In a U.S. military first, the Navy is naming its next aircraft carrier, not after an American president, but after a black American sailor and Pearl Harbor hero. It will be the first carrier named for an enlisted sailor as well as after an African American.
NPR reported that Doris Miller, who went by “Dorie,” was one of the first American heroes of World War II.
During the attack on Pearl Harbor, as his battleship, the USS West Virginia, was sinking, the powerfully-built Miller, who was the ship’s boxing champion, helped move his dying captain to better cover, then jumped behind a machine gun and shot at Japanese planes until his ammunition was gone.
Regina Akers, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command, said in NPR that “much of the attention at the time, and since, has been on Miller firing the anti-aircraft gun, which he wasn’t even trained to do.”
At the time, the Navy restricted Blacks to certain jobs or ‘ratings” – generally positions such as messmen or stewards. Miller was a Messman, essentially a valet for an officer.
What Miller did afterward, though, is just as important, notes Akers, “he began pulling injured sailors out of the burning, oil-covered water of the harbor, and was one of the last men to leave his ship as it sank, and continued getting sailors to safety after that.”
However, the Navy at the time didn’t make much of his heroics. It took the dedicated efforts of a leading Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, to find out who Dorie Miller was and ensure he was properly recognized for his bravery.
NPR explains that in response to the pressure, Miller was initially awarded a letter of commendation, but the Black press pushed for a medal. Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of the Pacific fleet, then took the bold step of upgrading Miller’s commendation to the Navy Cross, the third-highest honor for heroism at the time.
Sadly, after Miller went back to sea in the Pacific his ship was torpedoed and sank and in 1943. He was among the hundreds of sailors who died. His body was never recovered.
The commendable decision to name the new supercarrier for Miller, reported NPR, was made by Thomas Modly, the acting Secretary of the Navy until April of this year when he was criticized and resigned over his remarks about the Captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s mishandling of the COVID breakout on his ship.
NPR quotes Modly as saying, “I think it was probably long overdue.” Modly said he asked a small group of retired Black admirals he had met to recommend a name, an African American enlisted sailor, if possible. Within five days they came up with Miller’s name.
It was, according to Modly, an easy choice, “the story of Doris Miller is an incredible one, so they didn’t need to convince me,” he said.
Miller’s heroism and the recognition he earned served as a catalyst for major reforms in the U.S. Navy, and beyond. NPR notes Baylor University history professor Michael Parrish, and co-author of “Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor and The Birth of the Civil Rights Movement” comments:
Even before Miller formally received the medal, the effects of what he had done, trumpeted by the Black newspapers, began to have an effect. The Navy started training Black sailors for jobs like gunner’s mate, radioman, and radar operator. Later it began commissioning Black officers.
After the war, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the military desegregated, a major milestone for the nation. All of that, Parrish said, can be traced to Miller.
And now, the Navy, which at first wouldn’t even publicly share his name, “will soon give it equal footing with the names of Presidents.”