Navy names aircraft carrier for Dorie Miller, black sailor and unlikely Pearl Harbor hero
WASHINGTON — The Navy plans to name its newest supercarrier for World War II icon Doris “Dorie” Miller, the mess attendant from Waco who became a surprise hero of Pearl Harbor when he manned a machine gun that he and other black sailors had been excluded from using.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly will announce the honor Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — at a ceremony in Honolulu.
The new $15 billion aircraft carrier will be the most advanced and costliest in the U.S. fleet.
Miller, the first black recipient of the Navy Cross, is widely regarded not only as a national hero but as a hero of civil rights and as an icon for future African American sailors.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser first reported the news and it was confirmed Saturday by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, a Waco native herself, who will speak at the ceremony.
Johnson has prodded the Navy for years to posthumously award Miller its highest honor, the Medal of Honor, so far to no avail.
“I have lobbied the Department of the Navy about as much as I know how to lobby them,” she told The Dallas Morning News in December 2016, shortly before the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
Miller died nearly two years after Pearl Harbor, serving aboard the USS Liscome Bay, an escort carrier torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine on Nov. 24, 1943, during the invasion of the Gilbert Islands.
At Pearl Harbor, Miller was a mess attendant 3rd Class aboard the battleship USS West Virginia. Amid the chaos and carnage, he took charge of an anti-aircraft battery.
“It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine,” he recounted later. “I guess I fired her for about 15 minutes. I think I got one of those [Japanese] planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”
When the ammunition ran out, Miller helped the commander and others before the West Virginia sank.
Five months later, Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz awarded him the Navy Cross on the deck of one of the fleet’s surviving carriers, the USS Enterprise.
Miller was the first black sailor honored with that medal, the Navy’s second-highest honor. But for decades, admirers have said he deserved the top award: the Medal of Honor.
The Navy demands new evidence to reopen the file and reconsider the medal.
The new aircraft carrier is the fourth Gerald R. Ford-class carrier, which are nuclear-powered, 1,092-foot ships built to replace Nimitz-class carriers. The first three already have names: Ford, John F. Kennedy and Enterprise.
The carrier to be named for Miller has been designated CVN-81. At $15 billion, it is the costliest U.S. vessel ever.
This will be the second Navy ship named for Miller. The USS Miller, a Knox-class frigate, was commissioned in 1973 and decommissioned in 1991.
In 2001, Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed Miller in the movie Pearl Harbor.
“Doris Miller is an American hero simply because of what he represents as a young man going beyond the call of what’s expected,” Doreen Ravenscroft, president of Cultural Arts of Waco and team leader for the Doris Miller Memorial told the Star-Advertiser.
The senior surviving officer aboard the West Virginia, Cmdr. R.H. Hillenkoetter, noted in an action report four days after the Pearl Harbor attack that Miller and Lt. F.H. White had been instrumental in “hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox issued an official commendation for Miller for his actions but recommended against the Medal of Honor. Nimitz intervened and insisted on a medal.
Miller’s heroism opened the possibility for advancement of black sailors.
The U.S. Office of War Information published a poster featuring Miller to encourage African Americans to join the war effort.
“Without him really knowing, he actually was a part of the civil rights movement because he changed the thinking in the Navy,” Ravenscroft said, adding that Miller acted without thought of any repercussions. “He did what was needed in his way to defend the United States of America.”
Johnson, 84, was a young girl when she began trying to honor Miller. At age 7, she went door to door in the Waco neighborhood they both grew up in, raising funds so the community could honor him.
The first congressional effort to prod the Navy to award the Medal of Honor came in 1942. After three years without a recommendation from the military chain of command, the process becomes much harder, requiring consent from the Navy secretary to review the case, followed by legislation lifting the time limit, and finally a grant from the president.
The Navy has maintained that Miller’s Navy Cross citation has been reviewed several times, including during a review conducted in 1988 and 1989 of World War II-era awards to African Americans.
That study and another in 1996 concluded that there was no evidence of racial discrimination in the case, and that Miller’s actions, though heroic, did not rise above the line between the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
The citation for Miller’s Navy Cross said it was for “distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety.”
President Donald Trump mentioned Miller last month in a proclamation for National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day:
“In one remarkable act of bravery, Doris `Dorie’ Miller, a steward aboard the USS West Virginia, manned a machine gun and successfully shot down multiple Japanese aircraft despite not having been trained to use the weapon. For his valor, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross and was the first African American recognized with this honor.”
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