Today—12 October 2019 (as I write this)—would be the 100th birthday of a World War II hero whose remembrance has been wildly variable, and for whom a recent memorial also deserves mention.
Doris Miller, often referred to as “Dorie,” was born near Waco, Texas, on 12 October 1919; the third of four sons born to sharecroppers Connery and Henrietta Miller. The midwife attending his birth was convinced he would be a girl, thus the child was named Doris. He enlisted in the Navy in 1939 and was eventually assigned to the battleship USS West Virginia. I have not been able to locate any anecdotal information on what it was like to be a man named Doris in the Navy; but . . . it was the case that Doris Miller was the heavyweight boxing champion aboard the West Virginia.
As an African American seaman in the segregated U.S. armed forces of the day, Miller was placed in a service role and promoted to Mess Attendant, Second Class in the ship’s mess. On 7 December 1941, the USS West Virginia was at anchorage in Pearl Harbor. Miller was collecting laundry when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor commenced and the first of at least five aerial torpedoes struck the ship.
Miller ran to his battle station which he found destroyed and then reported to the central meeting point of the battleship. There he was ordered, because of his physique, to accompany an officer in an attempted evacuation of the ship’s mortally wounded captain from the bridge. Unable to safely remove the Captain, they moved him to a safer position behind the conning tower. Then Miller, though not trained on its use, manned an unattended Browning 50-cal. anti-aircraft gun. He fired until the ammunition was exhausted and he was forced to retire by spreading flames on the sinking ship. Miller later describing his actions:
It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.
While firing the anti-aircraft gun is the most famous part of his actions, Miller afterwards also “was instrumental in hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost.”
Early lists of those receiving commendations for actions at Pearl Harbor mentioned an unnamed negro. This ignited attention by the press and NAACP. Finally, the Navy confirmed Miller’s identity, and some reports appear to have printed it with a typo, giving rise to the moniker “Dorie Miller.” In any case, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, presented by Admiral Nimitz on 27 May 1942. He became an icon for the African American community, was sent on a war bonds tour, and appeared in a recruiting poster. Having been transferred to the USS Indianapolis immediately after Pearl Harbor, Miller was promoted to Cook, Third Class and assigned to the new escort carrier USS Liscome Bay following the bond tour.
Those who know WW II naval history may realize from the foregoing that hero’s lives often do not end happily. The Indianapolis became one of the worst and most controversial naval losses of the war, and a story in itself. Miller, however, was transferred off the Indianapolis; but to the Liscome Bay . . . which would become the most deadly aircraft carrier loss in U.S. history. On 24 November 1943 the Liscome Bay was struck by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine which set off a huge munitions explosion. Miller was among the 644 men lost, the great majority of whom went down with the ship. In a cruel irony, Doris’ parents were informed of the loss on 7 December 1943, exactly two years after his heroic actions at Pearl Harbor.
The photos in this post are of the newish Doris Miller Memorial standing adjacent to the Brazos River in Waco. It is a moving monument, incorporating the shape of the battleship on which Miller served. The statue of Doris was unveiled on 7 December, Pearl Harbor Day, in 2017. A new biography of the hero, released on the same day, credits Doris Miller’s actions at Pearl Harbor as a catalyst for abolishing the U.S. Navy’s segregationist policies and, in a chain of events, for helping launch the civil rights movement.
As it happens, “Doris” also designates a deity of the sea in ancient Greece, the name coming from Greek words for “gift” and “pure.” A man named Doris. Indeed.
 “Cook Third Class Doris Miller, USN: USS West Virginia‘s Action Report, 11 December 1941; with 3 enclosures mentioning the actions of Dorie Miller”. Naval History and Heritage Command. 29 November 2017.
 Thomas W. Cutrer and T. Michael Parrish, Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement (Texas A&M University Press, 2017).
Thanks for looking!