Doris Miller and his Navy Cross: a brief biography
by David Aiken (copyright 2000)
The third of four sons of Henrietta and Conery Miller was born in Waco, Texas on October 12, 1919. Mrs. Miller allowed her midwife to name her son "Doris". He attended school at Kimmonsville and Willow Grove, Texas, but his school records have been lost by county officials.
Beginning on January 25, 1937, at age 17, Doris Miller attended the 8th grade at W.L. Moore High School, Waco, Texas where he played football as fullback. His girlfriend, Mozelle Alexander, lived in Flint, Texas. Even after another year in the 8th grade he did not pass, so he quit school on May 30, 1938. He enjoyed squirrel hunting with his .22 rifle and completed a correspondence course in taxidermy. He tried to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, but was turned down.
Husky, six-foot three inches tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, on 16 Sept 1939, Doris Miller enlisted in the US Navy in Dallas, Texas. He received his initial training at Norfolk Naval Training Station, Virginia, and received the rank of Mess Attendant Third Class. He was given Temporary Assigned Duty aboard USS Pyro (AE-1) on 29 November 1939, before he received his first permanent duty on USS West Virginia (BB-48) on January 2, 1940. His primary duty was as a steward to serve food and bus tables in the Junior Officers' Mess. He volunteered for room steward, an added duty -at $5 a month extra- to wake duty officers, collect their laundry, shine their shoes and make their beds. He entered the ship's heavyweight boxing competitions and won in his division.
Doris Miller went to Secondary Battery Gunnery classes held on USS Nevada (BB-36) twice that summer, from June 14-22, 1940 and from July 1-August 3, 1940, to prepare for his combat duty station, an anti-aircraft battery magazine amidships. On February 16, 1941, he was advanced to Mess Attendant Second Class just before his ship was sent to Pearl Harbor.
On December 7, 1941, the first of nine torpedoes to hit West Virginia was launched at 0757 by Lt. Comdr. Shigeharu Murata of the Japanese carrier Akagi. Twenty-two year old Doris Miller had served breakfast mess duty that morning and was collecting junior officers' laundry at that moment. He ran to his combat station only to find "...that torpedo damage had already rendered it untenable." He then retreated to "Times Square", a spot in the ship where port to starboard and fore to aft passageway's cross, to be available for other duty.
West Virginia's Captain Mervin S. Bennion was seriously wounded on the bridge and needed medical attention. A runner got word to Lieutenant Claude V. Ricketts, gunnery officer. He sent Ensign Jacoby and S.F.2/c McKnight forward to get a Pharmacist Mate to assist. Ricketts informed Lt. Comdr. T.T. Beattie, ship's navigator, of the Captain's plight.
Beattie ordered Lt. Comdr. D.C. Johnson, the ship's communication officer, to the bridge to bring the wounded Captain down to the fo'c's'le (forecastle). Johnson saw Miller at "Times Square" and ordered Miller to accompany him to the bridge. Johnson described Miller as "...a very powerfully built individual having in mind that he might pick up the Captain and carry him below."
On Johnson and Miller's arrival, Captain Bennion was carried on a cot to the top of the ladder leading down from the signal bridge, the cot sagged and almost broke, so they moved him to shelter just aft of the conning tower. Johnson then went forward to the fo'c's'le (forecastle) and reported to Comdr. Beattie that it was advisable to leave the Captain where he was. At that point, Lt. (jg) Frederic H. White reported to Lt. Comdr. Johnson about an ammo problem forward. Lt. Comdr. John S. Harper, West Virginia's first lieutenant (third ranking officer aboard), ordered White to go aid the Captain. White was even taller than Miller, with size 14EEE shoes which gave him the nickname, "Mr. Snowshoes".
Lieutenant C.V. Ricketts went to the bridge to find Ensign Vail and Ensign Victor Delano with the Captain in the starboard doorway to the Admiral's walk. Radioman John F. Glass and several signalmen, including Earl W. Harshberger, Jr., were nearby. Lt.(jg) F.H. White arrived shortly afterwards and saw the "Captain's abdomen was cut apparently by a fragment of bomb, about three by four inches, with part of his intestines protruding."
Ensign Vail was ordered by the Captain to the boat deck to send the AA gun crews to the USS Tennessee to assist in return fire. Ricketts was questioned repeatedly by the Captain about the condition of the ship. Captain Bennion did not want to be moved. Chief Pharmacist Mate L.N. Leak arrived with a first aid kit and dressed the wound as best he could. Radioman Glass was assisting Leak when Captain Bennion noted that Glass had a cut upper lip. After Leak attended to both the wounded, Glass followed the Captain's order to go below to close watertight doors and hatches, while the battle raged around them.
