Doris “Dorie” Miller was a courageous African American sailor in the U.S. Navy who displayed exceptional heroism during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Despite his designated role as a mess attendant, Miller took charge of a machine gun, for which he had no formal training, to defend his ship against Japanese aircraft.

Recognized for his valor, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, making him the first African American to receive this prestigious commendation.


Miller’s Early Life

Doris “Dorie” Miller was born on October 12, 1919, in Waco, Texas. His birthplace, like much of the American South during this period, was characterized by stark racial divisions and prejudices. The Jim Crow laws of segregation were in full effect, and opportunities for African Americans were painfully limited. This context shaped Miller’s early experiences and worldview, highlighting the resilience and tenacity required to navigate such a society.

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Growing up in the tight embrace of the Miller family, Doris was one of four sons to Henrietta and Connery Miller. Living on a farm, the children were imbued with a strong work ethic from a young age. The manual labor required on the farm—plowing fields, tending to animals, and assisting with the harvest—instilled in young Doris a physical strength and endurance that would later serve him well in the Navy. Additionally, the values of familial solidarity, determination, and responsibility were deeply ingrained in him.

A 1943 poster showing Miller after Pearl Harbor.

His education, like that of many African Americans in the South at the time, was restricted due to racial barriers. Schools for black children were often underfunded, with limited resources, which meant that the quality of education was compromised. Nevertheless, these schools often became centers of community and resilience, instilling a sense of pride and identity in their students.

It was this environment that led Miller to seek opportunities beyond the confines of Waco. His decision to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1939 was driven by multiple factors. The allure of seeing the world, learning new skills, and earning a regular paycheck was undoubtedly compelling. Moreover, the military, despite its racial prejudices, was often viewed by young African American men as an avenue for personal advancement and a chance to serve their country.

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Yet, even as Miller sought to broaden his horizons, the pervasive racism of the era followed him into the Navy. Despite his aspirations, he was pigeonholed into the role of a mess attendant, a clear reflection of the racial biases of the time. This role, predominantly occupied by African Americans, involved duties such as cooking, cleaning, and serving officers—a far cry from the more prestigious roles on the ship. While some might have been disheartened by this relegation, Miller approached his duties with the same diligence and commitment he learned as a young boy on the farm in Waco.

Doris Miller At Pearl Harbor

The morning of December 7, 1941, began like any other for the crew aboard the USS West Virginia docked at Pearl Harbor. The serene Hawaiian base, with its picturesque surroundings, gave no hint of the impending calamity. Doris Miller had just finished serving breakfast and was collecting laundry when the first wave of Japanese planes soared over the harbor, signaling the start of one of the most infamous military assaults in history.

As the air filled with the roaring engines of enemy aircraft, the ear-piercing sounds of exploding torpedoes, and the rising smoke from burning ships, the atmosphere aboard the USS West Virginia shifted from peaceful routine to chaos. Amidst the confusion, Miller’s first instinct was to protect and aid his fellow sailors. His initial act of bravery was assisting the mortally wounded captain, Mervyn Bennion, trying to move him to a safer location, despite Bennion’s insistence to stay at his post.

An illustration of Doris Miller’s actions at Pearl Harbor.

However, as the intensity of the attack increased and the need for active defense became paramount, Miller’s role transcended his designated duties. Knowing that action was needed, and with the ship’s weapons left unmanned due to the suddenness of the attack and the casualties it inflicted, Miller moved to man an anti-aircraft machine gun. This was a weapon he had no formal training to operate. Yet, in the heat of the moment and driven by a sense of duty, Miller aimed and fired at the Japanese aircrafts, becoming an unlikely gunner in a desperate bid to fend off the attackers.

The exact details of Miller’s contribution in terms of enemy aircraft downed remain a matter of debate. Some accounts suggest he may have downed multiple planes, while others are more conservative in their estimates. However, the number is inconsequential when compared to the broader significance of his actions. Here was a mess attendant – someone relegated to one of the lowest positions aboard due to racial prejudices – stepping up, taking charge, and defending his ship and crewmates during a critical moment.

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After what seemed like an eternity but was probably closer to two hours, the attack finally ceased. By its end, the harbor was a scene of devastation. The USS West Virginia was heavily damaged, sinking into the harbor’s waters. Miller continued to aid his fellow sailors, pulling many injured men to safety and saving numerous lives. It wasn’t until he received the order to abandon the ship that he ceased his efforts, ensuring the safety of others before himself.

Legacy Of Doris Miller

In the aftermath of the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, a nation in shock sought heroes to rally around. It was in this climate that the tale of Doris Miller emerged, but not immediately, and not without a measure of controversy. His story brought to the fore a stark juxtaposition between individual valor and systemic racial discrimination, illuminating the profound complexities of America’s struggle with race and recognition.

The initial reports of Miller’s gallant acts were somewhat muted and lacked specificity. The Navy’s commendation recognized an unnamed African American sailor’s bravery, reflecting a reticence to openly commend a black sailor for such exceptional acts of heroism. This hesitation, however, did not last long. The press, sensing an inspiring story amid the grim news from Pearl Harbor, began to delve deeper.

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As Miller’s identity became known and his deeds came to light, the public response was overwhelming. Doris Miller became a symbol, not only of American resilience and bravery but also of the potential and valor of African Americans, long suppressed by racial prejudice.

In May 1942, responding to this growing public sentiment and the undeniable fact of Miller’s heroism, he was awarded the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. This was the third-highest naval award for combat valor.

Doris Miller after being presented with the Navy Cross.

The ceremony, held on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, marked a historic moment. While the medal symbolized recognition of Miller’s specific acts of bravery at Pearl Harbor, the implications were far-reaching. In bestowing this honor upon an African American sailor, the Navy was also making a broader statement, albeit reluctantly, about the role and value of black servicemen.

Yet, the accolades and recognition were bittersweet. Miller’s heroics were undeniable, but they also starkly highlighted the inherent contradictions in a nation that celebrated a black hero on one hand while maintaining systemic racial discrimination on the other.

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As the United States waged a war overseas for freedom and democracy, many of its own citizens, particularly African Americans, were fighting their own battles for civil rights and equality at home. Miller’s story amplified the national conversation about race, military service, and the nature of American democracy.

Tragically, Doris Miller’s life was cut short when, in 1943, the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, taking Miller and hundreds of other sailors with it. His sacrifice only added to his legacy as a genuine American hero. Over time, Miller’s recognition extended beyond medals. In 2020, in a historic move, the U.S. Navy announced the naming of an aircraft carrier, the USS Doris Miller. This distinction is notable for two reasons: it’s the first aircraft carrier named for an African American and for an enlisted sailor, further enshrining Miller’s legacy in naval history.

What is Doris Miller Famous for?

Doris Miller, also known as “Dorie,” is famous for being a brave hero during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Despite his job as a mess attendant with no formal training, he courageously took control of a machine gun to defend his ship against Japanese planes. For his bravery, he became the first African American to receive the Navy Cross, a prestigious commendation. His actions made him a symbol of courage and resilience, breaking racial barriers.