When the attack on Pearl Harbor began, Doris "Dorie" Miller was working laundry duty on the USS West Virginia.
He'd enlisted in the Navy at age 19 to explore life outside of Waco, Texas, and to make some extra money for his family. But the Navy was segregated at the time, so Miller, an African-American, and other sailors of color like him weren't allowed to serve in combat positions. Instead, they worked as cooks, stewards, cabin boys, and mess attendants. They received no weapons training and were prohibited from firing guns.
As the first torpedoes fell, Dorie Miller had an impossible choice: follow the rules or help defend the ship?
For Miller, the choice was obvious.
USS West Virginia and USS Tennessee surrounded in smoke and flames following the surprise attack by Japanese forces. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archive and Records Administration.
First, he reportedly carried wounded sailors to safety, including his own captain. But there was more to be done.
In the heat of the aerial attack, Miller saw an abandoned Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun on deck and immediately decided to fly in the face of segregation and military rules to help defend his ship and country.
Though he had no training, he manned the weapon and shot at the enemy aircraft until his gun ran out of ammunition, potentially downing as many as six Japanese planes. In the melee, even Miller himself didn't know his effort was successful.
"It wasn’t hard,” he said after the battle. "I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about 15 minutes. I think I got one of those [Japanese] planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”
Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
Original newspaper reports heralded a hero "Negro messman" at Pearl Harbor, but no one knew who Miller was.
The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American paper in wide circulation, sent a reporter to track down and identify the brave sailor, but it took months of digging to uncover the messman's identity.
Eventually, Miller was identified. He was called a hero by Americans of all stripes and colors. He appeared on radio shows and became a celebrity in his own right.
While Miller did not receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, he became the first African-American sailor to receive the Navy Cross.
"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,” said Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz following Miller's pinning ceremony.