A Black serviceman forced to work in the kitchen, Doris Miller proved to be one of the greatest heroes amid the carnage of Pearl Harbor.
On December 7, 1941, Navy sailor Doris Miller was below deck on the USS West Virginia, sorting laundry, when he heard the ship’s general alarm suddenly go off. Though Miller was a Black man, and thus relegated to being a mess attendant and cook, he leaped into action as Japanese planes roared above the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That day, the ship’s mess attendant would become one of its heroes.
As bombs fell all around him, Miller quickly made his way to the upper decks and took in the chaotic scene. Screams and smoke filled the air; planes buzzed low, red dots on their sides identifying them as Japanese aircraft.
Miller, who was not technically allowed to fire the ship’s guns because of his race, knew what he had to do and took up the controls of the nearest machine gun. As torpedos exploded around him, Miller shot at the planes.
“It wasn’t hard,” Miller later recalled. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine.”
After firing on the attacking planes, Miller and the other men ran out of ammunition. And their ship, battered by torpedos and taking on water, started to sink. They obeyed the order to abandon the vessel, and made it off the doomed ship alive.
Others weren’t so lucky. Of the 1,500 men serving aboard the USS West Virginia, 130 were killed and 52 were wounded.
Historians have noted that Miller was one of the last men off the ship and that he pulled a number of his fellow injured sailors out of the water which, slicked with oil, had started to burn.
Though he was initially referred to in the aftermath as an “unnamed Negro,” Doris Miller’s story quickly spread. He became a hero in the Black press, and the U.S. Navy awarded him the Navy Cross — although Congress balked at giving him the Medal of Honor.
Many have since credited Miller with expanding opportunities for Black Americans in the armed forces, and the poet Langston Hughes even wrote: “When Dorie Miller took gun in hand / Jim Crow started his last stand…”
Not only did Miller step up when his fellow sailors needed him, but his actions on that fateful day also helped change hearts and minds across the country when it came to Black Americans and their role in the U.S. military. Doris Miller might say that he was just doing his duty, but his actions likely changed the course of American history.
Discover more about the incredible story of Doris Miller.