Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
Dec. 7, 1941
At a May 27, 1942, award ceremony on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pinned the Navy Cross on the uniform of a tall, muscular sailor standing at rigid attention. That the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was personally bestowing the medal was unusual, but what made the occasion truly historic was that the sailor—Mess Attendant Second Class Doris Miller—was the first black to receive what at that time was the Navy’s third highest award for valor.
Born in Waco, Texas, on Oct. 12, 1919, Miller grew up working alongside his three brothers on his parents’ farm. By age 17 he weighed a solid 200 pounds and was a fullback on his high school football team. Miller dropped out of school and took odd jobs until enlisting in the Navy in September 1939. The occupations open to him in the then-segregated Navy were few, and on completion of training in Norfolk, Va., he entered service as a mess attendant. In November 1939 he reported for duty aboard the West Coast–based ammunition ship USS Pyro, then in January 1940 joined the crew of the battleship USS West Virginia. His main tasks aboard both vessels were to clean the galley and dining areas and collect laundry.
Following an April 1940 fleet exercise in the Pacific, West Virginia sailed for Pearl Harbor and spent the next 20 months conducting training exercises in Hawaiian waters. In his off-duty hours Miller, by then 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, participated in the ship’s boxing squad, besting all rivals to become West Virginia’s heavyweight champion. On duty he continued to serve as a mess attendant, but after completing the Secondary Battery Gunnery School aboard the battleship USS Nevada, Miller was also assigned a combat duty station—the magazine serving West Virginia’s amidships antiaircraft battery.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Miller was gathering laundry when the first of several Japanese torpedoes slammed into West Virginia. Miller ran to his general-quarters station, only to find it destroyed. He was helping injured sailors to casualty-collection points when an officer ordered him up to the battleship’s damaged bridge to help move wounded Captains Mervyn S. Bennion to a safer location. Shrapnel had torn open the commander’s abdomen, and though bleeding and unable to stand, he was still trying to direct the ship’s defense. Miller and others moved the captain to an area aft of the battleship’s conning tower, intending to carry him to the improvised aid station on the battleship’s quarterdeck.
While other sailors assembled a stretcher on which to lower their captain, Miller and two young officers manned the .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns forward of West Virginia’s conning tower. Though Miller had no training on the weapon, he engaged the Japanese aircraft until he ran out of ammunition, later recalling that firing the big Browning “wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger, and she worked fine.”
Despite the best efforts of rescuers, Bennion died aboard ship. Japanese torpedoes and bombs had also grievously wounded West Virginia, which eventually flooded and settled to the bottom of the harbor with the loss of 130 men killed and 52 wounded. Refloated and ultimately repaired, the battleship rejoined the war and remained in service until its decommissioning in 1947.
After receiving the Navy Cross from Nimitz “for distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety,” Miller was promoted to mess attendant first class and sent on a stateside war bond tour. In May 1943 the Navy promoted him to ship’s cook third class, assigned to the escort carrier USS Liscombe Bay. On November 24, during Operation Galvanic—the U.S. assault on the Gilbert Islands—the Japanese submarine I-175 struck the carrier with a torpedo. The blast detonated Liscombe Bay’s bomb magazine, sinking the warship within minutes and killing Doris Miller and 643 shipmates. The hero of Pearl Harbor was just 24 years old.
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.