As our nation celebrated Martin Luther King Day yesterday, it is fitting to look back in history at some of the other, lesser-known African-Americans who forged â€śfirstsâ€ť in this country. Consider the story of Doris â€śDorieâ€ť Miller, a Navy cook onboard the battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48) when the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. Miller is widely recognized as the first African-American hero of World War II for the swift and bold actions he took that day, earning him the Navy Cross.
Miller was not trained in surface ship combat tactics or machine gun operations, being relegated to the role of shipâ€™s cook due to his race. But Miller had played football in high school and was the reigning heavyweight boxing champion on the West Virginia. His physical strength was well known among his shipmates. When the Japanese first struck, he ran to the battle station where he had been assigned the task of carrying wounded Sailors to safety. A torpedo had damaged the anti-aircraft battery magazine at his battle station, so he was ordered to the bridge to aid his commanding officer. He found the shipâ€™s captain had been mortally wounded. Enraged, he took control of the nearby 50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun, firing until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship.
Miller had not received any training on the operation of this gun, but instincts served him well: â€śIt wasnâ€™t hard,â€ť he said. â€śI 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.â€ť For his heroism, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award the Navy bestows. Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz said of Miller at the time: â€śThis 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 Iâ€™m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.â€ť
Tragically, Miller was killed a few years later in November of 1943 while serving aboard USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56) near the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific. The ship was felled within minutes by a Japanese torpedo, killing 646 Sailors aboard â€“ including Miller. But his legacy continues. Actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., honored Millerâ€™s service and sacrifice with his portrayal of Miller in the movie â€śPearl Harbor,â€ť and on February 4 at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Postal Service will unveil a stamp in his honor. This stamp is one of four being dedicated to four notable Navy Sailors. The other three are two-time Medal of Honor recipient John McCloy, WWI convoy advocate William Sims, and WWII Navy hero and former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Arleigh Burke.
For more information on the U.S. Postal Service’s first-day-of-issue ceremony, go to the United States Navy Memorial’s web site: www.navymemorial.org. To watch a short video about Doris Miller, go to Navy TV: www.navytv.org.
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