Part IV in a four-part series


Doris Miller

After all of the publicity about Dorie Miller’s heroic efforts by March of 1942, there was pressure on President Franklin D. Roosevelt from all over the United States to give Doris Miller the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor is given for service “above and beyond the call of duty.”

For his heroism, Miller, the first African American to be recognized as a hero in W.W.II, received the Navy Cross. It was the first time in the history of the Navy that an African-American sailor had been given such an honor. It was a consolation for having been denied the Medal of Honor; which was the American policy at the time.

Even the Navy Cross was a hard won prize. Secretary of The Navy Frank Knox had issued a denial of the Medal of Honor even though Senator James H. Mead, Senate Reso S.2392 Congressman John D. Dingell (D. Mi.) H.R.6800 and superior Officers had recommended that he be given the Medal of Honor in response to the public outcry.

Due to the American racist traditions and military attitudes, it was not just Doris Miller who did not get the Medal of Honor. From the Spanish American War in 1898 thru World War I up to and including World War II until the Korean War in 1950 no Black military men were awarded the Medal of Honor.

In spite of the opposition of the Top Naval Officers, the Secretary of the Navy and Southern Congressmen, the final decision was and is the President of the United States. As the Pittsburgh Courier, May 9, 1942 wrote in 1942, “President Roosevelt has the power and authority to make such an award without conferring either with the Congress or the Navy Officials.”

It seems to me President Roosevelt ordered the Navy to give Miller the Navy Cross to appease the Black community and not get the white community in an uproar. It did not work then. It has been 70+ years and the Black community is still not satisfied.

July 29, 1990 | By STEVE LEVIN Dallas Morning News

But it wasn’t until March 14, 1942, that Doris Miller’s identity was discovered and revealed by the Black newspaper Pittsburgh Courier. The discovery set in motion a chain of events that is still playing itself out today.

Within a matter of days Miller became one of the country’s best-known blacks. He was referred to as “Dorie Miller, Texas-born and Texas-raised.” Bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate – against the objections of the secretary of the Navy – to present the Medal of Honor to him. On April 1, 1942, the Navy awarded him a letter of commendation for his bravery.

A month later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Navy to award Doris Miller its highest honor – the Navy Cross. The first black to receive the medal, it was pinned on him by fellow Texan Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet. The Navy, in late May 1942, issued its version of the events of Dec. 7 aboard the USS West Virginia to the national press:

“An officer ordered (Doris Miller) to the bridge to aid the mortally wounded captain of the ship. Here, Miller, after helping that dying officer, manned a machine gun. It was his first experience with such a weapon. He said: `It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.’”

The rest of 1942 was busy for Doris Miller. He was promoted to mess attendant first class, he traveled the country promoting war bonds and his face appeared on a Navy recruiting poster. Schools, parks and buildings around the country were named for him. He became known as “the first American hero of World War II.”

By mid-1943, he had been promoted to ship’s cook third class and reassigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. On Nov. 24, 1943, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near the Gilbert Islands. The Liscome Bay sank in 20 minutes; 646 men, including Doris Miller, died.

Over the next four decades little attention was paid to him. But in 1984 Dr. Leroy Ramsey, a retired Hofstra University history professor, became angered because so few Blacks were included in televised celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of D-Day in Europe. Black and a World War II veteran himself, Ramsey decided to write a book on the Black military experience during the war. When he discovered that no Black had received the Medal of Honor in World Wars I and II, he abandoned the book and began a quest to redress what he believes is a gross oversight – getting the Medal of Honor awarded to one or more Black veterans of the two world wars.

After reading each of the 3,417 Medal of Honor citations, Ramsey checked the records of Black servicemen who had been awarded other high military honors. And that’s how he discovered Doris Miller.

“I just don’t think that this can be a situation where no Blacks performed with valor to the point that they didn’t get the Medal of Honor,” says Ramsey. “I saw a hell of a lot of Congressional Medals of Honor (awarded) for a whole lot less than … Dorie Miller did.”

Since then, Ramsey has become the seaman’s unofficial biographer. It was he who revived interest in a Medal of Honor for Doris Miller by hounding members of Congress in person and through the mail from his Albany, N.Y., home. In October 1987, the late Rep. Mickey Leland, Texas 18th District and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, co-sponsored a bill to waive the medal’s statute of limitations for Doris Miller. The bill stalled in committee, but in 1988 the Department of Defense began researching the sailor’s actions at Pearl Harbor.

‘’Because Miller was Black, this is what makes his heroism so outstanding,’’ Ramsey says. ‘’The first thing that the Congressional Medal of Honor asks is (that) you have to go beyond the call of duty. That phrase cannot be lost when it comes to Dorie Miller.

‘’Here was a man who did what he was not allowed to do. Just manning that machine gun was going beyond the call of duty right there.’’

But Medals of Honor don’t come easy. Bills introduced in Congress in 1942 to award the medal to Miller were referred as a matter of course to the House and Senate naval affairs committees. They never surfaced again.

Following Doris Miller’s death in 1943, interest in his case waned. Thirty years later the Navy dedicated the destroyer escort USS Doris Miller.

‘’Here is a guy who has received the Navy’s second-highest award, and he’s also had a ship named in his honor,’’ he says. ‘’The opposition I’ve been running into with Miller is that if we want to give him a Congressional Medal of Honor too, we might as well give him the whole Navy. People have said to me, ‘Hasn’t he received enough?’ ‘’

The other obstacle remains race. ‘’I know that a Black guy has to be ‘Super Black,’ ‘’ Ramsey says. ‘’Unfortunately, a Black guy has to do twice as much to get half as much.’’

There were 433 Medals of Honor awarded during World War 2, 219 of them were given after the recipient’s death. None for Black men in the Navy!

Maybe we do not know how many, if any planes he shot down the day that would live in infamy. Maybe we do not know if he was the first American hero of World War II. Or the answers to any other questions. What we do know for certain is that Doris Miller was important to a wide range of the American society, not just African Americans. Miller’s trips around America selling war bonds gave African Americans a reason to support the War effort. His presence as a hero called attention to the mistreatment and degradation of Blacks in the military. The Navy’s policies toward men of color were cruel and unfair. Soon after his historic rise in the public’s eye, changes began to happen in the Navy. Slowly but surely and long overdue, Blacks could have rates other than Messmen; the Golden Thirteen were commissioned as Officers in the Navy; Black men were admitted the US Naval Academy.

I believe Miller had an indirect influence on these changes. Doris Miller made America aware of it shortcomings and exposed its hypocrisy; that the words of equality as written in the American Constitution are hollow. Can we fight a war abroad for democracy and not practice it at home?

Doris Miller will always be gratefully remembered by Americans. To his heroism and the heroes of others like him, white and black, we owe our lives and our nation. While the official Navy records still do not credit Miller as having shot down any enemy aircraft, Miller’s heroism and his legacy helped to call worldwide attention to the evil practice of segregation in the military.

With the Medal of Honor comes recognition and everyone including the President must salute the recipient. Also their offspring gets a free education at the military academies. By denying African Americans who make these sacrifices the Medal of Honor the Navy denies a race of people recognition as first class citizens and generations of people a first class education. It’s now time for this recognition! After 400 years, we have earned it. By recognizing Doris Miller with the Medal of Honor and the thousands like him the Country honors us all.

Are there military awards for a lifetime achievement, for a life well lived, for a legacy that will live forever? It is an obligation America owes for generations past and generations to come. Miller leaves a legacy that remains timeless. A debt that can never be repaid!