During The Pearl Harbor Attack, This Black Sailor Saved Lives


Photo: Getty Images

On December 7, 1941, a US naval base in Hawaii was devastated in a surprise attack carried out by the Imperial Japanese Navy Service. There were mass casualties in the chaos: more than 2,000 Americans –– service members and civilians –– lost their lives in the Pearl Harbor attack 80 years ago today.

As the nation pauses to remember those lost, and honor living survivors, the Black Information Network wanted to raise up the story of one Black sailor whose demonstrated bravery defied segregated rules and earned him the Navy's highest honor.

Doris "Dorie" Miller was a cook third class working laundry duty aboard the USS Virginia when the first torpedos struck the harbor. At the time, the Navy was segregated, meaning Black sailors were not permitted to serve in combat positions –– they were exclusively relegated to serving as cooks, cabin boys, stewards, mess attendants. And they were firmly not allowed to receive training in weapons or to fire guns.

As neighboring ships were engulfed in smoke, Miller sprung into action, reportedly carrying wounded sailors to safety –– including his own captain. But, Miller felt there was more to be done.

In the midst of the aerial attack, Miller noticed an abandoned machine gun on deck and broke segregated lines to defend the ship, despite not having any weapons training. Miller, a native of Waco, Texas, fired the gun until no ammunition was left and is credited with downing as many as six Japanese airplanes.

Early publications after the attack didn't know Miller's name, so many ran with headlines hailing the "Negro Messman" for his bravery.

It took months of investigating but a journalist with The Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper, identified Miller and he began to get his well-deserved recognition.

In March 1942, legislation was put forward that would allow Congress to present Miller with the Congressional Medal of Honor, but he did not receive the honor. Miller did, however, become the first Black sailor to receive the Navy Cross –– the military branch's highest honor.

In May 1943, Doris Miller reported for duty to board the USS Liscome Bay. On November 24, 1943a torpedo struck the ship, sinking it, leaving 644 service members presumed dead, including Doris Miller.

Two years to the date, on December 7, 1943, Miller's parents learned of their son's death.

Following his death, Miller received multiple posthumous honors and recognition. Doris Miller was portrayed by Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the 2001 film, Pearl Harbor.

Last year, the Navy announced it would be naming an aircraft carrier after Miller, marking the first time a carrier would be named after an enlisted sailor and an African American.

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