He was no more than a mess attendant, but he showed astonishing heroism on America’s darkest day.
Doris Miller earned the Navy Cross for his actions during the Japanese attack on the US base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Now, the US navy is to honour his actions by naming a new aircraft carrier after him.
Miller was born in Texas in 1919 and grew up during the time of the Jim Crow laws, which segregated black Americans from their white neighbours and denied them key rights.
He joined the Navy in 1939. Barred from become a sailor, he worked as a mess attendant on the battleship USS West Virginia.
Miller was sorting laundry on 7 December 1941, when the Japanese launched the attack that killed more than 2,300 people and brought the US into WWII.
Minutes after the assault began, Miller manned an anti-aircraft gun, against regulations, and began firing on the Japanese aircraft.
‘It wasn’t hard,’ he later recalled. ‘I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine.’
Miller later helped wounded shipmates before abandoning West Virginia, which sank to the bottom of the harbour.
Miller was recognised for his bravery, receiving the Navy Cross, the third-highest honour awarded by the US Navy.
He became something of a celebrity, with his face featuring on a 1943 Navy recruitment poster. However, he was killed in November the same year while aboard the aircraft carrier USS Liscombe Bay. During the Battle of Makin, it was hit by a Japanese submarine.
The decision to mark Miller’s bravery means the new aircraft carrier, due to be launched in 2028, is the first to be named after an African American.
Arguably a greater honour than a medal, carriers are usually named after presidents, battles, or military leaders.
This article was published in the March 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.