History will be made when the aircraft carrier USS Doris Miller, sails for the first time. The USS Doris Miller is named after World War II mess attendant Doris “Dorie” Miller. The naming of the Ford-class carrier will be one of several firsts: It will not just be the first carrier named after an enlisted sailor, but more importantly, the Doris Miller will also be the first carrier named after a black sailor.

In April, acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly had asked a small group of retired black admirals to recommend him a name for the new supercarrier being built. He had asked them, if possible, to try to find an African American enlisted sailor, believing that the service was long overdue for such an honor. And they chose Miller.

Miller was born in Waco, Texas in October of 1919. He was named Doris because the midwife who assisted his mother had convinced her that the child would be female. He joined the Navy in 1939 and was assigned to USS West Virginia in January 1940.

Miller’s job was to take care of the ship’s officers. He would be tasked with laying out their clothes, shinning their shoes, and serving their meals. (The MOS mess attendant doesn’t even exist anymore.) It must be noted that during the days of the segregated military, black sailors weren’t allowed to serve in combat roles and weren’t even allowed to fire weapons. Although, black leaders were pressuring President Roosevelt to allow black troops to fight for their country like white troops.

Once onboard the West Virginia, the 6’3”, 210-pound Miller became interested in boxing. He eventually became the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion. 

On December 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese sneak attack that forced the U.S. into WWII, the USS was stationed at Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese attack occurred, Miller rushed to his battle station only to find it already destroyed by the Japanese. The West Virginia’s Communications Officer, Lieutenant Commander Doir C. Johnson, ordered him to accompany him to the bridge to assist in moving Captain Mervyn Bennion, who was grievously wounded by shrapnel in his midsection. Miller and another sailor tried to remove the captain from the bridge, however, the captain refused to leave his post, and continued to issue orders.

Two junior officers, Lieutenant Frederic H. White and Ensign Victor Delano ordered Miller to help load the unmanned number 1 and number 2 Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns aft of the conning tower. They then gave Miller quick instructions on how to operate it. As Delano turned around, he was surprised to see that  Miller was already firing one of the guns. White, forgetting Navy protocol about black sailors not being allowed to fire weapons, then loaded ammunition into both guns and assigned Miller the starboard gun. 

Miller continued firing the .50 caliber machine gun until he ran out of ammunition. He then helped carry the captain up to the navigation bridge and out of the thick smoke enveloping the ship. Bennion died soon afterward from his wounds. Further Japanese aircraft hit the ship with two armor-piercing bombs and blasted the port side with five torpedos. 

Due to the quick actions of the West Virginia’s damage control parties, the crew prevented the ship from capsizing by counter-flooding several compartments. However, the ship sunk, and Miller and the surviving sailors leaped into the water. 

As the Japanese aircraft began to pull away, Miller helped move injured sailors through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby “unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”

After the battle, the Navy commendation list for sailors’ heroism on that dark day mentioned an unnamed black sailor. A black newspaper, “The Pittsburgh Courier” sent a reporter on the story and they finally unearthed who Miller was. 

Miller was initially given a Navy commendation by Admiral Chester Nimitz. He then upgraded Miller’s award to the Navy Cross on May 27, 1942, onboard the USS Enterprise just prior to the Battle of Midway. The Navy Cross is the second-highest award in combat for Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

Admiral Chester Nimitz awarding Dorie Miller the Navy Cross on the USS Enterprise.

Nimitz, who recognized Miller’s award as a pivotal moment for the war effort, said of Miller’s heroism: “This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.”

Miller’s Navy Cross citation reads:

“For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge.”

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Miller, a humble man, was uncomfortable with being thrust in the spotlight but did go on a War Bond Drive in January 1943. Miller was also featured on the recruiting poster for black Americans “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty” in early 1943. 

He was then assigned to the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay as a cook first class. During the Battle of Makin on November 24, the ship was struck in the stern by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-175. The torpedo struck the aircraft bomb magazine which detonated a few moments later, causing the ship to sink in 23 minutes. Only 272 from a crew of over 900 were saved. Miller was not one of them. On December 7, 1943, his parents were informed that he was missing in action.

Miller’s actions have been depicted in several films about the attack on Pearl Harbor, including 1970’s “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and 2001’s “Pearl Harbor.” Here, you can watch a clip from “Tora! Tora! Tora!” in which Miller takes up a machine gun to engage Japanese dive and torpedo bombers.

And in this clip from “Pearl Harbor,” Dorie Miller, after helping wounded sailors, including the ship’s captain, takes up the twin .50 caliber anti-aircraft guns and shoots down an attacking Japanese plane. The CGI in the newer film is a bit more dramatic and graphic.