Thursday, October 14, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Doris Miller

This week (October 12) we celebrate the 91st anniversary of the birth of Doris Miller.

Don't know that name? It's not one you encounter often in the history books. And that's too bad. Because Dorie Miller was one of the very first American heroes of World War II and the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross.

Doris (Dorie) Miller joined the Navy in 1939. As an African American sailor, he was restricted to only the most menial of jobs. He began his career as a waiter and eventually became a cook on the battleship USS West Virginia, stationed at Pearl Harbor.

On December 7, 1941, Miller was collecting laundry shortly before 8 am when Japanese planes suddenly filled the sky. Explosions rocked the West Virginia, knocking Miller off his feet. The ship was badly damaged. Water was flooding in below decks and sailors lay all around, wounded and dying. Miller began carrying the wounded to safer parts of the ship. Among the wounded was the captain of the ship. Miller hoisted him up and tried to carry him to safety, but the captain refused to leave his post.

And still the Japanese planes kept coming. Miller had never received training in operating an anti-aircraft gun. So he was ordered only to help load. Instead, he grabbed the gun and began firing at the enemy planes. He kept at it until he was out of ammunition. Miller was credited with downing three Japanese planes that morning. He explained later that he had hunted squirrels back home in Texas and had used guns before. And besides, he pointed out, he had watched white sailors use the guns. "It wasn't hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine," he said.

On May 27, 1942, Admiral Chester Nimitz awarded Miller the Navy Cross, one of the highest military awards for courage. Eighteen months later, Miller was dead. He had given his last full measure for the Navy he had already served so well.

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