On the morning of December 7, 1941, Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris Miller was doing laundry below deck of the battleship USS West Virginia, yet another in an endless series of menial tasks to which he had been assigned.
Moments later, he was holding the ship’s dying commanding officer in his arms as a fleet of Japanese airplanes attempted to blast the West Virginia, and other ships like it, into oblivion.
Miller dragged his superior, Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion, to a spot underneath the portside antiaircraft guns. All around him was chaos: Soldiers running, flames bursting, torpedoes rocking the vessel. Oil slicked the surface. The ship began listing, the accrued damage threatening to sink the West Virginia and everyone on board.
Unable to do anything for his captain, Miller looked to the skies, where Japanese fighter planes were buzzing overhead. Despite the fact he had never been trained to operate a Browning machine gun, he grabbed hold, pointed, and started firing.
Doris “Dorie” Miller had enlisted in the United States Navy even though he knew full well he would be a second-class sailor not only in rank but also in race. When Miller joined up as a 19-year-old in September 1939, the Navy took a prejudicial attitude toward Black officers. They weren’t eligible for promotions, were typically assigned to subservient tasks, and were expected to dote on the white officers, even going so far as to shine their shoes. They weren’t even allowed to wear the Navy’s anchor-and-chain button insignia.
Miller weathered these indignities because he felt he had no other options. Dorie, whose grandparents had been enslaved, was born in Waco, Texas, on October 12, 1919, to sharecroppers Connery and Henrietta Miller. He dropped out of high school to earn money for his family but found few jobs or opportunities beyond being a restaurant cook. The Navy, he once said, “beats sitting around Waco working as a busboy, going nowhere.”
Miller enlisted in the Navy in Dallas and, shortly after going through a segregated boot camp, was assigned to the West Virginia, which found itself at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii, in January 1940. Like other Black Naval sailors, Miller was relegated to laundry, cooking, and cleaning. None were trained to use weapons, only to feed ammunition to officers behind the trigger.
When the Japanese attacked the West Virginia on December 7, Miller ran from the laundry area to the magazine—the spot on the ship where he was expected to deliver ammunition. But it was flooded, and so Miller kept moving, where he encountered Lieutenant Commander Dior C. Johnson. Miller was ordered to drag the wounded Captain Bennion to safety. He did the same for others below deck, wading through waist-deep water to do so. (While not trained in combat, Miller was a former football player and the ship’s boxing champion.)
Then he began feeding ammo to a superior officer operating one of the Browning machine guns that used .50 caliber ammunition. There were two—one of them unoccupied.
Despite the Navy never having taught him how to use the weapon, Miller quickly assumed control and began firing, absorbing brief instructions shouted by Lieutenant j.g. Frederic H. White. The gun screamed fire from its barrels as Miller aimed it at the incoming planes.
“It wasn’t hard,” Miller later said. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about 15 minutes. I think I got one of those planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”
Both men continued shooting until their ammunition ran out. When it became clear that escape was their only option, Miller and the rest of the men took to the ship’s boat deck, where Miller began pulling sailors from water that was engulfed in flames from the oil. As the ship sank, Miller swam to shore 300 yards away, fire and bullets creating a kind of obstacle course as he paddled to safety.
Though the Japanese had sunk or incapacitated seven of the eight American ships in the fleet, only 106 of the 1541 members of the West Virginia crew perished. Miller’s actions had undoubtedly contributed to sailors surviving the attack.
In the aftermath, the question wasn’t whether Miller had committed a number of brave acts—it was whether the Navy would acknowledge him for his selflessness.
Tales of Miller’s heroics began circulating in the media almost immediately, with both the Navy and journalists declaring it an amazing display of courage. Yet there seemed to be no urgency in identifying Miller by name. Even the Navy’s own Honor Roll of Race Relations in 1941 intended to issue commendations that mentioned the incident, but not Miller specifically. His name didn’t appear in print until March 1942: The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country's most important Black newspapers, identified Miller and wrote of his bravery.
“Messman Hero Identified,” the front page blared. Miller had joined other war heroes who had “inscribed their names in the red ink of raw courage ... the ‘phantom brigade’ of fighting Black men, whose deeds have become immortalized in the record book of American history!”
Incredibly, there was opposition to Miller being awarded the Medal of Honor, with lawmakers like Carl Vinson, the House of Representatives’s chairman of Naval Affairs, arguing that Miller hadn’t done enough to deserve the recognition. White sailors who exhibited similar grace under pressure were named, awarded, and sometimes sent home to promote war bonds. Miller, meanwhile, had been assigned to a new ship in the South Pacific, the Indianapolis, where he was again stationed as a messman, performing menial tasks.
But pressure was mounting on the Navy—not just to recognize Miller, but to rethink the organization's treatment of its Black sailors. Secretary of the Navy William Franklin Knox, who had opposed Miller receiving the Medal of Honor, tried to remedy the situation by announcing that Black enlistees would be trained in gunnery work, as well as radio and radar specialties an at all-Black training facility in Great Lakes, Illinois. The following month, President Franklin Roosevelt endorsed Miller getting the Navy Cross for his actions. On May 27, 1942, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz bestowed the award, which Miller happily accepted.
That was followed by a long-overdue return home. Miller went on a speaking tour for several months and was even featured on a Navy recruitment poster before being assigned to the USS Liscome Bay, an escort carrier that drew criticism for its dubious engineering. Sadly, on November 24, 1943, the carrier was hit by a torpedo from the Japanese, and the damage was insurmountable. Over 600 men died, including Miller. He had just turned 24.
Miller was a central figure in the civil rights movement taking place in the military. In May 1942, the same month Miller received the Navy Cross, Robert Lee Thornton was sworn in as the Navy’s first Black petty officer. By 1944, the Navy had introduced an officer training program for Black sailors.
In 1973, the Navy named an escort ship Miller after the hero of Pearl Harbor. Numerous facilities in Waco, including a YMCA, a park, and a cemetery all bear his name. In 2020, the Navy announced it would name an aircraft carrier currently under construction after Dorie Miller. It is the first time such a vessel will carry the name of a Black sailor—one whose name was concealed and who was once forbidden to wear the Navy’s button insignia.
As the Courier wrote back in 1942: “No longer is his name unknown.”