First African American to Earn The Navy Cross Was a Cook Firing .50-Caliber Machine Guns at Japanese Bombers At Pearl Harbor

Miller with his Navy Cross.

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 1940’s 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.

Miller with his Navy Cross.
Miller with his Navy Cross.

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.

Doris Miller was working in a kitchen like this one.
Doris Miller was working in a kitchen like this one.

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 some.

Pearl Harbor 1941 via
Pearl Harbor 1941.

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 as 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.

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