A Man Named Doris

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.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco, Texas (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

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.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

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.[1]

Statue of Doris Miller standing “on deck” as he appeared having just received the Navy Cross pinned to his chest; at the Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

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.”[2]

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.

The Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-13)

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 Doris Miller Memorial in Waco from above (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-13)

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.[3]

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.

Statue of Doris Miller at the Doris Miller Memorial in Waco (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-10-11)

[1] “Miller, Doris”. Naval History and Heritage Command. 6 June 2017.

[2]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.

[3] 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).


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Derelict Aircraft I have Known, number Zero

My piece on a derelict Soviet MiG 17 jet fighter aircraft in Texas was something of a departure from the usual Ancient Dan fare, to be sure. To continue that theme as a series of occasional posts will permit me to do several things: 1) indulge my interest in old historical aircraft; 2) share a bit of my own background; 3) conduct a little research on claims or appearances; and 4) show pictures of old ruined stuff. This entry attempts to do all four (not necessarily in that order).

I inherited a love of airplanes from my Dad, who—as confirmed by his own mother—apparently announced at the age of five that he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. He did that, graduating in Aeronautical Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology in 1955.

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My Dad, Daniel C Browning Jr (yes, we have EXACTLY the same name), checking the propeller of his first aircraft; about 1935

While in college Dad became aware of a WWII Japanese Zero sitting in the small back lot of the privately-owned Atlanta Museum on the edge of downtown, within walking distance from Georgia Tech. He would occasionally trot over there to see the derelict plane, a rare example of a famous type that made its appearance to U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor and outperformed all American aircraft at the beginning of the war (only a decade before Dad’s matriculation at The Institute). 

When I was quite young, Dad showed me the Zero during one of many trips to Atlanta to attend Tech football games. After I enrolled at The Institute in 1974 (as an Aerospace Engineering major) I would also go and visit the Zero from time to time. I will admit now that I never paid for admission to the museum itself, because one could simply drive to the street behind the building and access the ungated lot after hours! It was “Ground Zero” for my appreciation of derelict historical aircraft.

Mitsubishi A6M5 type 52 "Zeke" ("Zero") fighter, behind Atlanta Museum
Remains of a WWII Japanese Naval fighter aircraft, Mitsubishi A6M Reisen, Allied codename “Zeke,” but popularly known as “Zero,” behind the Atlanta Museum in March 1978 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr) [Note the sign in the background]
I showed the Zero to numerous friends, who may have appreciated the historical significance of the famed fighter aircraft but usually did not share my fascination with the sad remains. Most of the pictures here are from a visit in March 1978, with several Huntsville buddies in tow, made with a Kodak Instamatic 126-film camera I kept in my 1967 VW Beetle.

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Bygone warbird and 70’s “Free Bird” hair: buddy Glenn Wills with remains of a Japanese Zero behind the Atlanta Museum in 1978 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Mitsubishi A6M5 type 52 "Zeke" ("Zero") fighter, behind Atlanta Museum
Wing of Mitsubishi Zero fighter, behind Atlanta Museum; note damage from removal of cannon armament and faintly visible U.S. white star insignia under repainted Japanese red sun marking (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Now for the nerdy and research stuff. Many sites provide good histories of warplanes, including the Japanese Zero, so I will not rehearse that here. But the now-defunct Atlanta Museum advertised its Zero, the one I frequently visited, as the first one captured by U.S. forces in WWII (a claim documented here). The story of the first recovery of an intact Zero (by U.S. Navy in the Aleutian Islands campaign of 1942; (see Wikipedia’s excellent review) is fascinating and the specific plane was significant for American intelligence and strategy for countering the superior-performing Japanese fighter.

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The “Akutan Zero,” recovered on Akutan Island in the Aleutians in 1942; the damaged plane was intentionally crash-landed with the intent of rescue by a Japanese submarine stationed for that purpose, but the landing gear stuck in the bog and flipped the Zero, killing the pilot (photo: U.S. Navy); Note the carburetor intake and exhaust ports under the nose of this A6M2 model 21 Zero

The specific Zero captured on Akutan Island in the Aleutians was an A6M2 model 21, the early type used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. But, already in the 1970s, I could see (as an obviously nerdy type) that the Zero I knew so well was a later A6M5 model 52. The giveaway was the later larger engine with carburetor intake at the top and exhaust manifolds distributed along the side of the (missing) cowling instead of a pair underneath the nose. The Atlanta Museum Zero could not be the same plane as the Akutan Zero! [I think I warned that this was the nerdy research part—but it does combine my loves of warplanes and historical research.] The relevant bits can be seen in my first Zero photo above and in this one: 

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Mitsubishi A6M5 model 52 Zero owned by the Atlanta Musuem in 1978; note late model carb intake on top of engine and side exhaust ports (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr) [Note to those who would appreciate it: the “Blue Thing with Teeth” was edited out.]
Some digging has revealed that despite the Atlanta Museum’s claim, their Zero was captured later in the war, apparently with several others on Saipan, and shipped to the U.S. for evaluation—according to the Warbirds Directory. That source, however, still identifies the former Atlanta Museum plane as an A6M2 model 21 (listing here in pdf form, [see third entry]), which it clearly is not. In any case, the Atlanta Museum closed in 1993 and the Zero was eventually procured by the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Washington, where it is displayed in unrestored condition.

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The Atlanta Museum Zero in the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum (photo courtesy Randy Malmstrom)

An excellent album of pictures of the Zero in its new home (source of the one above) can be seen here on Facebook, including a good history properly identifying it as an A6M5 type 52. 

I have not yet visited the Zero in the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum. Dad would have loved to see it.

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