Many individual Americans live their lives believing they will have little impact beyond their immediate family and friends. Oftentimes however, ordinary people have been summoned to act in extraordinary manners. On December 7, 1941, many young Americans were called on to act. Among those to answer the call, one ordinary African-American stood out for his courageous response. Despite his humble beginnings, this young black man gained an honored place in America’s pantheon of heroes. His name was Doris “Dorie” Miller. He was the cook who took on the Japanese Empire.
Like many African-Americans of his generation, Dorie Miller was born the son of poor sharecroppers. His early years near Waco, Texas were spent shifting between school, where he excelled in athletics, and work on the family farm. He wanted more out of life however; so, at age nineteen he enlisted in the United States Navy. Because of military regulations limiting the opportunities for minorities at the time, Dorie worked as a cook and mess attendant, performing various menial jobs. After serving on several ships, he was transferred to the battleship USS West Virginia, part of the United States Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In spite of his being a cook, Miller quickly gained fame as the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion, standing six feet, three inches tall and weighing two hundred and twenty-five pounds. Then came the day that changed America, and Dorie Miller’s life, forever — December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.”
As the day dawned, it appeared to be a typical Sunday morning in Hawaii. Almost the entire Pacific Fleet was at anchor in the harbor. Seven battleships, the deadliest U.S. ships afloat, were moored along “Battleship Row” on the east side of Ford Island. Many crewmembers were still asleep in their bunks. As was true of most mornings, Miller was finishing preparations for breakfast and seeing to the officers’ personal needs when the first wave of two hundred Japanese planes appeared. The Japanese radio operators would later transmit the code “Tora, Tora, Tora” to indicate they had achieved complete surprise. As they roared over the harbor, the attackers unleashed their bombs and torpedoes on the unsuspecting armada. Within minutes, some of the grandest warships of the Pacific Fleet were in flames and sinking to the bottom of the shallow harbor. A number of the first wave turned their sights on the West Virginia. Soon that ship too was sinking from multiple bomb and torpedo hits.
As sheer chaos and mass destruction descended around him, Miller hurried to his battle station in the anti-aircraft magazine, the ammunition hold, only to find it destroyed by a torpedo. Rather than panic or jump overboard like some of his shipmates, Dorie remained calm and began picking up injured sailors and carrying them to safety on the quarterdeck. He even attempted to move a mortally injured Captain Bennion, the West Virginia’s commander, from the bridge, but the captain refused to leave his post and soon died of his wounds. After attending to his stricken commander, Miller left the bridge and moved on to assist in the loading of another of the ship’s anti-aircraft machine guns.
Being African-American, Dorie had not been allowed to train with the machine guns, but he had watched others load and fire them during the many drills held onboard ship. Now, with the battle raging around him, Dorie determined to do more than simply assist others. Racing to an unmanned gun, Miller took his position behind the gun and began firing. He pulled the trigger and swiveled the gun back and forth in an effort to track attacking aircraft. His aim was deadly. A Japanese Zero plummeted into the oil-slick waters of the harbor only seconds after he began firing. Others followed as he blasted away.
Miller fired the machine gun for a total of fifteen minutes. Accounts vary but some eyewitnesses to the action later credited him with shooting down as many as four Japanese planes. Even as he fired the machine gun, the West Virginia continued to sink from under him. Eventually, Dorie and the other survivors had no choice. He left the machine gun under orders to abandon ship, jumped into the oily, debris-strewn harbor, and swam towards shore.
Word soon spread of the courageous exploits of the young African-American cook. The American public instantly hailed him as a hero and celebrated his achievements. For his actions, Dorie received letters of commendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Secretary of the Navy. He also received the Navy Cross, the U.S. Navy’s highest award after the Congressional Medal of Honor. At the ceremony, Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, like Miller a native Texan, praised him “for distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety.” On a brief visit home in early 1943, Dorie told his mother his prayers had not been forgotten — that it was God’s protective hand that kept him from being shot or blown to pieces that day.
Dorie would not remain out of action for long. He returned to sea duty in mid-1943 aboard the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay. A few months later, on the day before Thanksgiving 1943, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank in the central Pacific. Sadly, Dorie Miller was one of the six hundred and forty-four men onboard who were killed in action. America would always remember him though for his actions on one of the country’s darkest days. On December 7, 1941, an “ordinary” American named Doris Miller acted in an extraordinary manner and inspired a country.