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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Cook Who Was An Unlikely Hero

By Tom Morrow

The under-fire actions of a low-ranking Navy cook during the attack on Pearl Harbor made the sailor one of the first Americans to be decorated for bravery during World War II.
What adds interest to the actions of “Dorey” Miller, a third-class petty officer, was that he was the first African-American to be so recognized. As a result, his heroism rallied the Black communities across America to give more support the war effort.

Miller was a cook aboard the USS West Virginia. When the attack on Pearl Harbor began, he immediately reported to his battle station, only to discover a torpedo had destroyed it.
The young petty officer ran into an officer, who told him to go to the bridge and aid the ship’s Captain Mervyn Bennion, who had been hit by shrapnel.

Miller was then ordered to load two Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns in the aft part of the battleship. He wasn’t familiar with the machine gun, but two accompanying officers told him what to do.

Miller fired the gun until he ran out of ammunition, then he was ordered to help carry the Captain up to the navigation bridge out of the thick oily smoke generated by the many fires on and around the ship.

When the attack finally subsided, Miller was ordered to help move injured sailors through oil and water, thereby “unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”

The West Virginia sank to the harbor bottom as her crew—including Miller—abandoned ship.dorey_miller

Two weeks later, the Navy released a list of commendations. Among them was a single notation for an “unnamed Negro.” The NAACP asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to determine the name of the sailor and award him the Distinguished Service Cross, at that time the second-highest combat honor. The Navy Board of Awards in Washington D. C., revealed the name of the “unknown Negro” sailor was Third Class Petty Officer “Doris Miller.” The Pittsburgh Courier initiated a write-in campaign to send Miller to the Naval Academy.

His combat recognition made him one of the first heroes of World War II. He was commended by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and personally recognized by Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Nimitz presented Miller with the Navy Cross, the third-highest award for gallantry during combat the Navy awarded at the time. Today the Navy Cross is the second-highest honor for the Navy and Marines.

Miller was promoted to Mess Attendant First Class on June 1, 1942. The Pittsburgh Courier continued to push to return Miller to the U.S. for a war bond tour, but he already was back in the country doing just that.

After training in Hawaii, Miller was assigned to the USS Liscome Bay, which took part in the Battle of Makin Island. On November 24, that ship was sunk with only 272 survivors from the crew of more than 900. Miller was not among them.

Dorey Miller has slipped into historical obscurity, however actor Cuba Gooding played Miller in a few brief scenes in the recent film, “Pearl Harbor,” which returned the sailor’s heroism to brief note.

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