A total of thirteen D3A Bakugekiki (dive bombers) had targeted USS Maryland, forward of USS Tennessee. Seaman First Class Chris Beal was the "trainer" on USS Maryland's 5" AA gun #4, "I saw a group of five come in from the port-quarter angle and a few bombs fell between Maryland and Oklahoma and we got mist of oily water on us.... I still remember their 'banshee death wail' as they dived on us, then the whistle of bombs, near misses, and the engine re-gaining altitude as they pulled up over us..."
The planes were too fast for the 5" guns, but not for the ship's 1.1" guns. Planes were coming on a straight course for Maryland which gave her gunners an almost 'still' target with an ever decreasing range. The second plane in the dive was hit by AA fire from the forward 1.1 inch gun crew on the portside of the mainmast of USS Maryland. Beal saw the damaged plane, "...one of them smoked and made a rattling, irregular engine noise..." and it crashed east of Pearl Harbor. The USS Maryland victory is officially claimed. Japanese kodochosho (combat reports) reveal this was the sole plane shot down in the time frame and near USS West Virginia.
On West Virginia, White later said, "Under direction of Lieutenant Ricketts, material to construct a stretcher on which to lower the Captain was procured, while D. Miller, Matt.2c, and I manned #1 and #2 machine gun forward of the conning tower." Miller didn't know very much about the machine gun. White and Delano told him what to do. Miller knew both officers well from his room steward duty. Delano's attention was diverted, but expected Miller to feed the ammunition to one gun. Instead, White loaded ammo into both guns, and assigned Miller the starboard gun. Later Delano looked back at Miller and was surprised to see him firing.
Doris Miller remarked in 1942, "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 Japanese planes. They were diving pretty close to us." In 1990, White said, "One of the planes that he (Miller) was shooting at, and everyone else in the bay was shooting at, went down. He felt very pleased with that. And I don't blame him. But there were a lot of other guys shooting at it also." Victor Delano said in 1993, "I did see Miller shooting but I would term it rather wild so I doubt that he hit anything. I certainly did not see him shoot down a plane." The USS West Virginia never put in a claim for any aircraft shot down.
Time can seem forever but it was not long to find a stretcher. Lt. Ricketts had located an eight foot ladder and lashed Captain Bennion to it and tied a line on each end in hope to lower the Captain to the boat deck. Due to the ship's list at that moment, an unsuccessful attempt was made. However, a serious oil fire started and the boat deck was evacuated. The Captain kept insisting that he be left and all go below. Smoke and fire were on all sides. Even the bridge had to be evacuated to get air, leaving the Captain. On return, Ricketts found Bennion partially conscious and the ladder had one end on the shield from the attempt to lower the Captain.
Ricketts returned aft out of the smoke to get help. He had White, Miller, and Chief Signalman A.A. Siewart to help him unlash the Captain and carry him up to the navigation bridge out of the smoke. Not too soon as the area where they had been was immediately covered with flames. Ricketts, White and "one enlisted man" were passed a fire hose from USS Tennessee and began fighting the flames when Pharmacist Mate Leak came, "Mr. Ricketts, the Captain is about gone." On Leak's return, Captain Bennion was dead.
With the attack concluded, and after abandoning the bridge, White ordered Miller to help him rescue sailors from the water to the ship's quarter-deck, as Commander R.H. Hillenkoetter, the executive officer, said, "...saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost".
Preliminary reports were written. Then, Commander R.H. Hillenkoetter, the senior surviving officer, wrote his report on December 11. The reports from all the harbor's ships and shore facilities, and the addendums were gathered by Lt. Commander Paul C. Crosley, Aide and Flag Secretary to the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Husband Kimmel and later Admiral Chester Nimitz. The process of confirmation and then giving commendations to all personnel cited in the hundreds of reports began.
On December 15, 1941, Miller was transferred to USS Indianapolis (CA-35) where he served the next 17 months. Among the news on New Years Day, 1942, of the Naval commendations for 7 Dec actions, the sole commendation to a Negro was released, though his actual name was not mentioned. Without knowing the deeds accomplished, the NAACP asked President Roosevelt to give the Distinguished Service Cross to this unknown (living or dead) Negro sailor.
Admiral Kimmel's main document and supportive documents detailing the attack and copies of commendations were forwarded to Washington DC. The Navy Board of Awards was established on February 12, 1942. A Navy spokesman recommended that the unknown Negro sailor be considered for an award.
