Unexpected Hero of Pearl Harbor

Doris “Dorie” Miller, Petty Officer USN

When the attack on Pearl Harbor began, Doris “Dorie” Miller was working laundry duty on the USS West Virginia.

Enlisting in the Navy at age 19 in 1939, Miller had longed to expand his life and contribute extra money to his family.  The Navy, however, was segregated at the time and Miller and other African-American sailors of color weren’t allowed to serve in combat positions.  Instead, they worked as cooks, stewards, cabin boys, and mess attendants.  They received no weapons training and were prohibited from firing guns.

Prior to 1922, the Navy was authorized to recruit Blacks under the same conditions as members of other races.  During the 1923 Tea Pot Dome scandal of the Warren Harding administration, however, instructions were immediately issued to discontinue recruiting “Negroes” in ratings other than messman.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president in 1932,  the Navy was still open to Blacks but in the same area only; as 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.”

According to BlackPressUSA, The Pittsburgh Courier obtained the confidential report in 1942 detailing the enlistment of Negroes.  It read, in part, that “where qualified Negroes in competition for advancement in ratings attained them, an assignment had to be found where the rated Negroes exercised little or no military command” (as in giving orders to white sailors). It was against that backdrop in 1939 that Miller signed up for a six-year hitch as Messman 3rd class. He was soon promoted to second class, then first class, and finally to ship’s cook, third class.

USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee
Surrounded in smoke and flames following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
7 December 1941
Photo courtesy: U.S. National Archive and Records Administration

On the morning of December 7, the Naval History & Heritage Command reported that “Miller had arisen at 6 a.m., and was collecting laundry when the alarm for general quarters sounded. He headed for his battle station, the anti-aircraft battery magazine amid ship, only to discover that torpedo damage had wrecked it, so he proceeded on deck.  Because of his physical prowess, he was assigned to carry wounded fellow sailors to places of greater safety. Then an officer ordered him to the bridge to aid the mortally wounded captain of the ship.  He subsequently manned a 50 caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship.”

In the heat of the aerial attack, Miller had immediately decided to fly in the face of segregation and military rules to help defend his ship and country.  Despite having no weapons training, and as other sailors were jumping ship, Miller is credited with potentially downing 6 Japanese planes.

Miller’s heroism and bravery didn’t go unnoticed in Washington, D.C., either.  He was awarded the Navy Cross, the third highest honor awarded by the US Navy at the time, and was the first African American serviceman to receive that honor.

Of the 1,541 men on West Virginia during the attack, 130 were killed and 52 wounded. Although Miller’s courage under fire was initially overlooked, the Black press seized his story and pressured the Navy to recognize him.  In 2001, Black Press historian Clint Wilson wrote: “For months, the Navy didn’t disclose Miller’s name. In fact, his heroism wasn’t known publicly until nearly a month after the Pearl Harbor attack and then in a dispatch via Ralph Jordan, a correspondent for INS, the International News Service. It took three months of intense digging by Black reporters for the Pittsburgh Courier and other papers to finally discover the Pearl Harbor hero’s name.

Doris “Dorie” Miller became a celebrity when he returned stateside. He was featured on several national radio programs and a number of columnists, Black and white, praised his heroism. Miller’s acts were heavily publicized in the black press, making him an iconic emblem of the war for black Americans.

Two liberal members of Congress took it a step further.  On March 14, 1942, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., introduced a bill authorizing the President of the United States to present Miller with the Congressional Medal of Honor “in recognition of distinguished and courageous service at the risk of his life and above the call of duty while aboard a United States battleship at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.”  A similar measure was introduced in the Senate by James Mead.  While Miller did not receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, he became the first African-American sailor to receive the Navy Cross.

Miller was commended by the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and the Pacific Fleet Admiral, Chester W. Nimitz, personally presented the Navy Cross to Miller onboard aircraft carrier USS Enterprise for his extraordinary courage in battle.  Speaking of Miller, Nimitz remarked:  “This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race, and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.”

Doris Miller, USN, receiving the Navy Cross from Admiral Nimitz
May 27, 1942
Courtesy: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

The Pittsburgh Courier called for Miller to be allowed to return home for a war bond tour like white heroes.  In November 1942, Miller arrived at Maui and was ordered on a war bond tour while still attached to the heavy cruiser Indianapolis.  In December 1942 and January 1943, he gave talks in Oakland, California, in his hometown of Waco, Texas, in Dallas, and to the first graduating class of African-American sailors from Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Chicago.

