school American football player, according to the Doris Miller Memorial in Waco.
He enlisted in the Navy in 1939, when black sailors were not allowed to serve in combat positions.
After training in Norfolk, Virginia, he was assigned to the West Virginia as a mess attendant; his duties included cooking, swabbing the decks and shining officers’ shoes, according to the Defence Department. He was also a boxing champ on the ship.
The day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller woke up at 6am and had already collected laundry when the general alarm sounded. He headed for his battle station, the Navy said, “only to discover that torpedo damage had wrecked it, so he went on deck".
Because of his build, Miller, then 22, was assigned to carry wounded sailors to safety. An officer ordered him to help Captain Mervyn Bennion on the bridge, according to the Navy. Captain Bennion died of his injuries.
With no prior training, Miller then operated “a .50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship,” the Navy said.
“It wasn’t hard,” Miller recalled, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command website. “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.”
He said that he thought he “got” an enemy plane, adding, “They were diving pretty close to us.”
Of the 1,541 men aboard the ship at the time, 130 were killed and 52 were wounded.
Miller later served on the ship Indianapolis and then the escort carrier Liscome Bay. In 1943, he was killed during the Battle of Makin when a Japanese torpedo sank the Liscome Bay, according to the Defence Department. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart medal.
Miller, whose image was used in recruiting posters, has been honored in different ways over the years.
Schools, buildings and at least one neighbourhood have been named after the crewman. A destroyer escort that had previously borne his name was decommissioned in 1991.
In 2001, actor Cuba Gooding Jr played Miller in the World War II movie “Pearl Harbor.” And in 2017, a statue of Miller was unveiled in Waco.
The New York Times