Miller, Doris (Dorie) 1919–1943
Doris (Dorie) Miller 1919–1943
Holder of the Navy Cross for outstanding bravery at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Ship’s Cook Third Class Doris (Dorie) Miller was one of the earliest American heroes of World War II. Although at the time the U.S. Navy did not offer African Americans opportunities to rise above the menial labor of the mess hall, Miller took advantage of the chance fate gave him to distinguish himself in battle. But two years after his heroism at Pearl Harbor, he lost his life aboard the USS Liscome Bay in the Gilbert Islands in November of 1943.
Miller was born on a 28-acre cotton farm near Waco, Texas, on October 12, 1919. His parents, Connery and Henrietta Miller, were sharecroppers. As soon as he was big enough, Miller helped his parents with farm work, attending Moore High School in Waco when he could. He played fullback on the football team. But Miller knew that farming was not for him. Even though the dusty farm in Texas seemed a world apart from the sea, Miller dreamed of becoming a sailor and seeing the world. So, at the age of 19, he traveled to Dallas where he enlisted in the U.S. Navy on September 16, 1939, signing up for a period of six years.
Besides travel and perhaps a chance to send money home, there was little motivation for African Americans to join the Navy in 1939. They had been part of the naval service since the American Revolution, but when Miller enlisted, black sailors were still restricted to the most menial of jobs. He became a Mess Attendant, Third Class, meaning essentially that he waited on tables. This was the only military job classification officially open to African Americans at the time.
Miller took his basic training at the Naval Training Station in Norfolk, Virginia. In November of 1939, he was transferred to his first duty station, as a mess attendant aboard the USS Pyro, an ammunition ship. Two months later he reported for duty aboard the battleship USS West Virginia, where, in addition to his mess duties, he became the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion.
The ship was anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Miller was on deck collecting laundry at 7:55 a.m. Many of the ship’s crew were either sleeping in or spending the weekend ashore. On this quiet Sunday morning no one expected the first-wave attack force of some 200 Japanese bombers,
At a Glance…
Born Doris Miller on October 12, 1919, near Waco, Texas son of Connery and Henrietta Miller; presumed missing in submarine attack, November 24, 1943; officially presumed dead, November 25, 1944.
Career: US Navy, USS pyro, Mess Attendant, Third Class, 1939; USS West Virginia, 1940; USS Indianapolis, 1941; promoted to Mess Attendant, Second Class; promoted to Mess Attendant, First Class; promoted to Ship’s Cook, Third Class; USS Liscome Bay, August 1943.
Awards: Navy Cross awarded for bravery at Pearl Harbor, 1942; Purple Heart; American Defense Service Medal; Fleet Clasp; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; WWII Victory Medal; USS Miller commissioned in his honor, 1973.
When the alarm for general quarters sounded, Miller ran amidship to his battle station, an anti-aircraft battery. But torpedo damage had already put the battery out of commission. Miller was knocked down by the explosions but scrambled to his feet and ran on deck. In the smoke, flames, and chaos that engulfed the harbor as the enemy planes continued their relentless and deadly assault, Miller worked to carry wounded sailors to safer sections of the ship. An officer enlisted Miller’s help carrying the ship’s wounded captain, Mervyn Bennion, off the bridge.
The officer then spotted two unmanned, 50-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns on deck and shouted for two trained seaman to fire them. Miller was to supply the ammunition, but when the officer was needed elsewhere, Miller quickly stepped up to man the gun. Although he had not been trained to fire it, he reasoned it could not be much harder than the squirrel gun he used back home in Texas. Later he said, according to the Naval Historical Center website, “It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine.” In all, he was credited with downing three planes that morning. Some witnesses, however, claimed his marksmanship was astonishing and that he had shot down as many as six planes.
Perhaps he would have shot down more enemy planes, but Miller was ordered to abandon ship. Five 18-inch torpedoes had hit the West Virginia’s port side and two armor-piercing bombs had exploded on deck. With severe flooding below decks, the battleship slowly sank in shallow water. Of the 1,541 men on board, 130 died that day and 52 were wounded. In total, five battleships went down at Pearl Harbor, most within 30 minutes of the start of battle. Three others were damaged, as well as three cruisers, three destroyers, and other vessels; 180 U.S. aircraft were destroyed. More than 2,300 people died in the surprise attack, and more than 3,400 were wounded. As for the West Virginia, it lived to fight another day. It was refloated and repaired and operated in the Pacific until the end of the war in August of 1945.
Miller transferred to the USS Indianapolis a week after Pearl Harbor and spent the next 17 months on the cruiser. In April of 1942, he was commended by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox for his bravery at Pearl Harbor. Shortly after, aboard the USS Enterprise, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, pinned the Navy’s highest award for valor, the Navy Cross, on the chest of the 22-year-old ship’s cook. According to the Naval Historical Center website, the citation read: “For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety…in the face of a 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.” Nimitz said of Miller, according to the Naval Historical Center website: “This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race.”
Miller was advanced to Second and then First Class Mess Attendant and later to Ship’s Cook Third Class. Given shore leave, he was greeted with a hero’s welcome back home in Waco and in Dallas. He also spoke to a graduating class of noncommissioned officers at the Great Lakes Training School in Illinois. Ironically, at the time, he was not eligible for such training.
In early 1943, Miller arrived at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, and was assigned to the USS Liscome Bay, a newly-constructed escort carrier named for a bay in southeast Alaska. The Navy Cross winner went back to his kitchen duties. After some training operations along the southern California coast, the Liscome Bay sailed into Pearl Harbor in late October. It was attached to the Northern Attack Force to take part in Operation Galvanic, an invasion of the Gilbert Islands and the major thrust of American forces into the central Pacific.
The battle began on November 20, 1943, and soon resulted in the capture of Tarawa and Makin islands. For the next few days, Miller and the crew aboard the Liscome Bay were kept busy supporting the landings and ground operations. Then, on the early morning hours of November 24th, cruising near Butaritari Island, the crew was called to routine general quarters to assist the flight crews who were preparing the planes for launchings at dawn. According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, suddenly, at 5:10 a.m., a lookout shouted, “Here comes a torpedo!” There had been no warning of a submarine in the area.
A single torpedo from Japanese submarine 1-175 struck the carrier near the stern. The bomb magazine was hit a few seconds later, and the entire interior of the ship burst into flames. By 5:33 a.m., the ship was listing to starboard and within minutes it sank, taking down the captain, 53 other officers, and 591 crewmen. Only 272 men were rescued. Dorie Miller was not among them.
Miller’s parents were notified that their son was missing in action. The following year, on November 25, 1944, he and the other missing crew members of the Liscome Bay were officially presumed dead. The carrier received one battle star for its service in World War II.
In addition to the Navy Cross, Miller was granted several other honors, including the Purple Heart Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, the Fleet Clasp, the Asiastic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal. On June 30, 1973, the USS Miller, a frigate, was commissioned in his honor. In 2001, Academy Award winner, Cuba Gooding, Jr. played Miller in the film Pearl Harbor.
Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Vol. IV. Navy Department, 1969.
Richardson, Ben. Great American Negroes, Crowell, 1956.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune New Service, February 22, 1995.
The Naval Historical Center website, http://www.history.navy.mil
The Lest We Forget website, http://www.coax.net/people/lwf
—Corinne J. Naden and Jennifer M. York
"Miller, Doris (Dorie) 1919–1943." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/miller-doris-dorie-1919-1943
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