Doris Miller speaking at the Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Illinois
Photo Courtesy U.S. Navy, National Archives collection

In May 1943, Doris Miller reported for duty at Puget Sound Navy Yard. His rate was again raised to Petty Officer, Ship’s Cook Third Class on 1 June, and he reported to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. After training in Hawaii for the Gilbert Islands operation, the carrier participated in the Battle of Tarawa which began on November 20.

USS Liscome Bay aircraft carrier prepares for action

On November 24, a single torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-175 struck the escort carrier near the stern. The aircraft bomb magazine detonated a few moments later, sinking the warship within minutes. There were 272 survivors. The rest of the crew was listed as “presumed dead.”  24 year old Miller did not survive.

On Dec. 7, 1943, two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Millers’ parents received word of their son’s death.  Miller posthumously received a Purple Heart, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, Fleet Clasp, and the World War II Victory Medal.  There was also a park on the U.S. Naval base in Pearl Harbor named in his honor.

His bravery led journalists, members of Congress and civil-rights activists to call for greater opportunities, better treatment, and higher honors for black service members.

In addition to Miller’s awards, in 1942 his actions were dramatized on the CBS radio series “They Live Forever” and his face adorned the U.S. Navy recruiting poster “above and beyond the call of duty.” Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1945 poem “Negro Hero” is narrated from Miller’s point of view.

Doris Miller on Recruitment Poster WWII

Although he was not identified by name, Miller was portrayed by Elven Havard in the 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” In 1973, the Knox-class frigate USS Miller was named for him. Oscar Award winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed Miller in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor,” and in 1991, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. dedicated a bronze commemorative plaque of Miller at the Miller Family Park located on the U.S. Naval Base, Pearl Harbor.   In 2010, he was featured on a U.S. postage stamp.


At the 55th annual Pearl Harbor commemoration in Hawaii, Adm. Archie Clemins talked about Miller’s impact on history.  “Through his name, we are reminded that heroism and valor transcend racial and ethnic bounds and that, as Americans, our strength lies in our ability to help one another in time of need,” Clemins said.

The U.S. Navy has additionally named an aircraft carrier in honor of an African American for the first time.  USS Doris Miller is scheduled to be laid down January 2026, launched October 2029, and commissioned in 2030.

Navy Acting Secretary Thomas B. Modly said the USS Doris Miller  will serve as a reminder of the nation’s pursuit for justice and as a tribute to its namesake.  “Doris Miller was the son of a sharecropper and a descendant of slaves,” Modly said at the ceremony at Pearl Harbor on January 20, 2020 in honoring African Americans of The Greatest Generation. “He was not given the same opportunities that men of a different color were given to serve this country.  But on Dec. 7, 1941, he would not be defined by the prejudice of other people.”  Miller, the first African American to receive the Navy Cross for his courage during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, helped evacuate the West Virginia battleship before it sank and fired a machine gun at Japanese attackers until he ran out of ammunition.

But one honor has eluded Miller.  Though his Navy Cross was never elevated to a Congressional Medal of Honor, the Congressional Black Caucus moved in 2014 to waive the statue of limitations to make it possible.

Since 1942, Texas lawmakers have unsuccessfully petitioned the government to award him the Medal of Honor. Last year, Dallas congresswoman and Waco native Eddie Bernice Johnson started a national letter-writing campaign to encourage Miller’s recognition, which she believes was denied him 74 years ago because of his race.

“I, like many others, passionately believe that Dorie Miller should be awarded the Medal of Honor for his service to our nation,” she said. “Because of his heroic actions, he deserves nothing less.”


In Appreciation for Your Extraordinary Valor

79th Anniversary

Pearl Harbor – WWII



About Karen Evans

Advocate For Honoring Military Service
This entry was posted in American History, American Veterans and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Unexpected Hero of Pearl Harbor

  1. GP Cox says:

    A story of honor and courage. Mr. Miller stood for the upstanding character of that generation.

  2. Karen Evans says:

    It is indeed, GP. His actions displayed valor above and beyond the call of duty. We won WWII with men of this stature.

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