The unknown Negro mess man was named to the 1941 Honor Roll of Race Relations. On March 12, 1942, Dr. Lawrence D. Reddick announced, after corresponding with the Navy, that he found the name was "Doris Miller." The next day, Senator James N. Mead introduced a Senate Bill [Senate Reso S.2392] to award Miller the Medal of Honor, without knowing what Miller's deeds were for the basis of such award.
On 14 March 1942, The Pittsburgh Courier released a story that named the black mess man as "Dorie" Miller. This is the earliest found use of "Dorie", an apparent typographical error. Some sources have further misspelled the name to "Dore" and "Dorrie". Various writers have attributed "Dorie" to other suggestions such as a "nickname to shipmates and friends"...or "the Navy thought he should go by the more masculine-sounding Dorie." On 17 March, Representative John D. Dingwell, Democrat from Michigan, introduced a matching bill [H.R.6800] as the one in the US Senate to award to Miller the Medal of Honor. On 21 March, The Pittsburgh Courier initiated a write-in campaign to send Miller to the Naval Academy.
Letters of Commendations from the Secretary of the Navy were finally issued. Miller's commendation of April 1, 1942, cited his "distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard of his personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller despite enemy strafing and bombing, and in the face of serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety and later manned and operated a machine gun until ordered to leave the bridge."
On April 2, CBS radio series "They Live Forever" dramatized Doris Miller's actions.
The Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, sent a letter, on April 9, to the US House of Representatives Chairman of Naval Affairs, which outlined the requirements of the Medal of Honor versus the deeds of Miller, and recommended against an award of the Medal of Honor.
During the All-Southern Negro Youth Conference of April 17-19, a signature campaign was launched to give proper recognition to Doris Miller. Miller's parents were brought to the conference and awarded a ور defense bond.
On May 10, The National Negro Congress denounced Frank Knox's recommendation to decline the Medal of Honor for Miller. But the next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the Navy Cross, the Navy's highest medal, for Miller. This was presented on May 27 aboard USS Enterprise by Admiral Chester Nimitz.
Miller's rank was raised to Mess Attendant First Class on June 1. On June 27, The Pittsburgh Courier called for Miller to be allowed to return home for a war bond tour like white heroes. The following November 23, Miller arrived to Pearl Harbor, and was ordered on a war bond tour while still attached to USS Indianapolis. In December and January he gave talks in Oakland, California; in his home town of Waco, Texas; in Dallas, Texas; and to the first graduating class of Negro sailors from Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Chicago, Illinois.
The Pittsburg Courier continued to hammer to return Miller for a war bond tour in the February 6, 1943 issue. The caption to Miller's photo read, "He fought...Keeps Mop", while another hero of Pearl Harbor got a commission. It said that Miller was "too important waiting tables in the Pacific to return him", even though he was already on tour.
Doris Miller reported for duty at Puget Sound Navy Yard on May 15, 1943, and his rank was again raised to Ship's Cook Third Class on June 1 as he reported to USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56), an aircraft carrier. After training in Hawaii and in the Gilbert Islands, the Liscome Bay participated in the Battle of Tarawa beginning November 20. On November 24, the ship was torpedoed near the Gilbert Islands by the Japanese submarine I-175 and sank in 23 minutes. There were 242 survivors. The rest of the crew was listed as "presumed dead". On December 7, Mr. & Mrs. Conery Miller were notified their son was "Missing in Action."
A memorial service was held on April 30, 1944, at the Waco, Texas, Second Baptist Church, sponsored by the Victory Club. On May 28, a granite marker was dedicated at Moore High School to honor Miller. On November 25, 1944, The Secretary of Navy announced that Miller was "presumed dead."
The Doris Miller Foundation was organized by Reverend Elmer L. Fowler, in 1947, to give an annual award to the individual or group considered outstanding in the field of race relations. In April 1949, Doris Miller's father, Conery, died of a heart attack.
On December 7, 1971, the Bachelor Enlisted Quarters at Great Lakes Naval Base was dedicated to Miller's memory. On June 3, 1972, Mrs. Henrietta Miller launched destroyer escort USS Miller (FF-1091), named for Doris. It was commissioned on June 30, 1973. On February 23, 1982, a monument dedicated to Miller is at the Waco Veterans Medical Center, Waco, Texas, and the drive into the center was renamed Doris Miller Drive. On June 7, 1982, Mrs. Miller died. On Dec. 10, 1992, a former shopping center in San Antonio, Texas, was named "Dorie Miller Center." It was meant to be a recreational area, police department outpost, and a social service agency. Also in San Antonio is the "Dorie Miller Elementary School." There are other buildings named for him in several states.
