Doris Miller was born in Waco, Texas, the 3rd of 4 boys. He worked on his father's farm until he was 19, when he joined the navy.
He signed up as a mess attendant, one of the few navy positions open to black men at the time, serving meals, cleaning, and doing other jobs. In January, 1940 he was assigned to the battleship West Virginia, where over the next year he was promoted to cook.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, The West Virginia was in Pearl Harbor. Miller had just finished serving breakfast and was starting to collect the officers' laundry for the day's washing. At 0757 the ship was struck by a torpedo from attacking Japanese planes.
Miller immediately ran to his battle station in the mid-ship anti-aircraft guns - only to find they'd been destroyed by a bomb. He took the initiative of going to the ship's central passageway, where he told any officer he could find that he was available for duty. The communications officer was looking for someone to help carry wounded men, and the 6'3", 200 pound Miller fit the bill.
They went to the bridge, where West Virginia's captain, Mervyn Bennion, lay dying outside from a large shrapnel wound. They carried him to a sheltered position. He refused to leave the bridge, continuing to give orders until he died.
Next, he was grabbed by 2 officers he routinely served meals to, and the 3 ran to an unmanned machine gun position. Miller had never operated the gun before, but learned quickly. Initially the officers planned to have him feed the ammunition belts to them, but while they were setting up he loaded a gun himself and started firing at planes.
The Japanese planes eventually left, with the West Virginia sinking to the bottom of the harbor 40 feet below. Parts of the ship were flooded, and Miller now set off to help the wounded. With portions of the deck covered in water and oil, he saved many lives by repeatedly carrying wounded men through the flooded areas to the dry quarterdeck, from where they could be taken ashore. When there was no more to do, he and the others finally left the ship.
A week later Miller was back at his usual mess job, this time on a heavy cruiser.
The initial roll of men who'd received commendations for their actions on December 7 didn't even have his name on it - just listing "an unnamed negro." It wasn't until March 12, 1942 that his identity became publicly known. In April, 1942 he was personally awarded the Navy Cross - the first African-American to be so decorated - by Admiral Nimitz himself. Nimitz wrote "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 next assignment was the escort carrier Liscome Bay. On November 24, 1943 she was at the Battle of Makin Island. A Japanese torpedo detonated the ship's magazine, sinking her within minutes. Out of a crew of 916, only 262 men survived. Miller wasn't among them, and rests with his shipmates at the bottom of the Pacific.
He was 24 years old.