In an honor usually reserved for presidents, the U.S. Navy said Sunday that it would name a future Ford-class aircraft carrier after Doris “Dorie” Miller, the African American mess attendant who heroically leapt into combat — despite limited training — during Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The aircraft carrier will be the first ever named for an African American and the second ship named in honor of Miller, the navy said in a statement. It will also be the first aircraft carrier to be named in honor of a sailor for actions while serving in the enlisted ranks, it added.
The future USS Doris Miller and other Ford-class carriers “will be the premier forward asset for crisis response and humanitarian relief, and early decisive striking power in a major combat operations,” the statement said.
“Doris Miller stood for everything that is good about our nation, and his story deserves to be remembered and repeated wherever our people continue the watch today,” said Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly.
The official announcement was set to be made during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony Monday at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Miller was a 22-year-old mess attendant aboard the USS West Virginia. At the time, the U.S. Navy was segregated and black sailors were relegated to duty in the mess. This was often demeaning work that entailed swabbing decks, cooking and shining officers’ shoes.
Having no gunnery training, Miller had been expected — in the heat of battle — to feed ammunition to the white man operating one of the ship’s .50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine guns.
On the fateful day, he had awoken at 6 a.m. and was collecting laundry when the Japanese attack began and an alarm sounded, according to the navy’s official history. Miller headed to an anti-aircraft battery magazine, but a torpedo had already destroyed it. Moving to the deck, Miller, the ship’s heavyweight boxing champ, was assigned to carry wounded comrades to greater safety.
He was then ordered to the ship’s bridge to aid the mortally wounded commanding officer and subsequently manned one of the anti-aircraft guns, firing at approaching Japanese planes until he ran out of ammunition and was forced by fires to abandon ship with the rest of the crew.
After the attack, Miller described firing the machine gun during the battle: “It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine,” he said, according to his official navy biography. “I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those (Japanese) planes. They were diving pretty close to us.”
The West Virginia was heavily damaged in the attack. Japanese planes had dropped armored bombs and launched multiple torpedoes at the vessel, leaving more than 100 of the 1,500 men aboard the ship dead that day.
Miller’s actions during the attack earned him a commendation from then-Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and the Navy Cross, which was presented to him personally by Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at the time.
A celebrity, Miller then went on a speaking tour to promote war bonds at home, but was later assigned to another ship, the USS Liscome Bay, which he died aboard when it was struck by a Japanese torpedo in the Pacific in 1943.
But while he did not survive the war, his legacy lived on.
Shortly after his death, the U.S. Navy began a small officer-training program for black sailors. And in March 1944, it commissioned its first black officers, which came to be known as the “Golden Thirteen.”
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