Part III of a four-part series

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Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller, at a ceremony on board USS Enterprise (CV-6) at Pearl Harbor, May 27, 1942.

I have read in any number of articles that Doris Miller was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously. Perhaps that was rewritten many times over from an article in Ebony’s Handbook. We can see from the now famous picture of Admiral Nimitz pinning the medal on Miller at ceremony on board USS Enterprise (CV-6) at Pearl Harbor, May 27, 1942, that he was very much alive when receiving the Medal.

Life experiences are the continuum in a seamless matrix. All the events of Miller’s life brought him to that moment in time. Yes, his name was Doris. Born Oct. 12, 1919, in Erath, Texas, Doris, as he was christened, was the third of four sons to Mr. and Mrs. Conery Miller. “The family lived in a three room farmhouse near Speegleville, Texas where his father was a farmer. His life had begun in a time of controversy, turmoil and violence, although his immediate surroundings appeared to be peaceful and simple.”

America at this time was deluged with atrocities. . .lynching of Negroes, drowning of coolies, downright genocide of Native American Indians, bombing of synagogues, women were chattel and mortgage.

Everyone in America struggled through the Great Depression; the Miller family was no different. Attending Moore High School Doris Miller played fullback on the school team. By the time he reached the 8th grade he stood 6’4” and weighed 220 lbs. Not only had he become a skilled boxer at the time, but he could also use his hands for cooking, sewing and ironing, all of which were practical skills to get any one through the worst depression America had ever known.

Messman Attendant Second Class Doris Miller’s acts of valor at Pearl Harbor made him a hero of epic proportions.

Aware of the racial limitations, Miller joined the Navy on September 16, 1939, saying “it beats sitting around Waco working as a bus boy, going nowhere.”

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Doris Miller speaking on a war bonds tour.

A product of the segregated military, Miller never gave Jim Crow a thought as he braved strafing enemy planes to help remove his mortally wounded Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion to a place of safety.

The lack of combat training did not stop Miller. This noble spirit, running between the flames and crashing metal, taking the machine guns in hand as his ship mates were dying all around him on the blood soaked deck of the battleship West Virginia. He shot down Japanese planes that rained bombs from the sky on Dec. 7, the “day that will live in infamy.”

“I (Miller) was ordered up to the main deck, saw the Captain bleeding from a hole in his stomach, we tried to move him to a place of safety. He called Commander Hillenkoatter, giving him orders to take command of the ship. He said he did not want to be moved and wanted to go down with the ship. I noticed a gun silent. I mounted it, pointed at the oncoming plane and began firing.”

In spite of eye witness accounts (Claude V. Ricketts and Commander R. M. Hillenkoatter) of his acts of bravery during the Pearl Harbor attack, the Navy Board of Awards established and recommended that “an unknown Negro Messman” be given an award. Not until March of 1942 through the persistence of Dr. Lawrence D. Reddisk did the Navy announces that the “unknown Black Messman” was Doris Miller.

U.S. Rep. Marcantonio of New York was able to identify Miller as the “unknown Negro Mess Attendant responsible for shooting down the Japanese planes.”

While some people question if he shot down any planes given the smoke and flames and confusion all round. If he did, how many? Arthur Miller, Doris’ brother said “we were avid hunters and fishers. Doris was a great hunter. He was one of the few people I have ever seen that could shoot a moving squirrel out of a tree with a single shot 22.” Therefore it is possible that he did indeed shoot down some Japanese planes.

Miller’s acts were heavily publicized in the Black press, making him the iconic emblem of the war for Blacks—their “Number One Hero”—thereby energizing Black support for the war effort.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

On the front page of the Pittsburgh Courier January, 1942

Headline: “United States ‘41 Lynching Record is one less than ‘40. In the same issue “Manned Gun At Pearl Harbor. NAACP asks the President of the United States to give the “unnamed” Messman a distinguished service award. On the inside page of the Pittsburgh Courier, January, 1942 “No Change in Navy Policy!

“The answer to a letter to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz by P. L. Pratts, executive editor of The Pittsburgh Courier, the following announcement was made:

NAVY DEPARTMENT – BUREAU OF NAVIGATION WASHINGTON, D.C.

December 23, 1941

Replying to your letter of December 16, you are advised that there has been no change in the policy of enlisting colored men in the Navy or Naval Reserve.

Sincerely Yours,

Randall Jacobs, Chief of Bureau

(Signed) A.W. Dunn, By Direction

“Dorie Miller’s Parents to be Feted at Youth Conf.” The Dallas Expresso 11 April 1942 p.4

The article tells how the All-Southern Negro Youth Conference met at Tuskegee Institute on April 17, 18 and 19. This organization paid for Miller’s parents to travel to the Conference and presented them with a $100 defense bond. The article further states: “At the closing session on April 19th a campaign will be started to have one million citizens sign a petition to the Congress of the United States asking that a proper symbol of recognition be awarded to your son.” Louis Burnham, Secretary.

Unlike his White shipmates whose acts of bravery were acknowledged by being sent back to the states, Dorie was fished out of the burning waters as the West Virginia went down and was transferred to the Indianapolis and spent the next 17 months at Pearl Harbor waiting on (white) Junior Officers. Finally in June of 1942 the Pittsburgh Courier called for Miller to be allowed to return to the states like White heroes. December, 1942 Doris Miller arrived in Waco, a hero.

The Waco Messenger, 1 January 1943 p.1

“Miller arrived home on last Thursday. He is greeted by many friends including his former football coach at Moore High School, Professor Roosevelt L. Posey. “How often do we find young men with a swelled head because of a little success. Not so with Miller.” commented Possey. When questioned about his actions Doris said:

“It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I fired her until the ammunition ran out. I think I got some of those planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”

The Waco Messenger, 15 January 1943 p.3

Second Baptist Church in Waco. After having been introduced and asked to come to the rostrum, Doris Miller gracefully marched down the aisle by the president of the usher board, James Pryor Sr., while a thunderous applause roared over the spacious building. He mounted the rostrum in all dignity and answered many questions from the enthusiastic audience. In his talk Doris said: ‘Wherever I go, the people of Waco can rest assured that they have my good will.”

The Waco Messenger, 22 January 1943 p.2 “

. . . Mrs. Parsons was accompanied by little Barbara Brown, her granddaughter, age 7, Barbara was thrilled beyond measure at meeting our hero, Doris Miller; she said, ‘I will be able to tell the pupils in my class at home that I actually met Mr. Miller.’ More than this Barbara danced with the hero also.”