In the U.S. Navy, most aircraft carriers are named for presidents. But recently, the Navy announced that a new supercarrier will be called the U.S.S. Doris Miller – named for the son of sharecroppers from Waco.
Miller joined the Navy in 1939, and served as a cook, as did many African-American sailors at that time. But on Dec. 7, 1941, he found himself in the thick of combat. Miller was assigned to the U.S.S. West Virginia, stationed at Pearl Harbor. When Japanese forces ambushed the base, Miller rushed to an antiaircraft gun he’d never been trained to use, and fired at the attacking Japanese Zeroes. When the attack was over, Miller carried his injured shipmates to safety.
Michael Parrish is a history professor at Baylor University, and coauthor of “Doris Miller: Pearl Harbor and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement.” He told Texas Standard that Miller joined the Navy to help his family financially, but like many Black sailors, experienced racism from the Naval officers he worked for.
“He quickly began to realize that his opportunities were very limited, and that he would have to suffer though and endure a difficult experience in the Navy,” Parrish said.
Miller was an expert shot with a rifle, Parrish says, having hunted in the Texas woods with his father and brothers. But he wasn’t trained to use a machine gun like the one on his ship.
“He, I think, more importantly, was one of the last men to leave the ship,” Parrish said. “That’s because he was helping save drowning, suffering sailors who were in the water. He was helping pull them aboard.”
The Navy initially resisted recognizing Miller’s heroism until Black newspapers pressured the service to acknowledge him. Parrish said the Black press, including the influential Pittsburgh Courier, was able to leverage connections with white politicians “who depended to a significant degree on the Black vote in the North.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt ultimately decided to award Miller the Navy Cross. It was presented by fellow Texan, Adm. Chester Nimitz.
“Nimitz, before the war, had been reluctant to support raising African American sailors above the level of messmen and stewards and cooks,” Parrish said. “But as a result of Doris Miller’s great heroism, he became an enthusiastic supporter of allowing, encouraging and, in fact, ordering African Americans to receive distinctions like the Navy Cross, and to be allowed to rise to greater responsibilities and ranks in the Navy.”
Miller was a reluctant hero, but was committed to supporting civil rights. He toured the country, giving speeches that encouraged Black men to join the Navy and urged the purchase of war bonds.
Miller was killed, along with 600 others, in 1943, when his ship was attacked by a Japanese submarine in the South Pacific.
“He had a tremendous impact on sustaining the civil rights movement after World War II,” Parrish said. “Every civil rights leader, every advocate of desegregating the Navy … every one of those leaders would mention Doris Miller’s name.”
Three years after the war the U.S. Navy was desegregated.