Alas, myths have clouded the memory of Doris Miller. Most revolve around Miller's "manning a machine gun". This is usually expanded into "shooting down" aircraft. The Pittsburgh Courier claims Miller shot down four! ...as many as "six" kills have been cited. The Waco Messenger, Waco, Texas, was more objective quoting Miller as only shooting at the Japanese planes. His actual deeds for his help with Captain Bennion and for saving lives are forgotten in the movie heroics of actor Elven Havard in Tora, Tora, Tora or Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Pearl Harbor.
May we remember Doris Miller for what he did.
Boeicho: Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu Kodochosho
Chris Beal, USS Maryland, Pearl Harbor Survivors Association (PHSA)
Victor Delano, USS West Virginia, PHSA, Pearl Harbor History Associates, Inc. (PHHA)
Steve Levin, reporter, Dallas Morning News
Jesse Pond, USS Chew, PHSA, PHHA
LeRoy Ramsey, author of: Remembering the Messman at Pearl Harbor
[Albany, NY: ELRamCo Enterprises; 1992] ISBN 0-930355-19-9.
Frederic H. White, USS West Virginia
PHSA files of Raymond Emory, USS Honolulu, PHSA Battle Historian
PHHA files of Robert A. Varrill, USS Sunnadin, PHSA Ship Historian, PHHA
Internet: Naval Historical Center:
Doris Miller file
West Virginia Commanding Officer Report
Internet: The Pittsburgh Courier: Courier back issues
Internet: "Dorie Miller" by Bennie J. McRae, Jr.: Miller report
Steve Levin: "The Long War of Doris Miller" Dallas Morning News, July 8, 1990.
National Archives and Records Administration, Textual Reference Branch,
Record Group 38.
Naval Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, microfilm NRS1973-16
Patricia Smith Prather: "Speaking of Texas" Texas Highways, February 1989, p19.
Hitoshi Tsunoda, et al.: Senshi Sosho: Hawai Sakusen [Tokyo: Boeicho; 1967]
Pamela G. Wood, editor: Pearl Harbor Survivors, Volume One [Paducah, KY: Turner Pub. Co.; 1992]
Henry L. Binese: "Negroes in the Navy" Commonweal, Sept. 21, 1945, p546-548.
"Dorie Miller: First US Hero of World War II" Ebony, Vol. 25, Dec. 1969, p132-4+
William R. Mueller: "The Negro in the Navy" Social Forces, Oct. 1945, p110-115.
"Black Sailors" Time, Aug. 17, 1942, p54.
A. Russell Buchanan: Black Americans in World War II [Santa Barbara, CA: Cho Books; 1977]
Richard Dalfiume: Desegregation of the US Armed Forces: Fighting on Two Fronts, 1939-1953 [Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1969]
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Jay David and Elaine Crane: The Black Soldier: from the American Revolution to Vietnam [NY: William Morrow & Co.; 1971]
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Editors of EBONY: The Negro Handbook [Chicago: Johnson Pub Co. Inc.; 1966]
Arthur Furr: Democracy's Negroes: A Book of Facts Concerning the Activities in World War II [Boston: House of Edinboro; 1947]
Robert E. Greene: Black Defenders of America, 1775-1973: A Reference and Pictorial History [Chicago: Johnson Pub Co. Inc.; 1973]
Stewart H Holbrook: None More Courageous, American War Heroes of Today [NY: MacMillan; 1942]
Richard O Hope: Racial Strife in the Military: Toward the Elimination of Discrimination [NY: Praeger Pubs; 1979]
Langston Hughes, Milton Meltzer & C. Eric Lincoln: A Pictorial History of Black Americans [NY: Crown Pub; 1983]
Jesse L. Johnson: Pictorial History of Black Servicemen: Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines -Missing Pages of US History [Hampton, VA: Hampton Institute; 1970]
Mary Penick Motley: The Invisible Soldier, the Experience of the Black Soldier [Detroit, MI: Wayne State University; 1975]
Dennis D. Nelson: The Integration of the Negro into the US Navy [NY: Farrar, Straus & Young; 1951]
Benjamin Richardson: "Dorie Miller" in Benjamin Richardson: Great American Negroes [NY: T.Y. Crowell; 1956, rev. ed.]
John D Silvera: The Negro in World War II [Baton Rouge, LA: Military Press; 1946; reprinted NY: Arno Press; 1969]
"TV Networks Ignore Black Navy Hero Who Shot Down Japanese War Planes At Pearl Harbor" Jet, Dec 23, 1991, Vol. 81 #10, p12-13.
"Winning the Hearts and Minds of an America Facing War" Smithsonian, Vol. 24 #12, March 1994, p66-69
Edited by David Aiken on --
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