World War 2 will long be remembered as the epitome of total war, total gallantry, and total brutality. It spared none based on their ethnic background and in the worst of cases would target others specifically for that reason.
And while America looks back on the 1940s as a source of inspiration for when an entire nation came together, there are still lingering reminders that in many ways the greatest generation still had some hard lessons to learn about freedom and the American dream.
One such reminder would be the African-American mess attendant at Pearl Harbor who dropped the spatula, picked up a .50 cal, and fought back against the Japanese onslaught. This action would earn him the Navy Cross and foreshadow a legacy of hard-fighting gallant warriors of World War 2 who just so happened to be African-American.
Assigned to the Kitchen and No Other
In early 1940, there were few jobs open to African-Americans seeking to enlist in the United States Navy. An eerie reminder of a time when such men were considered less in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
But that didn’t stop a young farmer and former high-school football star from enlisted in the Navy to do his part in service to his country. Born in Waco, Texas Doris Miller enlisted in the Navy on September 16th, 1939 and was assigned to one of the few jobs available to him. Namely, to be a mess attendant.
Every ship has cooks, and those who serve in that capacity are no less needed in the totality that is a nation’s ability to fight. It is a proven historical fact that a military tends to get hungry every day – and not just a little bit!
So yes, Doris Miller was fulfilling a vital part of the military machine although it was unfortunate that this 6 foot 3-inch 200-pound statue of a man was not given other opportunities. Instead, he would have to make his own. For a while he might have been a cook, he would quickly gain a reputation as the best heavyweight boxer aboard the ship.
Shortly after enlisting in the Navy and completing training, he was eventually assigned to the battleship West Virginia where he would become the main cook. This assignment would take the young man from Waco, Texas to the shores of Hawaii where he would be stationed at Pearl Harbor.
The work would include cooking in the mess hall, serving as a steward to officers, and on one fateful December Sunday morning in Hawaii, he would be collecting laundry when the first impacts of World War 2 were felt.
A Morning of Infamy
On the morning of December 7th, 1941, Doris Miller was gathering laundry when the attack began, and the West Virginia became a target for Japanese torpedoes. Dropping the laundry, he ran to his assigned battle station that was an anti-aircraft battery magazine. It was commonplace for all personnel to have a combat task regardless of job. When Miller arrived at his station, he noticed it was already damaged by enemy fire and rendered useless. As such, he sought to contribute in any way he could.
He would eventually make his way up to the bridge where the captain had been mortally wounded and yet refusing to leave the ship. Under continual attack from the Japanese, Miller picked up the captain and helped get him to a more covered position.
He then took his opportunity to jump into the fight at the helm of a .50-caliber machine gun. As a cook, he had not been trained on the weapon but was given instruction on how to load it. From there, Miller reports that he just pulled the trigger, and the gun worked just fine.
After firing for about 15 minutes and until he ran out of ammunition, Miller along with the rest of the crew eventually had to abandon ship as it was apparent that the West Virginia was mortally wounded and sinking to the bottom of the harbor. And while Miller was not credited with an actual kill on a Japanese plane, he is pretty sure he got one as they were diving pretty close to the ships.
A Well-Deserved Commendation
After the attack, Miller was transferred to the USS Indianapolis and in January when the Navy released a list of commendations to be given for the events that day, there resided on the list an unnamed African-American sailor.
It would eventually be revealed that it was none other than cook and champion boxer Doris Miller. The public was made aware, and Miller was a national hero, but specifically, he was an inspiration for the bravery and fortitude that African-Americans would display in the coming years of war.
There was talk of a Medal of Honor and in fact, Senator James Mead of New York submitted a bill requesting Miller receive the nation’s highest honor. However, when the dust had settled, Doris Miller became the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross.
After a brief stint helping sell war bonds due to his national fame, Miller was assigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. This carrier would take part in the Battle of Makin Island in November of 1943 when it was torpedoed by the Japanese and sunk. There were over 200 survivors of the Liscome Bay, but Doris Miller was not one of them.
He was reported missing in action, and a ceremony was eventually held in his hometown of Waco in April of 1944. Doris Miller will go down in the books of history as a man who fought despite the beliefs of others that he could do no more than cook.
African-Americans would go on to prove their gallantry and heroism throughout the war. The 2001 Pearl Harbor movie would see the role of Miller played by Cuba Gooding Jr. It gave a face and a story to the man who earned it on December 7th, 1941 and he wasn’t anywhere near a kitchen when he did so.