Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day, 2014

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.


Loki said...

It is good to see Doris Miller's story being told.

If you think it appropriate, I'd like to bring up some more comments tomorrow. They don't seem appropriate today.

Pam said...

He died that others may live, and we are grateful for his sacrifice and the sacrifice of all of men and women who served with him.

bunkywise said...

That was such an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it. And to all you have or are serving, thank you!

Old RPh said...

Thank you Dr G for sharing the story of a true American Hero.
Rest in Peace Doris Miller.

gloria p said...

Heroism and bravery knows no race, gender, or age. Thank you for posting about this young hero.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dr Grumpy. Would that he could have been recognized earlier.

Ms. Donna said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Appreciate the retelling of this story about one of America's heroes.

bobbie said...

WOW thank you for sharing this story ~

Anonymous said...

Many Black Men served honorably in the US Navy in the 1800's and it was not unusual. The US Navy was not a segregated service until the Progressive Administration of Woodrow Wilson. He also segregated the US Civil service and brought Jim Crow to Washington D.C. in 1913-1920.

Loki said...

The comments that I felt weren't appropriate for Memorial Day:

Dr. Grumpy touched on some of the racial realities facing Doris Miller, and the others of his race, at the time of WWII. The official discrimination was bad enough - even after Doris Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, he was retained as a cook, forbidden to shift to any more prestigious position. His name and image were used for recruiting efforts in African American communities, and at the same time, he was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his actions. But the historical record suggests a higher award was nixed for Miller because of his race. When you consider the wording of his Navy Cross commendation, and compare it to the wording of Isaac Kidd's commendation for his Medal of Honor at Pearl Harbor.

More to the point, I think that while it's good and proper to remember all our military heroes on Memorial Day and again on Veteran's Day, I think that for the rest of the year it's even more vital to remember the rest of the story. The facts of the matter are that during WWII African Americans, both civilian and military, were dealing with horrible situations, that are still contributing to the injustices around us today.

Just for one example, while the GI Bill is rightly regarded as one of the most successful social engineering programs in history, and had a direct part in the rapid expansion of American industry in the post WWII world, it's important to remember that because of the official and unofficial racism of the day, African American veterans were largely excluded from those benefits. Of the WWII GI Bill, some 75% of white veterans eligible for it, used it to further their education, or to get a house. As a contrast, only 25% of African American veterans were able to make use of the GI Bill. Some of the reasons include the fact that without the Fair Housing Act, there was no recourse to force a bank to offer a loan to a credit-worthy veteran to buy a house if the bank's officers objected to seeing African Americans advance themselves to that social level. Similarly, in an era when enrollment at most colleges for African Americans was difficult, if not banned by law, the majority of such veterans who wished to use their educational benefits had to go the relative handful of colleges and universities that catered to the African American community. And while those institutions did heroic work accommodating as many veterans as they could, they only had so much room, and could only expand so fast. The fact is far, far too many African American veterans were left by the wayside, and forced to remain in poverty. In spite of the airy promises made to our veterans who served.

Just something that should not be forgotten, nor glossed over.

Veronica Reilly said...

God Bless Doris Miller and all those who have given their lives for the price of our freedom.

Veronica Reilly
USMC, Retired.

Melanie Jones said...

I appreciate stories of the untold, so I thank you graciously for helping keep this man's memory alive.

Anonymous said...

"..for no man hath greater love.."
Thank you Dr.G. I work and look over "Battleship Row" every day. Sometimes, I just sit an look, and listen.

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