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

Doris “Dorie” Miller being awarded the Navy Cross
Doris “Dorie” Miller being awarded the Navy Cross

WWII 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 targeted others precisely for that reason.

While Americans look back on the 1940s as a source of inspiration when an entire nation came together, there are still lingering reminders that in many ways the greatest generation had some hard lessons to learn about freedom and the American dream.

One such reminder is the African-American mess attendant at Pearl Harbor who dropped his spatula, picked up a .50 cal, and fought back against the Japanese onslaught. His action earned him the Navy Cross and foreshadowed a legacy of hard-fighting gallant warriors of WWII 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 US Navy. An eerie reminder of a time when such men were considered inferior; in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

However, it did not stop a young farmer and former high-school football star from enlisting in the Navy to do his part in service to his country. Born in Waco, Texas Doris Miller enlisted in the Navy on September 16, 1939, and was assigned to one of the few jobs available to him. Namely, a mess attendant.

Every ship needs cooks, and those who serve in that capacity are no less important in 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!

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

So yes, Doris Miller was fulfilling a vital part of the military machine although it was unfortunate that his 6 foot 3-inch 200-pound stature was not given other opportunities. Instead, he had to make his own. While he might have been a cook, he quickly gained a reputation as the best heavyweight boxer on board the ship.

Shortly after enlisting in the Navy and completing his training, he was assigned to the battleship West Virginia where he became the chief cook. His assignment took the young man from Waco, Texas to the shores of Hawaii where he was stationed at Pearl Harbor.

His work included cooking in the mess hall, serving as a steward to officers, and collecting laundry as he was on that fateful December Sunday morning when the Americans felt the first impact of WWII.

A Morning of Infamy

An Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter on the aircraft carrier Akagi.
An Imperial Japanese Navy Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter on the aircraft carrier Akagi.

On the morning of December 7, 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 their job. When Miller arrived at his position, he realized it was already damaged by enemy fire and rendered useless. As such, he sought to contribute in any way he could.

He made his way up to the bridge where the captain had been mortally wounded but was 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.

USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor via
USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor

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 had been given instructions on how to load it. Miller reported that he 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 severely damaged and sinking. Miller was not credited with an actual kill on a Japanese plane, but he is fairly sure he got one as they were diving pretty close to the ships.

Destroyed Zero.
Destroyed Zero

A Well-Deserved Commendation

After the attack, Miller was transferred to the USS Indianapolis. In January, the Navy released a list of commendations to be given for the events that day; on the list was an unnamed African-American sailor.

It was subsequently discovered that it was none other than cook and champion boxer Doris Miller. The public became aware of his identity, and Miller was a national hero, but specifically, he was an inspiration for the bravery and fortitude that African-Americans displayed in the coming years of the war.

Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller, at ceremony on board USS Enterprise (CV-6) at Pearl Harbor, May 27, 1942.
Chester W. Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller, at a ceremony on board USS Enterprise (CV-6) at Pearl Harbor, May 27, 1942

There was talk of a Medal of Honor, and 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 to sell war bonds due to his national fame, Miller was assigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. The ship took 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, but sadly Doris Miller was not one of them.

Miller speaking with sailors and a civilian at Naval Station Great Lakes, January 7, 1943.
Miller speaking with sailors and a civilian at Naval Station Great Lakes, January 7, 1943

He was reported missing in action, and a ceremony was 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 went on to prove their gallantry and heroism throughout the war. In the 2001 Pearl Harbor movie, the role of Miller was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. It gave a face and a story to the man who earned it on December 7, 1941, and he was not anywhere near a kitchen when he did so.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE