The cook that became a Pearl Harbour hero

Doris Miller Texas, United States 1919 - 1943

Tall, strong, disciplined and an excellent marksman, Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller had all the traits of a model military man. But despite the looming threat of global war in 1939, racial discrimination imposed significant limits on areas of service for African Americans in the military. Miller’s admirable bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbour, however, went far beyond his official title of cook.

Born in Waco, Texas, Miller worked on the family farm from an early age, became an excellent small game huntsman with his brothers, and played fullback on his school’s football team. He was devoted to his country, and after several unsuccessful attempts to join different sectors of the military, he managed to enlist in the US Navy as a mess attendant. He steadily worked his way up the ranks until he was promoted to ship’s cook, third class, and was transferred to the USS West Virginia, where – while he couldn’t put his muscular 6’3” stature to any official use – he made a name for himself as the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion.

But on the morning of 7th December, 1941, while the USS West Virginia was anchored at Pearl Harbour, any sense of racial rubric aboard the ship quickly evaporated as the first hail of bullets rained down from Japanese planes. Miller was collecting laundry in the hull of the ship when the air raid sirens began and, rushing up to the deck, he found his captain sprawled on the ground. He pulled the fatally-wounded captain to safety, then raced back to the deck, picking up a .50-caliber Browning antiaircraft machine amid the chaos.

Miller hadn’t been trained to use this weapon – in fact, the Navy’s discriminatory policies meant that neither he, nor any other sailor of colour, had been trained in the use of any heavy artillery, nor were they permitted to use it. But in the face of the intensifying Japanese attack, Miller abandoned protocol, firing the machine gun at the enemy aircraft and shooting several out of the sky. Once he ran out of ammunition, he began attending to wounded sailors, using his tremendous strength to carry the injured through oil and water to the quarterdeck, where the men – Miller included – had no choice but to abandon ship.

Of the 1,541 men on the USS West Virginia during the attack, 130 were killed – according to the ship’s eventual action report, had it not been for Miller’s bravery a great many more sailors might have been lost. However, it took a long time for news of Miller’s heroism to reach those in command, with the Navy’s list of commendations simply stating “one unnamed Negro”. It wasn’t until May 1942 that he was properly recognised for going above and beyond the call of duty, when he became the first African American to receive the Navy Cross – the highest decoration the navy can offer besides the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Despite his status as war hero, however, Miller was soon called back to serve, this time under the higher rank of mess attendant, first class. Sadly, he was killed in action in 1943 when his ship, the USS Liscome Bay, was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. He was just 24 years old.

Though his life was cut short, Doris Miller lives on in public memory. Streets, schools and parks throughout the United States bear his name, he has appeared on US postal stamps, and in 1973 the Navy commissioned a frigate, the USS Miller, in his honour. Most importantly, however, Miller’s actions pushed the Navy to rethink its policies on sailors of colour, and modern scholars believe that Miller’s actions at Pearl Harbour had a profound effect on the acceleration of the Civil Rights movement.

We will remember them

Doris Miller Texas, United States 1919 - 1943
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