Pearl Harbor 75th : Remembering Dorie Miller, Messman with a 50 Caliber

On the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, it is a good time to remember Dorie Miller.  Miller was a Navy messman on the battleship USS West Virginia, who showed incredible courage under fire during the attack. He was the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross, the third highest honor awarded by the U.S. Navy at the time.

Doris “Dorie” Miller was a Mess Attendant Second Class when the Japanese attacked on December 7th, 1941. Under enemy fire, he helped carry wounded shipmates, including the mortally wounded ship’s captain, to shelter. He then took control of an 50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun and began firing at Japanese planes. Because at the time African Americans were allowed only to serve in the mess, Miller had no combat training and had never fired a machine gun before. Nevertheless, he kept up firing until he ran out of ammunition.

Miller later said that he thought he had shot down one plane. Some versions of the story have Miller shooting down up to six Japanese planes. In fact, it is unclear whether or not he, or anyone else, on the battleship hit any. According to official records, there is no confirmation that anti-aircraft fire from the USS West Virginia shot down any planes on December 7th. Nonetheless, the anti-aircraft fire at the incoming planes made it more difficult for the enemy planes to press their attack. Whether or not Miller shot down one plane, several or nothing, he showed incredible courage under fire. He later helped pull wounded sailors in the water into lifeboats before he and the rest of the crew were ordered to abandon the sinking ship.

After the attack, local newspaper reports mentioned a “Negro messman” who had behaved heroically, but did not provide a name. The editors at the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s most widely circulated black newspapers, sent a reporter out to identify the unnamed hero and found Dorie Miller. Overnight, through the efforts of black newspapers around the country, Miller went from nameless to modestly famous. 

On April 1, 1942, Miller was commended by the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, and on May 27, 1942, he was presented with the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander in Chief for the Pacific Fleet on board the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise . 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.” His rank was raised to Mess Attendant First Class on June 1, 1942.

Dorie Miller was then sent on a short war-bonds tour in the US. His image was also featured on a Navy recruiting poster.

In 1943, Dorie Miller died while serving on the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay, when the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.  Miller was one of the more than 600 officers and sailors who died that day. Of the 916 crewmen, only 272 survived the attack.

Dorie Miller has not been forgotten. His story has been told and retold in song, poems, books, and movies. A US Navy frigate has been named in his honor as have multiple schools, parks, roads and public facilities. Miller has also been featured on a US postage stamp as one of four “Distinguished Sailors.”  The following have been named in honor of Dorie Miller: 

  • USS Miller (FF-1091), a Knox-class frigate was commissioned on June 30, 1973 in honor of Miller.
  • The Doris Miller Foundation was founded in 1947, to give an annual award to the individual or group considered outstanding in the field of race relations.
  • Doris Miller Memorial, planned $1.35 million public art installation honoring Miller, Waco, Texas
  • Bledsoe-Miller Community Center, recreation facility in Waco, Texas jointly named for Jules Bledsoe
  • Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Waco, Texas; includes monument dedicated to Miller and a road named
  • Doris Miller Drive
  • Doris Miller Memorial Park, a cemetery outside of Waco in Bellmead, Texas, where Miller is buried
  • Doris Miller YMCA, Waco, Texas
  • Doris Miller Elementary School, Waco, Texas (closed)
  • Dorie Miller Center, former shopping center in San Antonio, Texas
  • Dorie Miller Houses housing co-operative complex built in 1953 in Corona, New York.
  • Dorie Miller Housing Project housing community in Gary, Indiana
  • Dorie Miller Intermediate School in Ennis, Texas
  • Doris Miller Elementary School, San Antonio, Texas
  • Doris Miller Elementary School, San Diego, California
  • Doris Miller Junior High School, San Marcos, Texas
  • Doris Miller Auditorium, Austin, Texas
  • Doris Miller Community Center, recreation facility in Newport News, Virginia.
  • Doris Miller Park, a housing community for junior officers at Maui
  • Doris Miller Park, a housing community for junior enlisted in Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Dorie Miller Galley, the main galley for Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti
  • Doris Miller Post 915, an American Legion post in Chicago[15]
  • Dorie E Miller Post 817, Beaumont, Texas
  • Dorie Miller American Legion Chapter 14 — a Disabled American Veterans Chapter located in Washington, D.C.
  • On October 11, 1991, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority dedicated a bronze commemorative plaque of Miller at the Miller Family Park located on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.
  • Dorie Miller Park, Lewisburg, West Virginia.
  • Dorie Miller Drive, Champaign, Illinois.
  • Doris Miller Loop, Honolulu, Hawaii, monument located at north end of street
  • Doris Miller Dining Hall, USN Great Lakes Recruit Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois.
  • Distinguished Sailor — Honored by the U.S. Postal Service as one of four Distinguished Sailors, with a 44-cent commemorative stamp issued on February 4, 2010.[16]
  • The Bachelor Enlisted Quarters at Great Lakes Naval Base was dedicated to Miller’s memory on December 7, 1971.
  • In 2002, Molefi Kete Asante listed Doris Miller on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
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2 Responses to Pearl Harbor 75th : Remembering Dorie Miller, Messman with a 50 Caliber

  1. Peter Wright says:

    What an amazing story.

  2. Irwin Bryan says:

    I remember reading his story in Day of Infamy by Walter Lord, which only dealt with that day. I never knew about and am glad to see all the recognition he received afterwards. Especially what his experiences were before being killed in the war.
    Great post!