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 “firsts” in this country. Consider the story of Doris “Dorie” 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 ship’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 ship’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: “It wasn’t hard,” he said. “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.” 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: “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.”

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 – including Miller. But his legacy continues. Actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., honored Miller’s service and sacrifice with his portrayal of Miller in the movie “Pearl Harbor,” 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: To watch a short video about Doris Miller, go to Navy TV:

Posted by MilitaryHistoryBuffs in History, Navy
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  • UltimaRatioReg

    Excellent post. I had the honor of serving aboard USS Miller (FF-1091) in the early 80s. The crew took immense pride in the fact that their warship was named for an enlisted hero, with seemingly so few recognized in US Navy lore.

    His story of heroism makes the hair on one’s neck stand on end. If it doesn’t, one doesn’t belong in uniform.

  • Chap

    Oh, and I hear that a couple of other guys might be on a stamp too.

  • I am not a Navy person, But was this the Guy we saw depicted in movie Tora Tora Tora, which i thought was better than the newer “Pearl harbour” movie.

    Thanks, great post

  • This is well-deserved recognition for Dorrie Miller. Sometimes we take a little bit too long to recognize the contributions of our Sailors.

    In a similar vein, Lt Col James Zumwalt (USMC – retired) is leading an effort to have his father’s contributions to the Navy and the Nation recognized with a stamp issuance by the USPS. You can read about his efforts by searching for ADM Elmo Zumwalt at the worldwide web under ‘traditions’. Those who might wish to support this effort can write to the Colonel using the contact information on his website. The Colonel’s son is a Navy EOD type on his way back to Iraq for his second tour. The Zumwalt legacy lives on.